Wai ’tukubuli: The Kalinago Island
Written by Lennox Honychurch
On the north-east coast of our island is a settlement unique to the Caribbean
region. Known today as the Carib Territory, it was established by the British
in 1903 as the Carib Reserve. It was one place in the region where the descendants
of the original islanders maintained a portion of land after all
other territory, from Trinidad to Puerto Rico, was taken from them. Their ancestors
had roamed from the river valleys and ocean shores of the Guianas
and Venezuela in lowland South America up along the chain of the Lesser Antilles
to as far as the eastern islands of the Greater Antilles.
Some sixty archaeological sites have been located around the island revealing
stone axes, decorated clay pieces and carved religious objects dating to
before the time of Christ. Here lived the people who gave their name (or
rather the name that the Europeans gave them) to the sea and entire region
in which we live today: The Caribbean. Their real name for themselves was
Kalinago, and the island that they inhabited was called Wai’tukubuli, translated
as ‘tall is her body’ for its mountainous nature.
But the Carib Territory is not the only home of the descendants of these
indigenous Dominicans. East coast villages such as Good Hope, San Sauveur,
Petite Soufriere, Petite Savanne and Bagatelle are also areas with indigenous
ancestry and at the beginning of the twentieth century ‘Caribs’ were
recorded living at Pennville and Vielle Case as well.
There are also many more Dominicans who may have Kalinago ancestry
but who do not look like, or regard themselves as, Kalinago people today.
The point is the Kalinago ethnic influence among the Dominican population
as a whole is much stronger than we would at first believe.
We are also often unaware that as a group, Dominicans are the largest surviving
community to use the Carib/Kalinago language in their everyday
speech. Whether they came from Africa or Europe, or a combination of
the two, our ancestors adopted many words, particularly nouns and place
names from the Kalinago.
Fighting for Their Island
The beginning of the end for the culture that they knew came at dawn on
Sunday 3rd November 1493, when seventeen ships led by Christopher
Columbus sailed past Wai’tukubuli and the admiral renamed it ‘Dies Dominica’
for ‘the day of our Lord’. By the 17th century Dominica became the refuge
for Caribs retreating from the other islands where the surge of Spanish,
French, English and Dutch colonisation was sweeping them off their ancestral
lands. The rugged mountains, thick forests and iron coastline provided a
natural citadel for the final retreat. From this base they made defensive
attacks on the fledgling European colonies that were being set up ever
closer around them in Antigua, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique
and St Lucia, pitting their arrows and clubs against guns and steel weapons.
Fighting a rearguard action they were attempting to forestall the conquest of
this their last island.
The Tides of Change
Gradually however the effects of the Creole culture that came with the
colonisation of Dominica began to affect them. Their language changed and
so did their religion and their personal names. When they were baptised by
missionaries into the Christian faith they were given the surnames of their
mainly French godparents be they Valmond, Darroux, Auguiste or Frederick.
One British Administrator, Hesketh Bell was so concerned about the threat
that neighbouring squatters posed to the Carib lands that he established the
Carib Reserve in July 1903 to protect them. He recognised the chief as headman
of what eventually became the Carib Council.
But times were changing fast. As primary schools were established and
roads connected the Carib Territory to the rest of the island in the 20th century,
bringing telephones, radios and consumer goods, the tide of change became
a flood. Political amendments led to full participation in the administrative
affairs of Dominica. Easier interaction with the rest of Dominica meant
that ethnic mixing increased and the physical nature of people calling themselves
Carib or Kalinago changed also. By the 1970s there was a core of
younger Kalinago people who had benefited from secondary education
and who were following the indigenous empowerment taking place
among native groups elsewhere in the Americas. They inspired others in the
community to investigate their traditional culture and represent it in dance
and song alongside the Creole Culture that was being highlighted as part of
They began to adopt the original name that their people had called themselves
before Columbus called them Caribs. Written as Callinago by the early
missionaries it is now spelt Kalinago. This awareness movement gave birth to Kalinago
cultural groups such as Karifuna and Carinia. Before independence, Kalinago
leaders demanded that special legislation be made to ensure the future of their
community and this resulted in the Carib Reserve Act of 1978.
By then the territory had become part of the tourist industry of Dominica
as a place to visit to meet its people and buy their handcraft. In 2006 an open air
museum and cultural village was established around the Crayfish River Falls
called the Kalinago Barana Auté (The Kalinago Village by the Sea). Here the visitor
can walk along a trail overlooking the roaring Atlantic Ocean that is part of the
old Kalinago trace through the coastal woodland. Displays and panels tell of the
culture of the people and a special herb garden guides one through the variety of
plants used for herbal medicines and culinary delights. Here on this rugged corner
of Wai’tukubuli we learn about the Kalinago survival through over 500 turbulent
years on this island. The Kalinago heritage comes down to us together with archaeological
remains, place names, language and ancient knowledge of the nature of this island which the
Kalinagos have bequeathed to us all.