Here and There in Yucatan/The Caribs

THE CARIBS.[1]

When in Belize, we had opportunities of learning something about the interesting people called Caribs or Caras, a word meaning brave man. They are supposed to have existed as a powerful race in prehistoric times, and to have spread over many parts of the globe, their name varying a little in each place. They themselves say they came from the North; some traditions found among them make the plains of Florida their cradle. They were in a complete state of decadence at the time of the discovery of America; yet heritage was still carefully regarded in the reigning family, great respect being shown to the princes and to their religious tenets. They were obedient to their laws, and clung tenaciously to ancient customs.

The Caribs in British Honduras go to the city of Belize to sell yams and a kind of bread called cazave, made from the yuca plant. This bread is in the form of large, thin, crisp cakes, and is almost tasteless.

In a crowd these strange people at once attract attention by their peculiar language. It sounds like the following syllables constantly repeated with great rapidity—gloo-ga log-boo-ga-loog. Strange to say they use the French numerals up to ten, though French is hardly spoken in British Honduras. It sounds odd to hear un, deux, trois, quatre mingled with their gloo-gloo talk. The reason of it is that those particular Caribs come from Saint Vincent, once a French colony, in the West Indies.

The women dress in skirts, but have no jacket over their low-necked undergarment. They twist a gaudy striped kerchief round their heads as a turban, and wear all the ornaments they can obtain, a favorite necklace being a string of gold or silver coin. They are not accustomed to eat with their husbands, or associate with them as companions. Tradition has it that Carib men captured these women from another tribe and made them their wives; the women then swore that they would never be their companions, though compelled to serve them.

It was rumored that Caribs dwelling at Stan Creek, a settlement not far from Belize, every year made human sacrifice. The late Sir Frederick Barlee, at that time Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, made inquiries to put a stop to it if possible, Stan Creek being within his jurisdiction. The accounts were, however, rather conflicting. It seems that once a year fifteen or sixteen Caribs, accompanied by their wives, retire to an empty, well-cleaned house away in the woods. They go in procession to the beating of a drum, taking with them one male child five or six years old, whose mother is compelled to remain in the village. They allow no one to follow them, beyond their number; and when asked to give an account of their proceedings say: "After we shut ourselves in the house, we light a big fire in the middle of the floor (the earth serves as floor), and stand round it. Then we lie down with our faces to the ground, leaving the child standing in our midst (where the fire is). When we look up the boy has disappeared—he is carried away by Mafia."

They return to the village without the child; it is never again seen or heard of. When urged to say what they have done with it, they reply that they have given it to Mafia to educate. Every year one child disappears in that way, no one being able to discover what they really do with it, because, when in the great hut where they perform their mysterious rite, they take every precaution to prevent one from peeping in. Some assert that no boy is sacrificed, though they do worship an invisible being that they regard as an evil power; yet they make nothing to represent it, and worship no good being.

When we ourselves questioned a Carib about the terrible Mafia, he said it was the Devil, that was why they worshiped him; not God, for God was good. "Mafia," said he, "always carries away the boy that is offered to him." We asked if he thought the Devil ate the boy, desiring to find out whether they practiced a little cannibalism; but his very prudent answer was, "Maybe." Nevertheless, among the mountains of Guatemala, where, even a few years ago, the true Caribs could be found, they from time to time indulged in eating a young child or old person; more by way of a sacrifice than to gratify their appetites. The Caribs in Guatemala were almost white, those in British Honduras are very dark.

They also have a dance called "Mafia's dance," in which they make a maiden as intoxicated as possible, undress her, then form a circle round her and dance, performing all sorts of silly antics; a banquet being spread in an adjoining room for the benefit of Mafia. The authorities at Stan Creek forbade the dance; which order only resulted in the Caribs going further away to accomplish it.

They are polygamists, may have as many wives as they can build houses for; because each must have a separate home. When a man desires to make any woman his wife he proposes to her, and, if she accepts him, clears a patch of ground; builds a hut; plants banana trees; then takes her there. They have no marriage ceremony of their own; occasionally a Carib is now married to his first wife by the Catholic priest.

The women do all the work, even cultivating the ground. They have to provide for themselves and their children, as well as for the husband when he visits them. If a woman ventures to marry one who is not a Carib, she is liable to be tied to a post, naked, and whipped by any one who chooses to inflict the penalty on her. If a man among them leaves his people when a child, he must return within a certain period and build a house, or be thenceforth an outcast. A boy, who had been taken into a white family, when asked if he would not like to go back to his people, said: "Not till I am a little bigger, because they might give me to Mafia."

A Methodist minister who was some time in Stan Creek said the Caribs were very honest and harmless, but great drunkards; that he thought they would not kill a child as they feared the sight of human blood. They, however, can roast a live one without seeing blood.

As boatsmen the Caribs are very daring. In their exceedingly small dories, they stand upright generally, and when seen from a short distance, appear to be walking on the waves. With the utmost confidence they paddle about in deep water, swarming with sharks, though if their little boat capsized they would almost inevitably be devoured.

  1. Published in "New York Tribune."