A trip to Dominica

On a clear day one can see the island of Dominica lying roughly 25 miles off the southern coast of Guadeloupe.

On a clear day one can see the island of Dominica lying roughly 25 miles off the southern coast of Guadeloupe. This small island nation of 73,000 was under European rule for centuries before gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1973. Known for its luscious forests, tall mountains and active volcanoes, Dominica is a beautiful, tourist friendly island. Ties between Guadeloupe and Dominica are very close and ferry boats ship tourists, immigrant workers and goods back and forth between the two nations on a daily basis.

Through my work and daily life in Guadeloupe I had the opportunity to meet and talk to many Dominican's. Unfortunately the island's economic situation is rather challenging and many Dominicans have come to Guadeloupe in search of work and educational and medical benefits for their children. After having learned about Dominica from friends and colleagues, it was with excitement that my family and I boarded the boat for a weekend trip to our island neighbor.

Aside from its naturals wonders, Dominica is also the home to some of the last remaining indigenous people in the Caribbean islands; the Carib Indians. For centuries the Carib had lived on the island, referring to themselves as Kalinagos and calling their island Wai'tu kubuli.

In 1493, on his second voyage across the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus landed on the island. He renamed the Kalinagos "Caribs", claimed the island for the Kingdom of Spain, and gave the name "Dominica" to the island.

Over the next two centuries Dominica remained rather isolated and became a center of Carib (Kalinago) resistance. Caribs, who had been driven from their homes on the surrounding islands by European colonizers, came to the island and several wars were fought between the Caribs and Europeans.

In 1635 France claimed Dominica and, over time, European influence gained control of the island as soldiers, missionaries and settlers fought the Caribs, settled their land and imported slaves from Africa to work the land. In 1763 the British took control of Dominica and continued the same colonial form of government as the French.

In 1903 the remaining Carib Indians on the island of Dominica were granted 3700 acres of land and the Carib Chief and people were officially recognized by the British government. Of a people who once stretched from the Islands of Trinidad and Tobago in the south to Barbados in the north, today there are only 3000 Carib people left living on their ancestral land in Dominica (small communities numbering several hundred can also be found on the islands of Trinidad and St. Vincent).

In Dominica, the Carib territory includes 8 villages on the eastern coast of the island. The Caribs have their own local government and a representative in Dominica's House of Assembly. They tend to keep to themselves and their culture has remained relatively unchanged. They are known as being experts in herbal medicine and basket weaving and their elders have continued to pass on Carib dances, legends and beliefs.

During our short trip we had the opportunity to visit the Carib territory. We stopped in front of a roadside stand where woven baskets were being sold and met a Carib woman by the name of Pom. For the next hour or so Pom explained to us the organization of the Carib Territory, the culture and history of her people, and shared with us the Carib method of basket making.

Being in the Carib territory and speaking to a person of indigenous roots was an extremely powerful experience for us. It was an experience mixed with sadness, at seeing firsthand how European colonialism had almost completely wiped out a culture, and happiness at seeing a centuries old culture still surviving in a small corner of the Caribbean.   

Tim Rose

Tim Rose serves with the Reformed Church of France as the Pastoral Assistant for Diaconal Ministries in Guadeloupe and Martinique.