Dominica Island woman wearing wob dwiyet, traditional Creole wear—marked by West African plaid patterns and European-style cuts. Courtesy: Martei Korley, .largeup
It is distinct and separate from the Dominican Republic, another Caribbean nation. Its name "Dominica in Latin means "Sunday," which was the day on which it was discovered by Christopher Columbus. Dominica is the first and only British Caribbean colony to have a Black-controlled legislature in the 19th century (1838).
Dominica's pre-Colombian name was Wai'tu kubuli, which means, "Tall is her body." Dominica was the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized by Europeans due chiefly to the fierce resistance of the indigenous people of the island, Caribs. Some 3,000 Caribs still living on Dominica and are the only pre-Colombian population remaining in the eastern Caribbean. Blacks of African ancestry rule the Island. European descendants, Europeans, Syrians and Chinese are also represented. In addition, Dominica is the only Caribbean Island with an Amerindian population of Caribs located in the north east of the island. The Carib
Territory is home to the Kalinago (Carib) Indians.
Dominica has been nicknamed the "Nature Isle of the Caribbean" for its unspoiled natural beauty. It is the youngest island in the Lesser Antilles, still being formed by geothermal-volcanic activity, as evidenced by the world's second-largest hot spring, Boiling Lake. The island features lush mountainous rainforests, home of many rare plant, animal, and bird species. There are xeric areas in some of the western coastal regions, but heavy rainfall can be expected inland. The Sisserou Parrot (also known as the Imperial Amazon), the island's national bird, is featured on the national flag. Dominica's economy is heavily dependent on both tourism and agriculture.
Geography and climate
Dominica is an island nation and borderless country in the Caribbean Sea, the northernmost of the Windward Islands (though it is sometimes considered the southernmost of the Leeward Islands). The size of the country is about 289.5 square miles (750 km2). The capital is Roseau.
Dominica is largely covered by rainforest and is home to the world's second-largest hot spring, Boiling Lake. Dominica has many waterfalls, springs, and rivers. The Calibishie area in the country's northeast has sandy beaches. Some plants and animals thought to be extinct on surrounding islands can still be found in Dominica's forests. The volcanic nature of the island has attracted scuba divers. The island has several protected areas, including Cabrits National Park, as well as 365 rivers.
On his second voyage to the Caribbean, Dominica was the first New World country that Christopher Columbus discovered. It is said that when his royal sponsors asked Christopher Columbus to describe this island, he crumpled a piece of parchment roughly and threw it on the table. "This", Columbus explained, "is what Dominica looks like—completely covered with mountains with nary a flat spot."
Morne Trois Pitons National Park is a tropical forest blended with scenic volcanic features. It was recognised as a World Heritage Site on 4 April 1995, a distinction it shares with four other Caribbean islands.
The Commonwealth of Dominica is engaged in a long-running dispute with Venezuela over Venezuela's territorial claims to the sea surrounding Isla Aves (literally Bird Island, but in fact called Bird Rock by Dominica authorities), a tiny islet located 140 miles (225 km) west of the island of Dominica.
There are two primary population centres: Roseau (with 14,725 inhabitants in 2011) and Portsmouth (with 4,167 inhabitants in 2011).
Dominica, known as "The Nature Island of the Caribbean" due to its spectacular, lush, and varied flora and fauna, which are protected by an extensive natural park system; the most mountainous of the Lesser Antilles, its volcanic peaks are cones of lava craters and include Boiling Lake, the second-largest, thermally active lake in the world possesses the most pristine wilderness in the Caribbean. Originally, it was protected by sheer mountains which led the European powers to build ports and agricultural settlements on other islands. More recently, the citizens of this island have sought to preserve its spectacular natural beauty by discouraging the type of high-impact tourism which has damaged nature in most of the Caribbean.
Visitors can find large tropical forests, including one which is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites, hundreds of streams, coastlines and coral reefs.
The Sisserou parrot (Amazona imperialis) is Dominica's national bird and is endemic to its mountain forests. A related species, the Jaco or Red-necked Parrot (A. arausiaca),. is also a Dominican endemic. Both birds are rare and protected nowadays, though some forest is still threatened by logging in addition to the long-standing threat of hurricanes.
The Caribbean Sea offshore of the island of Dominica is home to many cetaceans. Most notably a group of sperm whales live in this area year round. Other cetaceans commonly seen in the area include spinner dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. Less commonly seen animals include killer whales, false killer whales, pygmy sperm whales, dwarf sperm whales, Risso's dolphins, common dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins, humpback whales and Bryde's whales. This makes Dominica a destination for tourists interested in whale-watching.
Dominica is especially vulnerable to hurricanes as the island is located in what is referred to as the hurricane region. In 1979, Dominica was hit directly by category 5 Hurricane David, causing widespread and extreme damage. On 17 August 2007, Hurricane Dean, a category 1 at the time, hit the island. A mother and her seven-year-old son died when a landslide caused by the heavy rains crushed their house. In another incident two people were injured when a tree fell on their house. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit estimated that 100 to 125 homes were damaged, and that the agricultural sector was extensively damaged, in particular the banana crop.
Before 1493: The island was inhabited by the indigenous Arawak Indians, then by the Caribbean. The Arawaks were guided to Dominica, and other islands of the Caribbean, by the South Equatorial Current from the waters of the Orinoco River. These descendants of the early Tainos were overthrown by the Kalinago tribe of the Caribs.
The Caribs, or Island-Caribs, not to be confused with the proper Caribs of the mainland, occupied the Windward Islands, Guadeloupe, and maybe a few of the southern Leewards during the time of Christopher Columbus who landed on the island on Sunday November 3, 1493. Therefore, he named it after the day. Spanish ships frequently landed on Dominica during the 16th century, but fierce resistance by the Caribs discouraged Spain's efforts at settlement. Carib people presently inhabit the island, but the numbers of Carib population had decreased dramatically after years of brutal treatment by the Spanish, French and English. The British settlers devastated much of the Carib tribe. Many of the remaining Carib people live in Dominica's Carib Reserve, a 3,700-acre (15 km²) Territory on Dominica's east coast which was granted by the English Queen.
The island of Dominica's indigenous Arawak people were expelled or exterminated by Caribs in the 14th century.
In 1635, France claimed Dominica. Shortly thereafter, French missionaries became the first European inhabitants of the island. Carib incursions continued, though, and in 1660, the French and British agreed that both Dominica and St. Vincent should be abandoned. Dominica was officially neutral for the next century, but the attraction of its resources remained; rival expeditions of British and French foresters were harvesting timber by the start of the 18th century.
Largely due to Dominica's position between Martinique and Guadeloupe, France eventually became predominant, and a French settlement was established and grew. In 1761 a British expedition against Dominica led by Lord Rollo was successful and the island was conquered. As part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War, the island became a British possession. In 1778, during the American Revolutionary War, the French mounted a successful invasion with the active cooperation of the population, which was largely French. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, returned the island to Britain. French invasions in 1795 and 1805 ended in failure.
In 1763, the British established a legislative assembly, representing only the white population. In 1831, reflecting a liberalization of official British racial attitudes, the Brown Privilege Bill conferred political and social rights on free nonwhites. Three Blacks were elected to the legislative assembly the following year. Following the abolition of slavery, in 1838 Dominica became the first and only British Caribbean colony to have a Black-controlled legislature in the 19th century. Most Black legislators were small holders or merchants who held economic and social views diametrically opposed to the interests of the small, wealthy English planter class. Reacting to a perceived threat, the planters lobbied for more direct British rule.
In 1865, after much agitation and tension, the colonial office replaced the elective assembly with one composed of one-half elected members and one-half appointed. The elected legislators were outmaneuvered on numerous occasions by planters allied with colonial administrators. In 1871, Dominica became part of the Leeward Island Federation. The power of the Black population progressively eroded. Crown Colony government was re-established in 1896. All political rights for the vast majority of the population were effectively curtailed. Development aid, offered as compensation for disenfranchisement, proved to have a negligible effect.
Following World War I, an upsurge of political consciousness throughout the Caribbean led to the formation of the representative government association. Marshaling public frustration with the lack of a voice in the governing of Dominica, this group won one-third of the popularly elected seats of the legislative assembly in 1924 and one-half in 1936. Shortly thereafter, Dominica was transferred from the Leeward Island Administration and was governed as part of the Windwards until 1958, when it joined the short-lived West Indies Federation.
In 1961, a Dominica Labor Party government led by Edward Oliver LeBlanc was elected. After the federation dissolved, Dominica became an associated state of the United Kingdom on February 27, 1967 and formally took responsibility for its internal affairs. LeBlanc retired in 1974 and was replaced by Patrick John.
African Influence in Dominica
The people of Africa who were brought across the Atlantic ocean to work on the sugar and coffee plantations of Dominica from the early 1700s up until 1807 came from West Africa, from areas inland beyond the coast in a region that extended from what is today Senegal Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Togo Gabon, Cameron down to Angola.
Two other periods of African arrival refreshed the cultural influences from across the Atlantic. After the first stage of Emancipation in 1834, a small group of workers from West Africa voluntarily agreed to contract themselves to come and work in Dominica for wages and settled near some estates.
Then in 1837 and at other times around those years, ships carrying enslaved West Africans across the Atlantic Ocean and destined for colonies and states where slavery had not yet been abolished, were captured by the British Royal Navy. The slaves on board were disembarked on the islands including Dominica and were liberated. Areas where these persons were placed included Soufriere, Woodford Hill, Castle Bruce, Portsmouth and St.Joseph. Some African family names still with us that were handed down are: Akie, Cuffy (Kofi), Carbon (Gabon), Quamie, Quashie and Africa:
Africa: A family name originating from the village of Woodford Hill. The descendants of West Africans brought to Dominica after slave emancipation and who were landed as free people. They did not experience plantation slavery. The British Royal Navy had orders to search the seas, and to capture and liberate the people on any vessels carrying enslaved Africans that were heading for Brazil, Cuba, the USA and other destinations where slavery had not yet been abolished. Some of these vessels were seized near Dominica and the people on board were set free here. The Dominican creoles, born and brought up on the island for many generations, called the new arrivals The Africans. A group of them at Woodford Hill took the name as their surname. Other places receiving free Africans were Portsmouth, Castle Bruce, St Joseph and Soufriere.
It is instructive to note that majority of the Africans are from Akan ethnic groups.
AFRICANS TO DOMINICA: 100,000 MIDDLE PASSAGES FROM ‘GUINEA’ TO THE EASTERN CARIBBEAN, 1764-1808
by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.
Dominica was an atypical Caribbean colony in that it was never a major sugar-producer. As of 1810 only 30 percent of Dominica’s African population of 19,000 was involved in sugar production (with 50 percent in coffee and 9 percent non-agricultural domestics primarily resident in Roseau and Portsmouth).
Prime minister of Commonweath of Dominica
This contrasted markedly, in the same year, with 90 percent in sugar in Nevis, 76.5 percent in Barbados, and 55 percent even in St. Lucia, the territory considered to most closely resemble Dominica; figures from Barry Higman, Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-34 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 68. A happy result of this was that, during the decades following Emancipation in 1838, many Afro-Dominicans achieved peasant status.
This would seem to suggest that the island never received large numbers of people from Africa. The reality was very different as between French cession of Dominica to the British under the 1763 Treaty of Paris
ending the Seven Years’ War and the 1808 abolition of the slave trade as conducted by Britain and its allies. On Jan. 2nd 1807 the British Parliament voted, 100 to 36, to abolish trans-Atlantic commerce in human-beings. On March 25th this was given royal ascent by George III, to take effect as of May 1st. Slave vessels continued arriving into the early part of 1808. At least 100,000 Africans were brought to Dominica. ‘At least’ because whatever doubts arise as to the accuracy of specific voyage-entries that comprise The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM compiled by David Eltis et al., and produced in 1999 by Cambridge University Press, there is certainly no problem of over-count. Eltis et al. modestly claim that overall ‘only’ two-thirds to three-quarters of all suspected slaving voyages have been ‘captured’ by The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it is likely that coverage for the period and destination that concerns us here is fairly complete. Whereas a British document of 1788 showed 27,553 Africans brought to Dominica during 1784-88, of whom 15,781 were ‘re-exported’ [Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), Ch. 2, note 19], the CD-ROM shows 33,019 arrivals for those
A linen market in Dominica. Circa 1770
The record for vessels that reached Dominica is amazingly complete as to the slaving ports from which peoplewere taken, the numbers who began the hellish Middle Passage, and how many survived specific voyages.
As soon as the British acquired Dominica they began ‘importing’ Africans at such a rate that between 1764
and the end of the decade at least 10,551 arrived. During the 1770s the likely minimum number of arrivals
(31,757) was three times larger. This was all the more significant in that between mid-1778 and May 1783,
thanks to French re-occupation of Dominica, with the exception of a single ship that arrived toward the end of 1781, no Africans seem to have reached the island, at least not directly. April 9th through 12th 1782 saw the pivotal ‘Battle of the Saints’ - so called for ‘Les Saintes’ islands that are part of Guadeloupe - in which the British
Navy under Admiral George Rodney seriously dented the Caribbean power of its French counterpart.6
TABLE 1: African arrivals in Dominica
Year Number of slaves Year Number of slaves
1764 770 1786 8,444
1765 57 1787 6,662
1766 1,138 1788 5,971
1767 2,672 1789 3,433
1768 2,680 1790 2,142
1769 3,234 1791 2,350
1770 4,099 1792 3,382
1771 6,198 1793 1,952
1772 4,913 1794-95 0
1773 2,602 1796 662
1774 2,112 1797 440
1775 5,530 1798 345
1776 2,751 1799 503
1777 2,074 1800 932
1778 478 1801 362
1779-80 0 1802 545
1781 279 1803 997
1782 0 1804 1,386
1783 1,597 1805 672
1784 4,907 1807 1,207
1785 7,075 1808 525
Between May 1783 and the end of 1789 even more African people (38,328) were documented as having arrived. During the turbulent 1790s – despite no arrivals in 1794 or ‘95 -- a further 11,776 reached Dominica. The single busiest year of the entire British slave-trade was 1792. That of the French was 1790, largely – and ironically, given the uprising that began there in August 1891 - in relation to St.-Domingue. Then, between the beginning of 1800 and the arrival of a final vessel on the 29th of February 1808, a further 7,734 African people arrived in Dominica.
Thus British imperialism brought not only rapid ‘progress’ to what had been the region’s last Kalinago
(‘Carib’) stronghold, but in the process turned Dominica into an entrepôt of inter-island slave-trading through
which tens of thousands of survivors of the Middle Passage were purveyed to plantation-owners elsewhere in the eastern Caribbean. Portsmouth, the early capital of Dominica, then its’ successor, Roseau, became ‘free ports’.(See Frances Armytage, The Free Port System in the British West Indies: A Study in Commercial Policy, 1766-1822 (London: Longmans, Green, Imperial Studies, Vol. XX, 1953).
The private profits accruing to those who invested in the slave-trade clearly took precedence over the
British imperial interest in preventing its main competitor – France – from acquiring the labour it needed to
develop its colonial plantation economies. This was perfectly clear to such a powerful contemporary observer as Sir William Young, who complained that the British “seemed colonizing mad”, ready to “colonize for the French, for the Dutch, and for the world”. As of 1764 Young had become the first Commissioner and Receiver for sale of lands in the territories, i.e. Dominica, St Vincent, Grenada, and Tobago, ceded under the Treaty of Paris; quoted by Armytage, The Free Port System, 66.
The most obvious subsequent destinations of Africans initially brought to Dominica were Ste.-Lucie,
Martinique and Guadeloupe. Here a brief explanation of the very confusing status of these four islands between approximately 1790 and 1815 is in order. The same 1788 British report gave 2,784 as the figure for those arriving in St. Kitts during the decade 1778- 88, also evidently an undercount. Of even that number of people, 1,769 were supposedly ‘re-exported’; see Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Ch. 2, note. 19.
Because Grenada was a re-exporter of people, it has not been included in this table. A 1788 British report,
likely undercounting, gave the figure for arrivals there, 1784-92, as 44,712, with 31,210 people sold to other
During the night of the 22nd to 23rd of August, 1791, the uprising that would eventually grow into the
Haitian Revolution erupted in what was then the world’s most profitable colony, St.-Domingue. France was not best placed to deal with the Haitians as by late January 1793, having punctuated the overthrow of the ancienne regime by beheading Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette on the guillotine, France was at war with Austria, Prussia, England, Holland, and Spain. On Feb. 19th 1791 negotiators representing Royalist slave-owners -- many of them members of the Club Massiac, a grouping of colonial proprietors formed in July 1789 -- signed a treacherous agreement with England purporting to place the French Windward Islands “into the possession and under the authority of His Britannic Majesty”, George III. In September 1793 the British began a disastrous five-year effort to take St.-Domingue from the French and to re-impose slavery. A few months later eight British warships, with a dozen lesser vessels in attendance and conveying a force of some 7,000 men, reached the eastern Caribbean. Britain’s capture of Martinique coincided with the Décret de Pluviôse An II of the French Republic (Feb. 4th 1794) abolishing slavery. The tragic result was that on Martinique slavery continued essentially uninterrupted. On April 22nd 1794 the British captured Guadeloupe, only to be expelled less than two months later.
As for Ste.-Lucie, in April 1796 “a massive assault ... established a British presence”. Despite the invaders’
overwhelmingly superior numbers, resistance continued as “’the blacks’, a British officer observed, are ‘to a man our enemies’”. Thus it was not until late 1797, and then only by making some concessions to these ‘blacks’ who saw themselves as free, that the British were able to consider Ste.-Lucie pacified. Meanwhile, in Grenada and St. Vincent, Amerindians, Africans, and Afro-creoles similarly put up resistance that, in being anti-colonialist and anti-slavery, was necessarily anti-British. Between 1796 and 1800, whether killed in battle or by malaria or yellow fever, at least 40,000 British troops -- including many mercenaries plus the ‘slaves in red coats’ of the West Indies Regiment -- were put out of action in the Lesser Antilles. Therefore, as Blackburn has pointed-out, while “Events in St. Domingue have tended to eclipse the memory of the war in the Lesser Antilles; ... the latter undoubtedly made a large contribution to British decisions concerning St. Domingue, helping to draw off large British forces that could have otherwise have been used there.” In other words, struggles by peoples in the eastern Caribbean, including Dominica, contributed to the birth of Haiti and the eventual death of slavery elsewhere.
During a brief period of peace with England under the Treaty of Amiens, Napoleon issued his Décret de
Floreal An X (May 19th 1802) restoring slavery. Re-enslavement on Guadeloupe demolished hopes that the
Décret had been intended to apply only to territories such as Martinique where slavery had continued
uninterrupted. So long as France remained committed to abolishing slavery, Toussaint l’Ouverture – who “might well have given lessons to Machiavelli” -- remained loyal to France. Meanwhile, he made what arrangements he thought best with England and the U.S.19 Beginning in May 1803, Napoleon sent some 80,000 veteran troops to launch a last bloody attempt to re-take St.-Domingue. Instead, on January 1st 1804, Haiti became the second de-colonized country in the hemisphere, home to the only people to have overthrown slavery.
The numbers and origins of slaving vessels that disembarked captives at Dominica, Martinique, and Guadeloupe between 1750 and the 1808 abolition of the British slave-trade. The most notable feature is that while French forces (pirates were no longer a factor)20 were highly successful in diverting British vessels to Martinique and Guadeloupe, only 2 French-owned vessels – both in 1793 -- are known to have
brought enslaved people to Dominica. They were the Louis Marie from St. Mallo and the Bon Menage from
Marseilles, captured by the British and re-routed from their intended destinations of Martinique or Guadeloupe. The numbers of vessels that arrived in Martinique and Guadeloupe between the 1808 abolition of the British slave-trade and its’ 1831 elimination by France show increment.
Recognizing how heavily the French depended on British slave-trading helps us formulate more satisfying
answers as to why, at the onset of the nineteenth century – with humanitarian considerations secondary -
Britain suddenly turned from being from one the slave-trade’s greatest practitioners into the nemesis of its competitors, particularly France, whose interests, as emphasized by its reinstatement by Napoleon in May 1802, required that it continue.
In the 1940s a Trinidadian, Eric Eustace Williams, attempted to show the crucial contribution that - whether
directly through profits from the slave-trade and slavery, or the investment of those profits - Africans had made to the world’s first industrialization, that of England. The ‘Williams thesis’ – published in 1944 as Capitalism and Slavery - has been attacked ever since. While Joseph Inikori has shown that the British slave trade was more profitable than Williams’ detractors would have us believe, he has long argued that emphasis on profits is misplaced. After all, it was not Portugal, the pre-eminent slave-trading nation, that underwent
transformation. Inikori’s Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England argues that the African contribution – the great majority of it coerced - to the qualitative change to industrial capitalism achieved by England between 1650 and 1850 can best be shown in terms of the role of the Atlantic World economy, within which only England was able to combine naval power with commercial development.
Over the entire history of the Atlantic slave-trade the largest proportion of Africans were taken by the
Portuguese (45.9 percent), followed by the British at 30.6 percent and the French at 13.2 percent. That
Portugal, despite its relative weakness, was the greatest perpetrator is explained by its’ having been the first
into the trade and the last out as it continued to transport enslaved African people to Brazil into the second half of the nineteenth century; see David Eltis, “The Volume and Structure of the Atlantic Slave Trade: A
Reassessment”, William & Mary Quarterly 58:1 (2001), 43.
What happened in Dominica is a significant part of the story of the African people who - as the Indigenous
peoples of the hemisphere were devastated - also paid the price of the ‘New World Order’ that began in 1492 with Europe’s invasion of the Americas.
The West African influences in Dominica
The majority of the people of the Caribbean are the descendants of West Africans originating from a wide range of tribal groups, whose members were captured along the West African seaboard and from the interior and who were exchanged for trade goods, enslaved, and transported across the Atlantic to work on the plantations of the islands and mainland colonies of th Caribbean. The cultural variation was as immense as the geographical area from which these people were drawn. It spread from present-day Senegal in the north, southwards along the Gulf of Guinea to Angola.
This range included as many as fifty main cultural groups and their numerous related sub-groupings. The diversity of language reflected this complex merging of cultures as people whose origin on the coast could be as much as two thousand miles apart were thrust together in small controlled communities in the Caribbean. Tribal languages that appear here and there in Caribbean speech range from Fante, Hausa, Kru, Ibo, Edo, Bini, Nembe, Yoruba, Ashanti (Twi), Ibibo and Ijo to Fulani, Ewe, Kikongo, Efik, Kwa, Fon and a couple dozen others. The shreds of cultural patrimony transported in the mind across the terrifying waters of the Middle Passage were pieced together on the shores of the Caribbean into a patchwork of cultural practices, traditions and skills. Their origins became blurred, picked up and pinpointed here or there during the twentieth century by linguists, folklorists and the early anthropologists of the region.
Traces of what was Igbo, Ibo or Ibibo lingered in a word here, a song pattern there, or a character of the spirit world, whose African roots had survived but who had acquired a French or Spanish name in the process of Creolization. The destruction and recreation of the shattered cultures of West Africa in the form of a variegated collage of influences is the main feature of the African cultural remnants in the region. For much of the five hundred years, ever since the first Spanish ship transported the first boatload of Africans direct from the Guinea coast to Hispaniola in 1518, the validity of this African remnant has been rejected. For most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries its presence was seen as a socially negative undercurrent of West Indian society that was better suppressed, covered up or denied. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century, during a period of great social and political transformation, did the African element in Caribbean culture have its renaissance, manifesting itself in the work of academics, artists, dancers, writers, cultural activists and the Rastafarian movement.
Stripped of everything but the contents of the mind, the African who arrived in the Caribbean carried only memory and skills. And yet it was from these intangible possessions that a new world was recreated, transformed and reordered. For all of its apparent confusion it was anchored by key lifelines of cultural security that helped to give stability, aid survival and make sense of a world gone mad. The plantation system and the regimen of work and mental stress and personal degradation associated with enslavement did not allow for the replication of the structured tribally determined patterns of life as had existed in Africa. Despite their condition they wove these lines of survival wherever possible into their plantation existence. Spaces of cultural opportunity were taken advantage of at every available turn. Subterfuge, sarcasm, innuendo and bitter humour became the antidotes to the circumstances in which they had found themselves. In folktales, songs and dances these threads were woven, providing a pliable ever-changing mask to the reality that lay beyond. The scraps of religious beliefs, once rigidly defined from tribe to tribe became a composite. Some elements were stronger on one island than another depending on the majority of influence from one group of Africans rather than others. But there were general themes associated with a spirit world where good and evil were in contest and whose balance had to be maintained. Spiritual possession and respect for the ancestors ran through it all in spite of the variations.
The African religions and beliefs were outlawed from the earliest days of plantation slavery, not merely because they were seen to be pagan, primitive and generally unchristian but more so because the plantocracy feared these practices were a cover for revolt. Paranoia against any form of African religious spiritualism rose sharply after the Haitian revolution, during which messages and plans of insurrection were passed on during such gatherings. But despite these restrictions certain forms of traditional religious practices survived under a blanket of secrecy. Those who professed to control spiritual powers were respected and there existed a network of shamans whose skills were called upon to cast spells, make charms and call up the spirit world. They were consulted for their knowledge of the use of herbs to cure illnesses and destroy enemies. These obeah men or women were visited for help and advice and legislation survives on the islands up to today criminalizing obeah and those associated with the practice.
There is a certain degree of historical continuity in the ceremonies linked to these religious beliefs. A few are still practiced in the different forms of voodoo that survive in Haiti and in the shango of Trinidad and pocomania of Jamaica. Voodoo, for instance originated from Dahomey, based on the worship of the good, poisonless serpent spirit, Dangbay. The priest or voodun communicates with this spirit and makes Dangbays will known to others. Dances such as the Kalenda, Chica and Voodoo are part of these religious rites where spirit possession accompanied by intense drumming and chants forms the climax of worship. Transformation has taken place over time and voodoo has been exported with the Haitian Diaspora to New York, Miami and other cities in North America. In the tourist enclaves of Haiti itself, voodoo ceremonies are presented as floorshows and as such have been stripped of all of their original meaning.
A host of tribal languages were quickly lost as people from one part of West Africa were mixed with others on the plantations. Soon slaves of each European colony were speaking their own form of English, French, Spanish or Dutch, depending from which nation their colonial masters originated. In cases were islands changed hands regularly between opposing European powers and where colonists from both Britain and France were resident, as in the case of Dominica, St. Lucia, and later Trinidad, parallel Creole languages developed in the same place. Many of the patois or Creole forms of speech still exist. One can tell which island someone is from by listening to his or her accents.
Gradually the old African folk tales were being remodeled and retold in these new languages. Here and there particular African words or the names of spirits and folktale characters survive. The spider hero of the Akan people, Ananse, lives on in the Anansy stories. Tales involving magic and forests and rivers were also common. But here the spirits had merged with European folklore and had Europeanized names. One hears of the River Mama or Mama Dleau, the water spirit, and the forest spirit Papa Bois. Such characters are common in the former French colonies along with the Loupgarou a male werewolf and the La Diabless, the she- devil.
Text Box: Changes in belief systems over time can be exemplified by a study of the currently used word, Jumbie or Duppy as applied to an evil spirit. The word Jumbie or Jombie originates from a branch of the Bantu language especially of the kongo-ngola group in which there is the good nsambi God and the evil nsumbi Devil. Carried across from Africa to Caribbean in various Central and West African language sub-groups, nsumbi became Jumbie or Jombie in its Creole form. Good and evil were under the same spiritual power constantly tussling for a balance between the two. Songs and religious practices celebrated the contest, but over time only the Jombie, the evil spirit, was remembered. In early folklore this Jombie could affect your health while you were asleep at night or wreck your good fortune. Practitioners of Obeah were supposed to be able to drive the spirit out or make it affect others. The Jombie is now largely used as a bogeyman in stories to frighten children into obedience.
The tunes for such dances incorporated the fiddle, accordion and banjo with a variety of drums and percussion instruments, which had their roots in Africa. Flutes, rattles, shack-shacks, scrapers, tambourines and bamboo-tamous were among them. Goatskin was stretched across hollow wooden frames carved from tree trunks and casks from the sugar factories were utilized to form drums, the tamous or gro kas of the French territories. The Spanish islands of the Greater Antilles and influences from Venezuela added an Iberian flavour to African rhythms and were complimented by brass instruments and guitars and quartos. In the British Caribbean, the island of Trinidad was particularly influenced by this, transforming the back-up music for its calypsos and it is even more strongly evident in the parang, music of certain communities.
The times of great celebration and festivals were Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and "Crop-over" when the last canes were brought to the mills for crushing. In the French influenced colonies, the Roman Catholics celebrated Carnival for two days before Lent. From this there developed a lively tradition of street bands with colourful characters dancing and singing in costumes. The songs that accompanied these revelries often told of some recent scandal or some momentous event and this custom lives on today in the calypsoes which are composed and sung during these occasions.
Some African words still used in Dominica
Ackra A small fritter made of flour batter fried in oil, usually with a base of shredded salted codfish or titiri. Introduced by West Africans. Originates from the Yoruba word: akara, "an oily cake made from beans ground and fried."
Bélé A dance performed in Dominica from the earliest arrival of West Africans to the island. Of all the folk dances it has the strongest African roots and has its origins in festivals associated with mating and fertility. A male and female (in Creole, the "Cavalier" and the "Dam") display each others dance skills and hint at their sexual is in the form of chants led by a "chantuelle" with the refrain or "lavway" given by a chorus of spectators. The French adapted the name of the dance to "Belaire".
Da-da: Nurse or elder female who takes care of a child. It comes from the West African Ewé language: da-da or da: an elder care taking sister.
Doucouna (dukuna): A small pudding made of a variety of mixtures of grated sweet potatoes, cassava, grated coconut, cornmeal, plantain flour, spices, sugar and essence, wrapped and tied in a balizier leaf and steamed. From the West African Akan language: doko na: "sweet mouth" or doko no: "sweet thing". Also called cankie.
Jombie: An evil spirit. The word originates from a branch of the Bantu language especially of the kongo-ngola group in which there is the good nsambi God and the evil nsumbi Devil. Carried across from Africa to Dominica in various Central and West African language sub-groups, nsumbi became Jumbie or Jombie in its Creole form. Good and evil were under the same spiritual power constantly tussling for a balance between the two. Songs and religious practices celebrated the contest, but over time only the Jombie, the evil spirit, was remembered. In early folklore this Jombie could affect your health while you were asleep at night or wreck your good fortune. Practitioners of Obeah were supposed to be able to drive the spirit out or make it affect others. The Jombie is also used as a bogeyman in stories to frighten children into obedience.
Okra: A young green pod about 4 to 6 inches long, noticeably ridged and pointed with slimy seeds and flesh used as a boiled vegetable. It grows on a flowering shrub with lobed, hand sized leaves: Hibiscus esculentus (Malvaceae). The plant was brought from Africa and the name is from the Igbo word okworo.
Obeah: A set or system of secret beliefs in the use of supernatural forces to attain or defend against evil ends. It is African in origin but on its arrival in the Caribbean certain aspects of Christian ceremonials and sacraments were integrated into its activities. It varies greatly in kind, requirements, and practice, ranging from the simple, such as the use of items like oils, herbs, bones, grave-dirt, blessed communion wafers and fresh animal blood to more extreme ingredients. Obeah men or Obeah women are names given to its practitioners. The term Pyai, from the Carib for shaman is also used in Dominica relating to the casting of spells. Origins for the word Obeah come from the Twi: o-bayo-fo (witchcraft man). From the Nembe: obi (sickness, disease), and Igbo: obi (a mind or will to do something) and the Ibibo: abia (practitioner, herbalist).
One-pot-hold-all: A whole meal cooked in one pot. The practice was common in West Africa. The Wolof word benacin means "one pot" and "a meal made by cooking everything together".
Sensay Costume: A costume of West African origin worn at Carnival time in Dominica. It is made of frayed rope and other fibrous material such as pounded leaves of the agave, langue beff (Furcraea tuberosa) that grows mainly on the west coast. The material is tied around the body in layers so that it cascades from the head to the feet. A mask is usually worn on the face and cow horns form the headpiece. Sensay costumes are also made of strips of paper, cloth, frayed plastic sacks and dry banana leaves pai fig. They are similar to costumes used in West African tribal ceremonies. The word comes from the Twi language, senseh, which is a type of fowl with curled or ruffled feathers. The costume is named after its resemblance to the fowl, which also has special spiritual properties among the Akan (Fante/Twi) people.
Leslassa, Miss Dominica 2013
Su-Su (Sou-Sou): A friendly co-operative savings scheme originating from Africa whereby each person in a small group contributes every week or month, as agreed, an equal portion of money. The sum of the groups total contribution goes to one member of the group in rotation, so that every month, week or fortnight one person benefits from a large sum of money that can be put to a particular use. It comes from the Yoruba word esusu, meaning: "a fund were several persons pool their money". In Dominica the practice is more often called a "sub". Although still used, the system was far more widespread before banks openly welcomed small-scale savers and before the Credit Union movement established itself throughout the countryside in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tosh: A small round piece of padding made of a coil of cloth or dried banana leaves, which is put on top of the head to act as a pad when carrying heavy loads on the head. Associated with the verb -tuta, -tota: "to carry, pick up, load" in Kikongo, Ci-Luba and other Bantu languages common to West Africa.
Wawa: A species of wild yam (Rajania sintenisii) found in the forests at lower and middle elevations and called by the Caribs bihi and kaiarali. But it is now known by its African name wawa from the Twi language for large tree in that it is a tree-climbing yam with a widely spreading root system. It was the main food for the Maroons in their camps in the mountains and was mentioned in the reports of British governors as being one of the reasons for their survival. Although it was much used by the Caribs they never cultivated it because of the belief that if they did so it would cause their family to die out.
Yam: (Dioscorea spp.) A tuberous root of which there are many varieties that are cultivated and eaten in Dominica and throughout the Caribbean. The word comes from a variety of West and Central African languages such as Fula and Twi in which words such as "nnyam", "nyiama", "enama" also mean meat, food and eat. Some of the yams cultivated here were brought from Africa in sailing ships during the time of the Slave Trade (Old World Yams) while other yams are indigenous and were used by the Caribs long before the arrival of Columbus (New World Yams). There are over 600 species of yam in the tropics, however only ten of these are of any importance as food and there are great variations in the size and shape of yams. In Dominica the African Old World yams are: the greater yam (Dioscorea alata), the yellow Guinea yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) known here as yam jaune, the white Guinea yam (Dioscorea rotundata) yam blanc, and the lesser yam (Dioscorea esculenta). Among the New World yams are the Cush-Cush (from the Carib, kúsu) and the Wa-wa (Rajania cordata) a wild yam in the forest. The Creole names for the different varieties of yam sometimes vary from one part of Dominica to another and they include names such as: yam dleau, yam batard, yam marron, yam a piquants noir, yam bonda, babaoulay, yam Antoine and ladys yam etc. Yam is generally peeled, cut into chunks and boiled, but is also roasted or pounded in a mash pilon and made into ton-ton or mashed and made into a pie.
West African Influences in Dress -
head ties, use of colour, jewelry etc.
Douillette (Dwiyet): (F) The traditional costume of Dominica, now popularly referred to as The National Dress. From the French douillette in its 17th century meaning of "dainty, delicate". It evolved from the African adaptation of the 17th and the 18th century French colonial gown, the "grande robe". In its Creolized form it consists principally of a full-length dress of brightly printed cotton which was cut with a train at the back, the laché. This was worn over a lace or embroidered petticoat often decorated with satin ribbon. A shawl or foulard is laid around the shoulders and an elaborately tied and starched Madras headkerchief, the tete en lé or tete cassie (from chassie, the gum used its preparation) forms the head piece.
Every form of jewelry, mainly gold accessories, including necklaces: collier choux and gwais dor, earrings: zanneau chenille, bracelets and brooches with moving parts: zepingues tremblan is displayed. In former times there were set dress colours for the various shades of skin tone of the wearers. Different messages as to the wearers marriageal status and availability were encoded in the form of the head ties.
Dominica woman. Courtesy: Martei Korley, .largeupVisit Dominica during the island’s independence celebrations, and you’re sure to be struck by an outpouring of national pride in the form of the ubiquitous, traditional Creole wear. While other islands acknowledge their mixed African and European heritage by donning similar formal attire during festive seasons, no one does it quite like Dominica.
“National wear is a symbol of nationalism and pride for Dominicans. It connects them with their history, our grandparents and ancestors who wore the national wear. It is a tradition that has been handed down through the years and great effort has been made to keep preserving and promoting this symbol of our nation.”
Later African influences in the 20th century which was not present before 1838 is:
Rastafarians: (A) Members of a group whose lifestyle, ideology and religious beliefs emerged in Dominica during the early 1970s influenced by the growth of the movement across the Caribbean from its roots in 1920s Jamaica. The Pan-African teachings of Marcus Garvey and the "folk" religions of rural Jamaica fused with the inspiration of Ethiopia as a symbol of an unconquered Africa.
In 1930 Ras Tafari Makonen was crowned the 111th Emperor of Ethiopia in a line traced back to the union of King Solomon and Queen Makeda of Sheba. His new title was His Imperial Majesty the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God. Tafari took a new name: Haile Selassie - Power of the Holy Trinity. Several preachers in Jamaica began to pray to Selassie as the living God and the hope of African redemption. Worshippers of Selassie became known as Ras Tafaris or Rastamen. The Rastas began wearing long hair and beards because of a teaching in the Old Testament, also followed by orthodox Jews, that no razor shall touch the hair of the faithful. The corruption of society and the police, who were seen to protect it, was Babylon, and nature, the countryside and future peace was Zion. The belief in pursuing a life close to nature, spurning imported and processed foods and depending more on vegetables, I-tals, had an influence even on non-rastas. Although the whole lifestyle, beliefs and appearance associated with Rastafarianism is widely accepted today, there was fierce reaction from the social and political establishment of 1970s Dominica.
Leslassa most beautiful woman in Dominica,2013
West African culture in relation to Carnival
Here we come to the other more powerful branch of our Carnival tradition: - the influence of the music, costumes, songs, dance patterns, rituals and attitudes of the West Africans who were transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the West Indies.
We are dealing with an area of influence, which ranges in an arc from the edge of the Sahara sweeping around as far south as Angola, sinking deep into Central Africa. We tend to forget that it is an area lager than Western Europe and includes some five hundred tribal groups along with their languages, dialects and individual cultural forms. Each major group considers themselves as different from each other as Poles Danes, Germans or Irish. Looking at it this way we may get an idea of the wide variety of influences which converged on the Caribbean and are simply covered today by the term "West African,"
West African religion has been compared to a pyramid, of which the top is a supreme being, the sides are gods of nature including those of water, forest and crops, while at the lowest level are magical beliefs and practices. There were countless festivals and ceremonies associated with these beliefs and the costumes worn by the participants had varied meanings. The mixture of all these beliefs, languages and tribal customs in the Caribbean with Christianity and four main European languages: Spanish, French, English and Dutch created Creole cultures that became a colourful calalloo of everything. In Dominica the traces of African influence in traditional masquerade were obvious if you knew what to look for. The type of songs, the instruments, the tone and tempo of music and the street performances of revellers were among the clearest links between the street bands of Roseau and Portsmouth and dusty village centres along the Guinea coast.
Every year these ties are weakened as the modern Caribbean man swamps himself with what can be called the "International culture" of the consumer age. Soon the Japanese Hi-Fi and cloths made in Taiwan and Korea may be all that will be seen on the streets at Carnival time.
Two hundred years ago Dominica was a colony of Britain, but had a population strongly influenced by France. The French absorbed exchanged and influenced the ways of the West African slave more than the British. The attitude of the two colonisers was difference, the French controlled by absorbing and mixing the foreign culture with their own while the British, through laws and subtle social rules attempted to control by wiping out everything foreign and replacing it totally with their own culture. The French families in their scattered estates triumphed over the British officials huddled in Roseau as did Roman Catholicism over the Church of England.
Onto The Streets
The plantocracy of both nations however, were wary of revolt, and would not allow the free movement of slaves or the gathering of large groups in any one place or at any one time.
Only on the Sunday market days in Roseau and Portsmouth were such crowds to be found and, as the old paintings show, red-coated soldiers wandered prominently among them. On feast days it was alright for the slaves of two or three estates in one district to gather in the estate yards, but with active maroon gangs roaming the hills, particularly at the end of the 18th century, a wary eye was kept on such gatherings by the authorities.
Street Carnival was out of the question and although the use of the drum was tolerated, the use of masks was strictly limited, often in some cases by proclamation. These restrictions and the punishments involved are all too clearly stated in a notice appearing in "The Dominica Chronicle" (no relative to the present newspaper) in several issues in early 1825:
Whereas it hath been represented to us that Slaves are frequently parading in the streets of Roseau, to the annoyance of the inhabitants of the said Town. We do hereby give notice, that in future any Slave who may be found dancing in the Town of Roseau without written permission from his or her Owner for such purpose, or who may form in, or whom may form in any riotous or noisy procession in the Streets thereof, shall be punished for such offence by public whipping agreeable to the 19th Clause of the Town Warden Act.
Signed - Town Wardens - Edward Dowdy, A. Patterson, Henry Nisbet, Ralph Ashton, Justin McSwiney.
CREOLE DAY FESTIVAL
THE CARIBBEAN’S BEST-KEPT SECRET
History has it that when Christopher Columbus - having been unable to land on Dominica - was asked to describe the island upon his return to Spain, he scrunched up a piece of parchment in order to evoke the country’s undulating terrain of volcanoes, valleys and mountains.
This certainly goes some way to explaining why despite being one of the largest islands in the Caribbean (754 sq. km) it remains one of the least populated (72,660). Indeed, although twice the size of Barbados it only has one fifth of its population.
Dominica is known as the “Nature Island” for its abundance of natural splendours: 365 rivers, the second largest boiling lake in the world, volcanoes, mountains (known as Mornes), waterfalls, hot springs, and black and white sand beaches. Much of the island is protected under national parks, one of which has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. With abundant flora and fauna on land as well as underwater, Dominica is a paradise for divers, hikers, birdwatchers and nature-lovers who seek excitement and inspiration. Indeed, many species that are extinct on neighbouring islands can still be found here.
A land of great beauty and contrasts, Dominica has so many stories to tell – come and discover the best-kept secret of the Caribbean.
Dominica prime minister and his bride
Kweyol Village Lyme, Dominica