Grenada - Background information

Mural depicting Amerindian culture by Celia SorhaindoThe first people to arrive in Grenada would have been Amerindian adventurers from South America somewhere between 5000BC and 3000BC; pictured: a mural depicting these early settlers © Celia Sorhaindo

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Grenada: the Bradt Travel Guide

Hurricane Ivan

Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada a near-fatal blow on 7 September 2004. By the time it hit, Ivan had strengthened to a category three hurricane and it ravaged the island with sustained 193km/h winds for over eight hours. Until that fateful day, it had been Hurricane Janet that most Grenadians remembered and considered the worst storm to ever hit the island. In 1955, Janet had blasted northern Grenada and Carriacou with winds of up to 260km/h, destroying everything in its path and leaving 120 people dead in its wake. The nation’s agricultural economy was severely damaged by Janet and many structures were destroyed, including the already weakening St George’s harbour jetty and buildings.

The eye of Hurricane Ivan passed approximately 10km south of Point Salines and thoroughly ransacked the island. It either completely levelled or damaged around 90% of residences and other buildings, leaving countless Grenadians homeless. It ravaged the island’s forests and farmlands, destroying the majority of the nation’s crops, including nutmeg, and it crippled the island’s infrastructure. Schools, churches, hospitals, roads, water and electricity supplies, homes, hotels, businesses, farms and orchards were le! in complete tatters. Immediately after the hurricane there followed some very frightening days of lawlessness with widespread looting and violence. The Grenadian people were in a state of immeasurable shock and altogether fearful for their very existence.

Visitors to Grenada will no doubt come across some of Ivan’s legacy when travelling around the island.

The world came to Grenada’s assistance in the weeks and months following Ivan. A programme of donor and loan aid commenced and plans were initiated to reconstruct schools and hospitals, to clear and replant crops, and to repair and rebuild homes. The estimated cost of Ivan’s fury was put at around US$1 billion and it was clearly going to take a long time to completely recover. The island’s tourism industry, which was beginning to thrive, together with nutmeg and cocoa crops, suffered an unmitigated setback. Before Ivan, Grenada was the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg, after Indonesia. With only 10% of nutmeg trees still standing, and a period of seven to ten years for a seedling to reach maturity, it is no wonder that very many livelihoods were in serious jeopardy.

After picking themselves up from the rubble and the despair, Grenadians would be forgiven for feeling entirely desperate when just one year later Emily passed over their island as a category one hurricane. Though not as devastating as Ivan, Emily caused an estimated US$100 million worth of damage to the island as well as untold psychological harm to its people.

Grenada is recovering, yet its agriculture sector still has a long way to go and, though many new nutmegs were planted, it appears highly unlikely that this industry will ever thrive as it once did. New nutmeg trees are bearing fruit, but in smaller numbers, and only one of three processing plants is currently operating. Visitors to Grenada will no doubt come across some of Ivan’s legacy when travelling around the island. Many buildings, such as the Anglican church in St George’s, are still awaiting repair, skeletons of abandoned domestic residences can be seen in some villages, and tours of nutmeg stations tell their own sad tale of the storm’s impact on this once significant spice crop.

Natural history

Plants and flowers

The national flower of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique is the bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spectabilis) which grows all over the three islands and is o!en found in the carefully tended gardens of many private homes. Visitors to Grenada will also see many other varieties of colourful flowers and plants including ginger (Alpinia purpurata), heliconia (Heliconia), hibiscus (Hibiscus), ixora (Ixora), allamanda (Allamanda cathartica), angel’s trumpet (Datura candida), anthurium (Anthurium andraeanum), bird of paradise flower (Strelitzia reginae) and several varieties of orchid. Endemic to Grenada is the bois agouti (Maytenus grenadensis), a tree with simple leaves and small white flowers. Also endemic are Rhytidophyllum caribaeum, a small shrub with cream or orange flowers, Lonchocarpus broadwayi and Cyathea elliotii. Flowering trees such as the flamboyant (Delonix regia) are usually seen growing along coastlines and are very bright and colourful when in full bloom.


Mona monkey, Grenada by Celia Sorhaindo

The mona monkey (Cercopithecus mona) is also known as the macaque and was probably brought from west Africa to Grenada by slave traders in the 18th century. The population is thought to have developed from very small numbers though studies have suggested it is healthy and lives off fruits, leaves and insects in Grenada’s mountainous, forested interior. Tough hurricanes and hunters continue to threaten its existence, it seems to survive well and in relatively high numbers.

The small Asian mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus) was introduced to Grenada in the late 19th century in an attempt to control rodents in sugarcane plantations. Its impact on pests is thought to have been extremely negligible and it was soon considered a pest itself. In the second half of the 20th century it was discovered that the mongoose carried the rabies virus and an island-wide vaccination and eradication programme commenced. Tough rabies still exists in the mongoose population it is not considered a serious problem. Visitors to Grenada should nevertheless avoid contact with this animal if it is encountered.

(Photo: Although threatened by hunters, the mona monkey is common throughout Grenada © Celia Sorhaindo)

The nine-banded long-nosed armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus hoplites) is a small mammal with a bony, armour-like shell. It was probably introduced by the island’s original settlers and is known locally by its Amerindian name, tatu. Though it is classified as rare, it is also considered a game animal, which seems very contradictory. It lives in the forests of Grand Etang, feeding on insects, small animals, vegetables and decaying flesh. Interesting facts about this particular species of armadillo are that it produces four identical offspring, it can inflate its intestine, making it buoyant enough to float or swim across rivers, and, if swimming is an unattractive proposition, it can hold its breath long enough to be able to walk along riverbeds instead.


Grenada’s forests, coastal woodlands, bays, estuaries, rugged coastlines and floral gardens combine to create habitats for birds of all kinds. The national bird is the Grenada dove (Leptotila wellsi), which is thought to be endemic to Grenada and very rare. The dove has been observed mainly in the southwest of Grenada, within the Mt Hartman National Park and Clarke’s Court Bay areas. It has also been recorded around Perseverance, Beauséjour, Black Bay and Halifax Harbour. Little is known about the dove though its numbers are believed to be small. Also considered endemic to Grenada is the endangered hook-billed kite (Chondrohierax uncinatus), which is one of the smallest species of hawks. Like the Grenada dove, it has been observed in the dry scrubland habitat of the southwest.

Green iguana, Grenada by Celia Sorhaindo


There are thought to be around ten species of lizard living in the tri-island state. The most common is the bronze anole (Anolis aeneus), also known locally as the zandoli, which grows to around 20cm in length and has the ability to change colour according to its environment. The male green lizard has a distinctive colourful throat fan that it uses in courtship and also as a territorial warning. Slightly larger than the green lizard, and also quite commonly  sighted, is the tree lizard (Anolis richardii), which is either green or brown and has a distinctive crest running the length of its head and neck. The ground lizard (Ameiva ameiva), also known as the zagada, does not climb trees and prefers to live in dry undergrowth or to sit stock-still, sunning itself on a rock. The male is usually a bluish colour and the female brown with lighter stripes along her flanks. Grenada’s largest lizard is the very colourful green iguana (Iguana iguana), which has been known to grow as large as 1.5m in length. It is herbivorous and usually lives in trees where it feeds on leaves and flowers. The iguana is considered a threatened species in Grenada due to loss of habitat and hunting.

(Photo: The green iguana is Grenada’s largest lizard © Celia Sorhaindo)

People and culture


Carriacou has a population of around 6,000 and, as in Grenada, English is the official language. The people of Carriacou are officially referred to as Carriacouans but are more commonly known as Kayacs. They are a very friendly people with a strong cultural identity that has been shaped in a distinctly different manner from their compatriots on mainland Grenada.

Dancing the cocoa, Belmont Estate, Grenada by Celia Sorhaindo

They have an important heritage, which is preserved today in the shape of feasts (known locally as saracas), music, celebrations, workmanship and folklore. Petite Martinique has a population of fewer than 1,000. Most people make a living from fishing, boatbuilding, and subsistence farming.

(Photo: ‘Dancing the cocoa’ at Belmont Estate is the traditional and fun way of polishing the beans © Celia Sorhaindo)


Big Drum Dance

Big Drum Dance is a cultural celebration that consists of dancing, singing and drumming. It is thought that the West African slaves who were transported to the islands in the 1700s somehow managed to keep their heritage alive through folktales, stories, music and song. Drumming played a significant role among these African tribal people and was very prominent during weddings, feasts, prayer, harvest, birth and death. The Big Drum Dance is a manifestation of the past and is now not only a key feature of Carriacou’s cultural legacy, but also very much an integral part of everyday life on the island. Why drumming survived so well in Carriacou and not in Grenada is a puzzle. Perhaps it is because the drums that were made and played by slaves were also routinely taken away from them, or banned, as part of their owners’ efforts to crush their spirit and identity.

The drums, collectively known as lapeau cabrit, which is Creole for goatskin, were originally made from carved wood, but were later more commonly made from small rum barrels. Traditionally three drums are used. The centre drum, and the most important of the three, is called the cot drum and is traditionally made with the skin of a young ewe goat to produce a higher note. A piece of cotton thread with three or four straight pins is attached to the top of the drum to add a unique sound. Always standing upright in the centre of the group, the cot drum is responsible for leading the rhythm and requires a skilled and experienced player.

The Big Drum Dance is a manifestation of the past and is now not only a key feature of Carriacou’s cultural legacy, but also very much an integral part of everyday life on the island.

The two drums to each side of the cot drum are known as the bula drums and are tilted and played between the knees. The bula drums are traditionally made from the skins of ram goats and are also sometimes known as babble or fule drums. The singing style of the Big Drum Dance usually follows a traditional call-and-response pattern with songs that, though often sung in Creole, speak of a home in Africa; they lament families that have been separated, and tell of a longing to be free. The dances that accompany the drumming and the singing also originate in Africa though they too have a strong Creole influence, as do the costumes of the dancers. There are dances and songs performed to heal sickness, to appease gods, to pray for good harvests, to pray for rain during the planting season, to symbolise the union of a man and woman, or to give thanks for good crops.

If you are fortunate enough to see a Big Drum Dance during your visit to Carriacou, you will be immediately struck by how much more African, rather than Creole or Caribbean, the celebration actually is. The music, the singing, the dance and the drums themselves will transport you into the past, to a dark time, when people were plucked from their homes in Africa and brought to these islands where they were forced to spend generations enslaved. It is a very spiritual experience.

Tombstone Feast

Perhaps one of the islands’ most haunting ceremonies is the Tombstone Feast, which takes place on the first anniversary of a burial. Up to this point there would have been no headstone placed on the grave or tomb of the deceased. Instead it is prepared one year later by a stonemason and then carried in a ceremony to the house where the death took place. Traditionally, the tombstone is placed on a bed and covered with a white sheet. The relatives of the deceased gather together and ‘wet the ground’ by sprinkling rum and water around it.

They then speak to the deceased who, it is believed, is now visiting with them, and they also offer their prayers. The headstone is then taken to the cemetery where it is fitted to the body of the tomb. Occasionally the stone slides into a special opening on the end of the tomb, rather than standing upright upon it. More rum and water are sprinkled around the tomb and sometimes an egg is broken to symbolise a new beginning of welfare and prosperity for the surviving family. The following day there is a feast, or saraca, accompanied by dancing, singing and Big Drum.

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