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First Inhabitants

The Gli Gli (sparrow hawk) sailed from Dominica to the Orinoco River in remembrance of the journey undertaken by the Ortoroid people 3000 years earlier

Dominica has been inhabited by human beings for a long time – there is evidence that the island was inhabited in at least 3100 BC. The first settlers were the Ortoroid people who set out from the South American mainland and gradually spread northwards through the Caribbean island chain.

Evidence suggests they became extinct around 400BC. Later came the Igneri or “Arawak speakers” who settled in about 400AD. Their way of life was agricultural and peaceful with a well-defined culture. By 1400 this was about to change as a similar tribe, the Kalinago or as the “Caribs” (as they became more commonly known) departed South America and aggressively moved their way up the Caribbean.

The Caribs
The Caribs seemed to be very much into raiding and the men aggressively attacked the Igneri, stealing their women when it was deemed feasible. The Caribs were organised and were very successful in eliminating the Igneri from many of the Caribbean islands, including Dominica.

The First Europeans
Columbus was the first European to set eyes on Dominica on 3rd November, 1493 – it was a Sunday – so he named it after the day. Dominica’s history from this point in many ways mirrors that of other Caribbean islands but differs in a few very significant ways. The Spanish were the first to try to colonise islands in the Lesser Antilles and they were met with stiff resistance. Spanish attempts to colonise Dominica and surrounding islands with their Christian missionaries failed miserably – the Caribs either killed or held the missionaries hostage and the Spanish were not willing to pit their fighting skills against a skilled enemy and the rugged terrain of Dominica. In fact, this attitude pretty much summed up how the next wave of European colonists, the English and the French, were to feel when they arrived in Dominica at the start of the 1600′s.

The English and The French
The English and the French were in a race to colonise the Caribbean in order to tap into the riches that lay in exploiting the natural resources of the Caribbean. They fought long and hard with each other and the Caribs and Dominica bears the scars of these battles. The place names in Dominica are a mixture of French, English and Carib. After unsuccessful attempts by the French to win over the Caribs with Christianity, a more hardline approach was adopted – especially by the English – who went out to systematically destroy the Caribs who got in their way. They managed to reduce the Carib population by forcing them to flee back to the South American mainland and, rather unwittingly, by introducing new diseases against to which the Caribs had no resistance. About three thousand Caribs still inhabit Dominica today, most of them living in Carib Territory up in the North East of the island.

And Then Just The French…Oh, Wait…It’s The English Again…
The French were the first to really set up shop in Dominica and by 1727 there were 50-60 French families in Dominica. Most were woodcutters gathering wood for export but some grew tobacco and cotton. They were a tough lot and there was no overall plan governing their presence or development. Officially, Dominica was a neutral country throughout this period belonging neither to the French nor English – but the English were hungry for territory and saw Dominica as strategically important – so they attacked it in 1761. By year end the island was basically under British control. In 1763 at The Peace of Paris Dominica was officially ceded to Britain. But the French had left an indelible mark on Dominica – and it can still be seen to this day through the language (patois), customs, religion and the many French place names. Slaves were imported to provide labour during this period and, as in other Caribbean islands, this was to leave a permanent impression on Dominica’s ethnic make-up.

The British realised that to send the French settlers packing would mean disrupting the growing agricultural economy of the island – so a kind of peaceful co-existence was established. Forts were built, the largest at The Cabrits above Portsmouth and above Roseau at Morne Bruce.

The French military attacked the British fortifications in 1778, encouraged by the American War of Independence, and won. Things did not go well. Most of the English inhabitants left taking their reciprocal trade links with them. This strained the existing agricultural system (big hungry French occupying force) and the economy was under pressure. A hurricane decided to hit in 1779 and, obviously not satisfied with the damage, returned in 1780. In 1781 Roseau was destroyed by fire. In 1782 the English saw their chance to settle the score. The ensuing naval battle, The Battle of the Saintes, saw an English victory and ousted French administration over Dominica once and for all.

The Maroons
Escaped slaves, known as Maroons, had become well armed during all the recent troubles and they took on the English 1785-86. They were cornered and defeated and their leaders imprisoned and/or executed. The French Revolution resulted in a French Republican invasion in 1797. They were eventually defeated. Maroon-related fighting took place until around 1815 and their effectiveness was always helped by Dominica’s rugged terrain into which they could retreat to relative safety. This typified the European experience in Dominica whether it be Carib resistance or the Maroons and set the tone for the island making it palpably different from its English-administered neighbours.

Decline of Colonial Agriculture and The Independence Constitution
Dominica was hit hard by the decline in colonial agriculture in the 1800′s -exacerbated by natural disasters and the end of the slavery era -other cash crops were undertaken, namely cocoa and limes but a long, gradual decline and long overdue social upheaval meant tough times for Dominica. As in many other Caribbean islands, Dominica experienced increasing domestic political battles. The priveleged whites were consisitently challenged for ther conservative views and efforts to maintain the prejudicial social structure. As their power dwindled, many in Dominica pushed for greater autonomy. The island acheived it, slowly but surely. However, not without turbulent politics and sometimes violent confrontations as the island debated a new political system and constitution. The late 1960′s, 1970′s and early 1980′s were characterised by serious political instability. This retarded Dominica’s ability to take advantage of the the booming tourism industry being experienced by many of its Caribbean neighhbours. The Independence Constitution, after much political wrangling, took effect on 3rd November 1978 separating Dominica from British control. Increasing poilitical stabilty from the mid-1980′s allowed Dominica to offer itself as a pristine Caribbean eco-destination, unspoiled by indiscriminate development.

The Eco-Destination
The island’s economic development was, and is, shaped in large part by its topography – the steep mountains, ravines and thick rainforest always played a role in Dominica’s history. Dominica’s human history has often been characterised as a struggle between man and nature, but in more recent times this Georgian-era analogy has become less relevant. Today sees Dominicans aware of the value of their natural resources and controlling development to protect these resouces as much as possible – eco-tourism is a rapidly growing industry and offers increased diversification from an economy traditionally based on agriculture.

Further reading:

The Dominica Story: A History of The Island (1995) by Lennox Honeychurch.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in Dominica’s history. It is absolutely fascinating, thorough, broad in scope yet excellent in detail and is very readable. A brilliant piece of work.

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