Caribs of Dominica

Alternative names: Kwaib, Callinago
Location: Dominica, Windward Islands
Population: 2,500 (70 “pure Carib”)
% of population: 3%
Religion: Christian
Language: French creole, English

The Caribs (also called Callinago or Kwaib), are an indigenous minority of the island of Dominica, an independent state in the Eastern Caribbean. They are unique in being the last surviving Amerindian community in the Caribbean, even though most of the Caribs are of mixed racial background. Of the total Carib population of about 2,500 only about 70 are “pure Carib”, a further 300 are largely Carib while the remainder are of mixed Carib and African ancestry.

The Caribs were originally a branch of the Galibi Indians of Guyana who arrived in the Caribbean Islands around 1200 AD. The Carib men conquered the Arawaks and took local Arawak women, a fact reflected, until the early twentieth century, in their language; men spoke Carib, women Arawak. Society was matrilocal, even today this practice is fairly common. Columbus landed on Dominica in 1493 but the Spanish and other Europeans were kept at bay for 200 years while the other Callinago and Arawak peoples were exterminated by the colonizers. Ownership of the island was disputed throughout the eighteenth century by France and England but it was finally captured by the English in 1759 who allowed the French settlers to remain and sold the remaining cultivable land to English settlers.

The Caribs were driven north to the least accessible land and were allotted 134 acres without title by Queen Charlotte. By the end of the eighteenth century, 15,000 slaves had been imported from Africa to work the settlers’ land. By 1903, when the British administrator gave the Caribs their present reserve (again without title), the population had dwindled. There are disputes as to the intended boundaries of the reserve and Caribs allege that areas which were intended to be incorporated have been wrongly withheld from its territory. In 1930 police raided

1Clusters of population with some Amerindian features have been noted in Guadeloupe and St Vincent, where the Caribs, along with those of Dominica, had signed a treaty with the French in 1660 stating that the two islands would not be colonized but would remain non-aliened Carib territory.

the reserve and two Caribs were killed and others injured.

It was not until November 1978 when Dominica achieved independence that Carib people were granted legal title to 3,700 acres of territory but this was after several years of deadlock with the government over an issue where Carib customary law conflicted with Dominican law. Under Carib law a Carib man may bring a non-Carib woman to live with him on Carib land but a Carib women with a non-Carib husband did not have the same entitlement. This, the Caribs argued, was the only way to protect the racial integrity of the Caribs. However the predominantly black Dominican government maintained that this could not be tolerated under the Dominican constitution and that it would prevent future “integration” of the Caribs with other Dominicans. Behind this dispute lay the increasing pressure on land in the island.

The Caribs have always elected a chief whose duty it is to act in their interest. Prestige apart he enjoys no special privileges and acts together with a Council of five men. During the run-up to independence it was the Chief who negotiated with the Dominican government on the land issue. Traditionally the Caribs have been self-sufficient hunters and sailors but more recently they have devoted themselves to crafts and the production of goods for exchange, fishing, basket weaving and canoe-making. Some work as agricultural labourers on plantations outside the reserve. Apart from its natural beauty, the Caribs are the major tourist attraction on Dominica but they are also the most marginalized section of the population. Illiteracy and population density are higher than for the majority and in 1982 the only electricity on the reserve was connected to the local police station.

(See also Miskito Indians of Nicaragua)