The Caribs of Dominica: Land Rights and Ethnic Consciousness
By Gregoire Crispin; Kanem Natalia, September 1989 (edited)
The last survivors of the once-powerful Carib people, the original inhabitants of most of the Lesser Antilles, now live on the two eastern Caribbean islands of Dominica and St. Vincent, and in Belize, Guyana, and Suriname. The Caribs’ existence today, five centuries after the [plunder] voyages of Columbus, is living testimony to their bold resolve to survive and to resist European colonial onslaught. The rugged terrain of both Dominica and St. Vincent provided the ideal conditions for protracted warfare against British and French incursions into what used to be their peaceful domain.
History of the Caribs
It was through the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 that Britain and France settled on control of the Lesser Antilles: due to the formidable resistance mounted by their inhabitants Dominica and St. Vincent were left as “neutral” islands, for the sole benefit of the Caribs. This treaty was violated first by the French and later by the British. The latter obtained possession in 1783, driving the Caribs from the calm Caribbean coast to the mountains and hostile Atlantic coasts of both islands.
In 1797, 5,080 Caribs – the majority of St. Vincent’s population – were forcibly removed from the island by British troops and banished forever to Ruatan Island, off the coast of the Republic of Honduras. The Garifunas of Belize are their direct descendants today. The few Caribs who remained on St. Vincent were allocated 233 acres by the British government for their subsistence. In Dominica, the Caribs’ loss of control of their lands had some similarities to the situation in St. Vincent, but they were not forced to migrate. By 1764 the Caribs had jurisdiction over only 232 acres in a remote area called Salybia on the Atlantic coast.
On the recommendation of the British administrator, Sir Heskeith Bell, the British government in 1903 expanded the Carib community area to 3,700 acres and officially called it the Carib Reserve. Located in the northeast of Dominica, the reserve is equivalent to 5.77 square miles, or 2 percent of Dominica’s total area. The declaration establishing the reserve officially recognized the authority of the Carib chief, but he was not given actual control of the area. At that time. The British government’s policy toward the Dominica Caribs was to maintain the Caribs’ distinctiveness. From its inception, the Carib Reserve continued the communal land tenure system of pre-Columbian times; it is probably the last remnant of communal land in the Caribbean today.
The Carib Reserve in the Commonwealth of Dominica is the only reservation in the Caribbean archipelago. It has contributed significantly to the continued existence of the Caribs and to their ability to retain certain aspects of their culture. Now, 11 years after Dominica attained political independence from Britain, the Caribs of Dominica face an uncertain future.
The paramount concern of Dominica’s Caribs is that they survive into the next century. An ethnic group’s survival depends not only on its ability to maintain its boundaries, but also its ability to solve a number of internal organizational problems relating to communication, decision making, authority, and ideology. Maintaining the institutions of the Carib Chief and the Carib Council has furthered the group goals and underlined the importance of maintaining the Carib communal land tenure system and preserving Carib cultural heritage.
The last 15 years have seen a growing ethnic consciousness among Dominica’s Caribs. This consciousness got its impetus from the negotiations for Dominican independence from Britain. In 1930, British marines invaded the Carib Reserve, seized the official land title, and deposed the chief, Jolly John. Carib leaders lobbied the British and Dominican governments in 1978 to return the official title of the reserve’s land to the Carib people. As a result, the Carib Reserve Act No. 22 was passed in the Dominican House of Assembly on 29 November 1978, and a certificate of land title for the reserve was granted to the Carib Council by the Dominican government. For the first time, vested control of Carib lands was in the hands of the Carib Council. The Carib leadership then moved to change the name of their community from Carib Reserve to Carib Territory.
After 500 years of struggling for their survival, the Caribs have lost their language, religion, and most of their rituals, and have shifted their primary income earning activity from fishing to cash crop agriculture. Canoe building, basket making, and traditional medicine have managed to survive. After their language was lost, Caribs adopted English and French patois (Creole called Kweyol).
The loss of an ethnic group’s language not only deals a great blow to its cultural foundation, but is one of the factors that can lead to the group’s disintegration. In the case of the Caribs, the communal nature of their land tenure system has served to unify their community. By the 1850s, the Carib language had been lost, and their population was down to a few hundred by the mid-1930s. The population rose to just under 700 in the 1950s, and by 1970 it had doubled to 1,583. Census also show that the Carib population’s annual growth rate of 3.75 percent is twice the national rate, providing assurance that the last of the original inhabitants will survive into the next century.
The Caribs’ Relationship with the State
Prior to 1975 the Caribs relationship to Dominica’s political affairs was marginal at best. Because they were a minority within their political district, they were represented in Parliament by a non-Carib. Their affairs were handled first by the Ministry of Social Services after a ministerial system was established in 1956, and then by the Ministry of Home Affairs after internal self-government status was attained in 1967. The Dominica Labour Party government achieved two of its main goals in the 1970s: it ended the physical isolation of the Carib people by constructing a road linking the Carib Territory to the neighboring villages to the north and the south, and it gave Caribs representation in Parliament.
Once the political boundaries were recarved after the 1970 elections, the Carib population became the majority in its new political district. The first Carib was elected to the Dominica House of Assembly in 1975 on the ticket of the majority party, the centrist Dominica Labour Party. The majority of Caribs supported the Labour Party and elected a Labour candidate in 1980, even though the conservative Dominica Freedom Party won the elections. In 1985 the Dominica Freedom Party upset the Labour Party’s dominance and its candidate won by a margin of only seven votes. The net outcome of that election for the Caribs has been a deepening polarization along party lines. Today, there are two Carib representatives in Parliament: the elected parliamentary representative on the government side, and the nominated senator (essentially a back-bencher) on the opposition.
Although the two dominant political parties in Dominica have different outlooks on the Carib question, they do concur on an integrationist policy toward the Caribs. The ruling Dominica Freedom Party, led by Prime Minister Mary Eugenia Charles, feels that the Caribs must consider themselves Dominicans first and should not view themselves as a distinct ethnic group. The party does not acknowledge the term Carib Territory because it is too closely identified with a nation, and it feels that there is no place for a state within a state in Dominica. The party also espouses that the Caribs should not expect special treatment to compensate for their marginalized historical rel
ationship to political authority. The growing point of view in ruling circles is that in order to arrest Carib sentiments for greater autonomy, the Carib Territory’s communal land tenure status should be changed to a land tenure system based on private property, therefore granting individual certificates of title. Individual certificates of title would give Caribs access to credit; these titles could also, however, lead to [loss of land] through individual sale of property.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, is more tolerant of wider autonomy and greater recognition for the Caribs. In its 1985 election manifesto, it pledged to create a department of Carib affairs to effectively address the concerns of the Carib population. The prevailing views within the party are that the Caribs’ neglect under colonialism must be redressed through policies that help reduce gaps in resources they receive as a community, and that the negative image of Caribs in the history textbooks must be changed.
Carib Political Outlook Emerges
The 1980s have witnessed a new political phenomenon in the Carib Territory called Caribism. It posits that the polarization of the Carib people along party lines is the antithesis of Carib unity and that what is needed is a Carib peoples’ political organization that would enlist the support of all Caribs in securing a seat in Parliament. From there, the Carib organization could bargain with whichever party won a majority in Parliament. Caribism calls for greater autonomy in the administration of Carib Territory affairs, cultural reeducation in the schools, establishment of international linkages in an effort to assist the development of the territory, agricultural diversification, revitalization of Carib cultural heritage, and resolution of the longstanding dispute on the territory boundaries.
The Caribism movement was unable to reverse the polarizing effect of the two main political parties during the 1985 national elections, however, although its leadership was able to win political control of the Carib Council elections in 1984. The 24-year-old elected Carib chief, Irvince Auguiste, assumed the leadership of the Carib political movement. One of his first acts was to declare September 19 “Carib Day” in commemoration of the Carib lives lost during the British invasion of the territory in 1930. He also moved to prevent further encroachment on Carib lands and to request that nonresidents leave the territory. Under the Carib Reserve Act of 1978, a resident is any person who has resided in the territory continuously for 12 years and has access to land with the sanction of the Carib Council. The council can expel nonresidents only with the prior approval of the minister responsible for the local government.
In 1987, an attempt by the Carib Council to expel five nonresident men from the territory brought on the ire of the Dominican government. The council served eviction notices to the men, who were temporarily living in the community largely because they were involved with Carib women, without consulting the local government minister. The eviction notices stated that their temporary stay had come to an end, and that their promotion of drug abuse and physical abuse of women would no longer be tolerated.
This issue highlighted two problems that have dominated Carib life since the territory was established in 1903: the traditional custom in which women who marry outsiders leave the territory, and the relationship between Caribs and the majority African-Dominicans. Carib society, which is primarily patriarchal, does not require men who marry outside women to leave. The council views the recent development of single-mother households and children with fathers who live outside the territory as ultimately leading to a breakdown of the Carib family.
The relationship between Caribs and the majority African-Dominicans has run the gamut from cooperation with the Maroon people, to intermarriage, to hostilities arising from encroachment on Carib lands in the post-emancipation (of the Africans freed from slavery bondage) period. The majority population tends to view the Caribs as savage, poor, uneducated, and independent. The expulsion issue provoked many hostile verbal responses from the majority of the non-Carib population.
The first official response to the attempt at expulsion by the Carib Council came from Prime Minister Charles, who stated that “this action could not be allowed under the Dominica Constitution” and that the Caribs were “Dominicans bound by the country’s constitution.” She stated further that the Caribs would not be allowed to abuse human rights here since that would affect the flow of aid to Dominica, nor would she allow “apartheid” in Dominica. On the latter point she added, “apartheid must be left for South Africa and even there we must take it out.” The general feeling promoted by her administration was that persons outside the Carib Territory, because of their ideological leanings, were trying to foment unrest in order to embarrass the government.
A couple of weeks after the crisis, the government blamed the US-based Save the Children Federation, which under agreement with the government was implementing a community-based, integrated rural development program in the Carib Territory, for influencing the Carib Council to carry out the expulsion. When pressed to give evidence supporting this claim, the government backed down. Without publicly acknowledging that it had erred in its accusation, the government then deported a British visitor who it said was the main outside agitator. Save the Children, which had been threatened with expulsion for being involved in Carib Territory politics, was allowed to continue its operations.
International Cooperation with Caribs
During the 1980s the Carib Territory has received various forms of material and financial support from non-governmental organizations in the United States, Canada, and Britain. The most visible organizations working in partnership with the Caribs have been Save the Children Federation/US and Plenty/Canada, both of which have been involved in community-based programming in the Carib Territory. Save the Children’s program focused on water and sanitation, cultural preservation, preschool and primary school programs, community organization, and food self-reliance. Plenty/Canada has assisted the Caribs in growing soybeans with the objective of increasing their protein intake.
Other NGOs that have supported development work in the Carib community include Oxfam/America, Oxfam/Canada, Oxfam/UK, the Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), Christian Children’s Fund (USA), Plenty/USA, and Small Projects Assistance Team (SPAT). Some self-help projects have received funding from the Canadian International Development Agency(CIDA), the United States Agency for International development(AID), and the British High Commission, all based in Barbados.
For the last 15 years the Caribs have cultivated many links with other Carib organizations in the Caribbean and with other native American peoples in the southern hemisphere. The first conference of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean was held in St. Vincent in 1987, attended by representatives of the Garifuna and Mayan communities of Belize and the Caribs of Guyana, St. Vincent, and Dominica. The conference called for the 1990s to be declared the “Decade of the Indigenous People.” It addressed such issues as the status of indigenous people today; their relationships to land, the economy, and decision making; and future directions for the Carib people. NGOs supporting Carib development also attended the conference as observers.
The Future of the Land
Ever since the territory was expanded in 1903 to 3,700 acres, its precise boundaries have been in dispute and have been a constant source of indignation and frustration for most Caribs. Although the territory has a communal land tenure system, farming is not done collectively. Carib farmers use a traditional method of working cooperatively to cultivate or harvest one another’s plots, but efforts at forming farm cooperatives have not been successful. In the last 12 years the Caribs have increased their acreage of bananas and coconuts significantly, and today their production of coconuts accounts for about 25 percent of the total produced on the island. The income from bananas, coconuts, and handicrafts has begun to affect the standard of living of the Carib population.
There is much interest in agricultural diversification and in conservation methods to stem the tide of erosion on the hillsides that the Carib cultivate. Recently, awareness of the importance of good nutrition has fostered interest in vegetable and legume production; in this respect, soybeans have been easily accepted as a new food source.
As their population increases at twice the national rate, the issue of land is of major concern to the Caribs. Much of their land is dense, inaccessible rain forest, unsuitable for cultivation. The communal nature of their land system saves it for future generations; any dismantling of that land tenure system would render the Caribs landless in a few years.
As the new century begins the survival of the Caribs is assured. Maintaining their communal land tenure seems to be the only way in which their community will endure for at least another generation. Governmental and non-governmental agencies alike should address the Caribs’ marginal relationship to credit access, an outcome of their inability to use land as collateral. As their agricultural productivity increases, so will their need for credit. At least there is a glimmer of hope that Carib culture will be revitalized in the coming century.
Development Alternatives International, Ltd., is a Dominican non-governmental organization that promotes people’s participation in their own development.