When West Africans on their way to the New World’s slave markets escaped in 1635, they intermarried with Caribbean islanders to create a new and distinct culture.

The boats came at dawn along the shores of the town of Dangriga on the coast of Belize.

Onboard, vibrantly dressed men, women and children carried homemade flags and waved bright green fronds of coconut palm branches as they approached the shore. On land, a crowd waited, ready to cheer as feet stepped out of the boats to touch sand.

We were never enslaved – that is a point of pride for the Garifuna people

On a similar morning in 1832, the Garifuna people – descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people – made the same journey from St Vincent Island in the Caribbean, finally able to call Belize home after being turned away by the British government three times. Every year on 19 November, the Garifuna celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day, marking their arrival in Belize (which was then a British colony) and their many contributions to the Belizean landscape.

With this re-enactment of the boat landing, as well as oral history intoned by village elders and music, dancing and food, the national holiday attracts visitors from throughout Belize and the world. It immerses them in why the culture is so unique – and why its people are fighting to keep their heritage alive in an increasingly modern world.

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Ask most Garifuna people and historians about the creation of the Garifuna people, and the common story is that West Africans on their way to the New World’s slave markets escaped after two ships wrecked in 1635. Of the hundreds of slaves, those who managed to survive swam to the Caribbean island of St Vincent where they were welcomed by the Carib and Arawak people and created a distinct culture of food, music, dance and language.

However, the Garifuna American Heritage Foundation in Los Angeles suggests Mali Empire Africans may have arrived on the island as early as the 1200s and the shipwrecks just added to the population. Other historians say the shipwreck story is the result of centuries of oral storytelling and that St Vincent wasn’t even near any regular slave trade routes. Whatever the truth, the shipwreck belief remains the ‘accepted’ history for the majority of Garifuna people.

“We were never enslaved,” said H Gilbert Swaso, former mayor of Dangriga and historian of the Garifuna culture. “That is a point of pride for the Garifuna people.”

A 1660 British peace treaty granted ‘perpetual possession’ of the Caribbean island of St Vincent to the Garifuna, but less than 10 years later broke the treaty and reclaimed the island. In 1796, after years of raids and skirmishes with the British, the Garifuna – who were by then the dominant population on the island after generations of intermarrying with the islanders – were defeated, then deported and marooned on the Spanish-owned Honduran island of Roatán.

Despite being left on a strange shore, they again flourished, and again they were persecuted. Following a republican revolt in Honduras in 1821, the Garifuna took flight once more, and in 1832, arrived on the Belize coast. They embraced their new home with optimism.

“The Garifuna requested to settle in Belize and were turned away three times,” Swaso said. “At some point, the government admitted the Garifuna to Belize, but they had to stay away from the main cities, and if they did enter the city, they needed a pass. So, the Garifuna settled south, and one of the largest settlements was in Dangriga and then Punta Gorda.”

The fight to have the Garifuna culture recognised officially by the Belize government wasn’t easy. Even though they were accepted into the country, the Garifuna were discriminated against and fought to keep their heritage. The Garifuna language, which comes from the Arawak and Carib languages of their island ancestors, was discouraged in schools, and their spirituality was condemned by churches.

“When the Garifuna suffered spiritual discrimination by the Roman Catholics [which was then Belize’s dominant religion], we incorporated some of their saints into our religion and survived,” Swaso said. “When we were discriminated from entering cities, we created our own cities. When we were discriminated against in schools, we became teachers and lawyers and doctors. We will accommodate and change what is necessary for us to survive without sacrificing our culture.”

Today, the global population of Garifuna is about 300,000, with many found in Belize and Honduras as well as parts of Guatemala and Nicaragua. According to a 2010 census report published by The Statistical Institute of Belize, of the county’s total population of around 324,500, an estimated 6.1% are Garifuna. Today, the Garifuna are accepted and celebrated in Belize and are involved in every aspect of life, serving as teachers, doctors, government officials and business owners. The first official celebration of Settlement Day was in 1941 in the Stann Creek district, according to Swaso. Two years later, in 1943, Punta Gorda, located 167km south, was also granted the holiday. And in 1977, Garifuna Settlement Day officially became a public holiday throughout Belize. Honduras has a similar celebration that is celebrated on 12 April, the date the Garifuna were marooned on Roatán.

On this day in Belize, Swaso explained that the re-enactment of the boat landing is followed by a special mass attended only by the Garifuna and high-ranking government officials.

Then, the party starts.

Hands pound on the drums and hips snap like scarves to the thumping paranda and punta rhythms – a blend of Caribbean and African beats – while the eateries serve up traditional dishes like cow foot soup and hudut (a coconut milk stew made with beaten plantains and vegetables like okra).

“We are a very visual people, and we have floats depicting the culture with drumming and music,” Swaso told me. “Once the parade is over, the streets become a carnival with food, crafts, different drinks and things like that. There is a lot of music and dancing and festivities.”

The colourful costumes and traditional dance have turned Settlement Day into a ‘mini-Rio’, and the celebrations often continue into the next day. Thousands of people flood into the Garifuna towns from districts all over Belize and the world, making it one of the country’s biggest international events.

It’s also the perfect time to taste dishes found only in the Garifuna culture, which are as much of a draw as the pageantry.

“Our food is very different from the rest of Belize,” Swaso said. “Our food is organic, clean. Hudut is one of our main dishes, prepared using organic ingredients like ripe and green plantains that are boiled and then beaten and then mixed together. We grate fresh coconut to make a gravy, and it’s spiced with basil, oregano and okra. Everything comes from the land or the sea – that is how the Garifuna eat, by and large.”

He explained that Garifuna still use traditional fishing and farming methods put in place by ancestors, like line fishing or diving for rock lobsters (only harvesting the mature ones). Plantains are still beaten by hand, and cassava bread is prepared in much the same way as the Garifuna women did it hundreds of years ago.

For Swaso, that simplicity and respect for nature gives the cuisine – which draws from local crops like cassava and plantains – its distinct flavour and personality.

Swaso, as well as many others, have a personal mission to pass on the Garifuna culture to children and outsiders. To help keep his heritage alive he hosts cultural music and dance classes, speaks on the history of his people and pushes for Garifuna to be taught in schools.

There is not going to be an end to anything – we evolve

But Swaso is worried that the Garifuna language, like so many other ethnic languages, will disappear. Despite Unesco proclaiming it (as well as Garifuna music and dance) to be among the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001, most young people don’t speak the tongue, preferring to speak Caribbean Creole, Spanish and English instead.

“While it appears we are losing our culture, different aspects of our culture will always remain,” Swaso said. “There is not going to be an end to anything. We evolve. It will allow us to continue to live our traditional way of life.”

Editor's Note: This story appeared on BBC.com Homepage with a summary misstating that the Garifuna was the only Afro-Caribbean community that was not enslaved. We regret the error.

Our Unique World is a BBC Travel series that celebrates what makes us different and distinctive by exploring offbeat subcultures and obscure communities around the globe.

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