Dominica - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Early settlers

Kalinago basket weaver © Paul Crask

Basket weaving is still a popular tradition with women in the Kaliango Territory © Paul Crask

Dominica’s first arrivals are believed to have been Orinoco River tribes who made their way up the island chain from South America some 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists and historians describe these people as basic hunter-gatherers, living off wild plants and shellfish. Around 400bc these tribes are thought to have been displaced by an Arawak tribe called the Igneri who also migrated from the Amazon River Delta and occupied the Windward Islands, from Grenada to Guadeloupe, for many years. Like the Taino tribes who settled in the Greater Antilles, the Igneri are believed to have probably worshipped nature spirits, often represented by threecornered zemi stones or conch shells. They also carved curious designs in rock faces, often close to water sources, which we now refer to as Amerindian petroglyphs, several examples of which have been discovered in the southeastern Caribbean. So far on Dominica only one very small and quite inaccessible petroglyph has been uncovered in the very north of the island. This leads some to wonder if there could be more.

Archaeologists, historians and anthropologists have suggested the Igneri probably engaged in inter-tribal trade; they also farmed, built thatched houses, made pottery, wove cotton and crafted ocean-going canoes. They are believed to have lived on the island for around 1,000 years before the arrival of another Arawakan people called the Kalinago. Considered by archaeologists and anthropologists to have been a more warriorlike Amerindian tribe, the Kalinago probably displaced the Igneri by around the end of the 14th century, just a hundred years before the arrival of Columbus and the first Europeans to the region. Like their predecessors, the Kalinago are thought to have worshipped ancestors and nature spirits in the form of iconic zemis, and they also excelled at boat-building and fishing. These are traditions that live on. Carved out of the trunks of gommier trees, their larger boats, called canoua, were said to be up to 15m long and capable of travelling long distances across open seas. Smaller craft included the couliana, also carved out of whole tree trunks, and pwi pwi, a very simple raft that was probably used more for inshore fishing. These vessels would carry Kalinago men on hunting trips for fish, lobster and other shellfish and conch, as well as on trading and perhaps raiding parties to neighbouring islands. Kalinago women would, in all likelihood, have had a more domestic role, taking care of the children, cooking, running the farms, weaving hammocks and making baskets from the dried outer bark of the larouma reed.

New arrivals

On 3 November 1493 Columbus’s fleet sighted the island the Kalinago had called Wai’tukubuli, meaning ‘tall is her body’. He named it Dominica. Through enslavement and disease, it is said to have taken just 30 years of Spanish occupation to eradicate the Taino people of the Greater Antilles and, as slave labour became a scarce commodity, the Spanish turned their attention to capturing the Amerindian people of the Lesser Antilles. Amazingly, the Kalinago steadfastly resisted these raids for two whole centuries and Dominica remained largely untouched by Europeans.

In 1635 France claimed Dominica as her own and in 1642 French missionaries arrived on the island for the first time. The Kalinago continued to hold the French and the British in check, however, and in 1686 both countries signed a treaty stating that Dominica would be a neutral island belonging to this indigenous tribe. For around a hundred years or more it is assumed the Kalinago lived in peace on Dominica, as did escaped West African slaves from the neighbouring French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. What took place on Dominica during this period and whether there was interaction between Africans and Kalinago is as unknown as it is intriguing.

In spite of their agreement with the British, French incursions from Martinique and Guadeloupe increased and small lumber, cotton and tobacco settlements were eventually established. Needing more land to grow sugarcane crops, the French shipped in African slaves to work their new and expanding estates but it was not until the 1760s, after Dominica was ceded to the British following the Seven Years War, and then again 18 years later following the Battle of the Saints, that these estates boomed and the population of African slaves became comparable to those of other Caribbean islands. African slaves were seen as a cheaper and more durable alternative to traditional white indentured labour. Unused to the tropical Caribbean climate, these indentured servants from England, Ireland and Scotland were soon replaced by large numbers of slaves from West Africa. In the meantime the Kalinago population was declining rapidly. Years of intense fighting, resistance, and disease had severely diminished their numbers, and in 1730 there were thought to be fewer than 500 Kalinago on the island.

In 1795 the French attempted to recapture Dominica from the north but failed. Then again in 1805 they launched a fierce siege of Roseau. The British defences were outnumbered by ten to one and soon Roseau was ablaze. Retreating all the way to the Cabrits garrison near Portsmouth, the British regrouped and prepared for a final battle. However, it did not materialise. Instead, the French commander demanded a ransom for the return of members of the British legislature, looted the now completely destroyed town of Roseau of everything of value, including slaves, and then sailed back to the French colonies.

The British were brutal masters and the flogging and execution of slaves was common. Many slaves managed to escape captivity by running away into the dense forest and forming small settlements in remote mountain locations. Plantation owners in the Caribbean region referred to these bands of runaway slaves as Maroons. Towards the end of the 18th century Dominica’s Maroon population had grown significantly in number. They were fairly well-armed and launched many successful and violent raids on estates, plundering food, setting fire to buildings, and, on occasion, killing plantation workers. In 1813 Major General George Robert Ainslie arrived and became Governor of Dominica. A violent, oppressive, perhaps even psychopathic man, his brutality against runaway slaves and those who helped them is captured in the public and military trial transcripts of Polly Pattullo’s Your Time is Done Now. Slavery, Resistance and Defeat: the Maroon Trials of Dominica: (1813–1814) (Papillote Press, 2015). With scant regard for British slave laws (though many would question the premise of slavery as a lawful activity in the first place) he set about ‘eradicating the evil’ of Dominica’s Maroons. A legion of 500 men was formed to deal with the Maroons, and those captured were often tortured and executed in public at the Sunday Market in Roseau. Their heads were cut off and put on stakes on the estates from which they had escaped or on roads into the town to serve as a very visual warning to others.

On 12 July 1814, Chief Jacko, one of the island’s most famous Maroon leaders, was shot and killed by John LeVilloux in a bloody battle with the Loyal Dominica Rangers – a militia of ‘trusty’ slaves who were off ered the reward of freedom in exchange for killing a Maroon chief. According to witness testimony, Jacko had killed two Rangers, wounded a third and was preparing to fire on another when LeVilloux’s musket delivered a fatal blow to the head. According to Ainslie, Jacko had been a Maroon for ‘upwards of 40 years’. His death marked the end of what are commonly referred to as the second Maroon wars.

Dominica became an island of isolated village communities and small plantation estates that grew sugar, coff ee, limes and coconuts. Despite the fact that it was under British rule, Dominica’s main infl uences came from the neighbouring French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe. When British landowners were forced either to abandon or sell off failing estates, it was oft en the increasing number of ‘free people of colour’ or mulattos (now considered a derogatory term) arriving from Martinique and Guadeloupe who took over and made them viable again. The African slaves who had been brought by French settlers began to absorb French language and culture, and so it was not long before Creole, a combination of French vocabulary and strong African dialect and syntax, was spoken as a first language. A new Creole culture was born which, in addition to language, was also reflected in dance, games, music, instruments and modes of dress.

Natural history

Plants and flowers

Orchid Dominica by Paul CraskDominica is home to 75 different types of orchid © Paul Crask

Close to 200 different species of fern have been officially recorded on Dominica, as well as around 20 species of bromeliads, 75 orchids, and a dozen or more other endemic plant species. The tree fern (Cyathea arborea), known locally as fougère or fwigè, is widespread and can be found both within the heart of the rainforest as well as on its more deciduous margins. On forest trails look out for the pawasol agouti (Selaginella), a low-growing fern that covers the forest floor and provides a hiding place for the elusive agouti. The z’ailes mouches (Caludovica insignis) is a very common rainforest plant with palmlike leaves that split into two lobes. It is one of several plants that were traditionally used by the indigenous Kalinago for thatching shelters and also for waterproofing baskets. Dominica’s national flower is the bwa kwaib (Sabinea carinalis). It is an arboreal blossom found growing in dry coastal areas and, when in bloom, displays bright red flowers. Good examples can be seen in the Botanic Gardens in Roseau, at the top of Morne Espagnol and within the garrison at Fort Shirley in the Cabrits National Park.

Throughout Dominica, both in the wild and in lovingly tended gardens, it is common to see many varieties of colourful flowers and plants such as allamanda (Allamanda cathartica), angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia candida), anthurium (Anthurium andraeanum), bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae), bougainvillea (Bougainvillea), ginger (Alpinia purpurata), hibiscus (Hibiscus), heliconia (Heliconia) and ixora (Ixora). Flowering trees such as the flamboyant (Delonix regia) are usually seen growing along the drier west coast and are very bright and colourful when in full bloom.

Dominica also has many interesting and delicious types of vegetables and fruits. Dominicans oft en tend a family garden of sorts where they grow vegetables and traditional crops such as yams, dasheen, sweet potatoes, or tannias. These provisions are staples of the Dominican diet. The calabash is a large round gourd that is cultivated on vines and harvested for use both as a vegetable and, when mature, as a functional container or eating bowl. It is also dried and ornately decorated by local artisans  and makes for a unique and pretty souvenir. Coconut palms grow just about everywhere, as do many different varieties of mango.

Medicinal plants play an important role in Dominican life, despite the increased availability of over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Rastafarians, Kalinago and predominantly the older generation of Dominicans have succeeded in preserving the knowledge of their ancestors, and so a variety of bush teas and other herbal remedies are still in common use, especially in country areas. What may seem like a weed to many could in fact be verveine (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) or tabac zombie (Pluchea symphytifolia), plants that are often used to make tea infusions for colds, fevers and other such ailments.


Almost 200 species of bird have been recorded on Dominica, including endemics and regional endemics. Most are migratory, of course, and it is thought that only around 60 of the recorded species are actually resident on the island. Dominica’s endemic birds include the imperial Amazon parrot (Amazona imperialis), commonly known as the sisserou. The large and colourful yet extremely elusive sisserou is a highly endangered species and is seen mostly in the elevated mature rainforest of the island’s highest mountain, Morne Diablotin. Dominica’s second endemic parrot is the jaco (Amazona arausiaca), which is smaller than the sisserou, greater in number, and usually found at slightly lower elevations throughout the island’s rainforest interior.


The agouti (Dasyprocta leporina) is a wild land mammal that is thought to have been introduced by Amerindians and is still common in the forests of South America. Roughly the size of a rabbit, it is a ground-dwelling rodent that is related to the guinea pig. It has dark fur and pink ears and is built for running at speed. A herbivore, the agouti may be spotted scouring the forest floor looking for fallen fruit and nuts. During the hunting season (usually October to December) it is targeted by bush hunters and eaten for its meat.

The manicou (Didelphys marsupialis insularis) is a tree-dwelling opossum that is thought to have been introduced at the beginning of the 19th century. Though common, it is nocturnal and therefore rarely encountered.

Wild pigs (sus scrofa) are common but very elusive. They live in the depths of Dominica's interior, particularly in the southern and eastern foothills of Morne Diablotin, where local hunters have reportedly come across some very large and aggressive specimens. Unless you are hiking in the deep bush, it is extremely unlikely your paths will ever meet.

Twelve species of bat have been recorded on the island, of which four are endemic to the region: the Lesser Antillean long-tongued bat (Monohyllus plethodon), the Lesser Antillean tree bat (Ardops nichollsi), the Antillean cave bat (Brachyphylla cavernarum), and the mouse-eared bat (Myotis dominicensis). Dominica's largest bat is the fisherman bat (Noctilio leporinus), which is rufous-coloured and lives in sea caves. Bats are most common in the forest though many can be seen emerging from the corrugated gaps of galvanised-steel rooftops at dusk.

Reptiles and amphibians

Boa constrictor snake © Paul Crask

The boa constrictor is the largest snake recorded on the island © Paul Crask

The zandoli (Anolis oculatus), or tree lizard, is endemic to the island. Zandoli are small and very well camouflaged lizards. They live in woodlands and gardens throughout the island, though they are more prominent on the west coast. The adult male has an orange and yellow throat fan that he extends to attract females. The abòlò (Ameiva fuscata), or ground lizard, is also endemic to Dominica. It is very common on the west coast and is much larger than the zandoli. It is often seen and heard in dry coastal woodland and gardens.

Of the four species of snake recorded on the island, none is venomous. The largest is the boa constrictor (Constrictor nebulosa), or tête chien, which can grow to 3.5m (8ft) and is particularly unusual because it does not lay eggs, but instead gives birth to live young.

The largest frog found on the island is known locally as the mountain chicken (Leptodactyllus fallax), or crapaud, and is endemic to both Dominica and Montserrat. Mountain chicken used to be considered the national dish, though the chytrid fungus disease that has plagued and devastated amphibians around the world also reached Dominica, sparing the crapaud from the restaurant menu but nevertheless seriously reducing its number to near extinction. Dominica responded to the threat of this disease by banning amphibian imports, protecting the crapaud from hunting, and by establishing a captive breeding facility at the Botanic Gardens under the Darwin Initiative Project, and with assistance from the Zoological Society of London. Though working very closely with their colleagues on the island of Montserrat in an attempt to protect and save the mountain chicken, experts fear the future remains uncertain for this species which is now very rarely encountered.

Whales and dolphins

Several species of whale routinely visit the deep coastal waters of Dominica. The most prevalent is the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephallus) which actually breeds here and is observed, often with calves, all year round. Other species of whale that may be sighted here include short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melaena), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens).

Pods of dolphin are often spotted along the west coast, even from the shore. The most common visitors are spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) though other frequently observed species include bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) and Fraser’s dolphins (Lagenodelphis hosei).

People and culture

Local Dominican man © Paul Crask

For outsiders the Dominican psyche can be difficult to understand and first impressions are often somewhat misleading. However, serious, sometimes stern outward countenances usually give way to broad smiles and friendly conversation (though you may have to work hard for it sometimes), and what may look like a heated exchange is often just a lively discussion or debate that ends in jokes and laughter. Of course there are exceptions, but visitors should have no reservations about engaging with a friendly and interesting people. Once the ice is broken, Dominicans are very keen to talk about their lives and their country and will indulge themselves by offering you, the visitor, plenty of information, help and advice. Politics and social commentary are always hot topics, though Dominicans will willingly offer you an opinion on absolutely any subject at all, from world affairs to how best to park your car.

The people of Dominica are known to be friendly and interesting people © Paul Crask 


Traditional costume

Wob Dwiyet Traditional Costume Dominica by Celia SorhaindoTropical Ties

Commonly worn by women from the 1800s to the 1960s, the wob dwiyet is now only seen at national festivals such as the Creole and Independence celebrations that take place during October and November each year. Starting life as a dress worn on Sundays or feast days when enslaved women were permitted to discard their drab uniforms and dress up in the kind of colours to which they were more accustomed, the traditional Creole wob dwiyet dress was born. Over the years the style has been modified and accessories have been added to develop this attire, but the combination of bright skirt over white chemise, with lace adornments, coloured headscarf and kerchief is in essence the same as the national dress that is worn today.

The wearer of the wob dwiyet is known as the matador and for formal occasions she may choose to wear a headpiece, or tête en l’air, made of a square piece of madras. This square of Indian cotton, made by the Kalabari in the vicinity of Chennai (formerly Madras), was known as the mouchoir madras and became very popular with Creole women towards the end of the 18th century. French, English and Portuguese merchants were involved in the trade of madras, or injiri, as it is known in India, around 400 years ago. It is thought these merchants brought the material to West Africa where it was worn by the Igbo in southern Nigeria. Traditionally madras was made with vegetable dyes which ran, or ‘bled’, each time the material was washed, becoming blurred over time. Today most madras is still made in India but with chemical dyes.

 Photo: Wob dwiyet traditional costume © Celia Sorhaindo, Tropical Ties



2nd Runner Up at the Carnival © Paul Crask

An example of today's more modern costumes for the Carnival © Paul Crask

The festival of Carnival, or Mas Domnik, that takes place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday each year, is a time when Dominicans party hard, ‘jump up’, ‘free up’ and really let their hair down. Although today the music is a modern combination of calypso, steelpan and bouyon, usually transported in electronic format with huge amplifiers and speakers crammed on to flat-bed trucks, the colourful costumes and the spirit of dancing are still tantalising reflections of the past. French settlers may have brought the festival of masquerade to Dominica, but it was the African slaves who added a raw rhythm, vibrancy and just a hint of rebellion. It is that colour, spirit and edge that is still in evidence in today’s Carnival.

The calypsos that are sung in competition prior to Carnival hark back to the chante-mas, a tradition of song and satire that evolved as part of the preparations for Carnival. The female chanteulles would sing short, cutting ballads that ridiculed administrators or perpetrators of bad deeds. Today calypso songs are much longer, though the lyrics still contain a large dose of irony or political and social commentary.

Carnival costumes were originally little different from those worn in African tribal festivals. Most notable is the sensay costume, its fierce mask and horned headpiece with ruffles of cloth strips completely covering the wearer and cascading in layers from the head down to the ground. Although one or two of these original themes survive, today costumes are of modern materials and design, and in more recent years have become far more mainstream – lots of bikinis and feathers – a trend that is bemoaned by traditionalists.

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