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Dominica Caribs: The Kalinago a Cuture on the Edge - Travelogue

Ian R Clayton, 2010

early  carib history and settlementSince writing this article a few months ago, the Carib People of Dominica have elected to Change their name to the Kaligano People. The Council has declared that the Term Carib will no longer be used and has requested the Government of Dominica to change the 1978 Act as necessary. My driver Kent, made the point that he grew up feeling some embarrassment for the betrayed in popular myths that made his Roseau friends afraid to visit his village in case they were eaten. "We were not cannibals, but ignorance of our ways and character, condemned us to that" says Kent. The Council mentions this along with general derogatory conations coming from the colonial times.

I am taking the liberty to correct and rewrite the articles so as not to offend the gentle and friendly people that I once called Caribs. From now on they are Kalinago, which is actually the real name recorded from historic times.

I use Carib in reference to proper names like “Carib Waner” who became the chief of the Kalinago People. Carib is used in context to the historical references and in quotations. Kalinago says Father Breton, who lived among the Carib/Kalinago in Dominica between 1642 and 1653, is the real name of the Caribs of the islands". He wrote it as "Callinago", but the usual phonetic writing today is "Kalinago". "Kalinemeti" means "A good, peaceful man".(reference

It is indeed a fitting connotation for the people that I met.

Kalinago: Travels with Kent

kent in the territories. Kent Auguiste, my chauffeur on a recent visit to Dominica, is Kalinago by birth and by nature.We spent several hours talking about Carin/Kalinago folklore, and the experience of growing up as a “Carib” in Dominica. Being “Carib” in those days was not a happy history; it was full of connotations that were downright embarrassing. The people, originally called Kalinago, were deprived of education, and robbed of their sense of worth by religious doctrine, he says. "We all become Peter, Paul and Mary. Our ancestral Carib names are lost now, a sad fate for the first people of this land, who have been here for 5000 years".

We picked up several people on the way, one a Kalinago woman traveling to the Territories and another a bright young man who was foreman on a project, building a jungle retreat for an America executive. At our stops we met and chatted with all sorts of beautiful Kalinago people.

Here is the story from that day. It is influenced by my own interpretations and comparisons which are entirely personal and not intended to speak for a people or their culture.

I worry about writing about people and cultures that I am not part of. I reconcile that with the fact that we are all able to think, observe and have insights, and to become informed. With that we are entitled to a point of view and sometimes we have a right to share it.

Dominica Mountain FortressDominica a Mountain Fortress

Dominica was a fortress for the indigenous Kalinago. It this sense it was unlike any other Caribbean Island. It withstood countless invasions and become a Kingdom of the peopled who were the Kalinago and were called Caribs.

The Dominica fortress, with its thick forest, steep mountains and few harbors, was hard to penetrate. The Kalinago People; fearless, inventive and totally in-tune to nature, were tireless in the defense of their island.

"They were master of the Dominica island fortress," Kent tells me. "The Africans, French, English and Spanish Invaders thought the Kalinago of Dominica who they called Caribs, were superhuman spirits. A Carib would appear 20 paces in front of you, out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappear like a spirit meting into air".

war ships and gallionsA network of lookouts and inter-island communication (canoes) kept them informed on the movements of the intruders, men with shiny heads and the sun in their arms. They came in from the North in great towering ships that moved down to Dominica, powered by the wind in huge square canvas sails.

Columbus is thought to be the first European to land on the Caribbean Shores and his journals are of a friendly and hospitable Tanio people (Arawaks) that he met along the way.


"Columbus and his crew, landing on an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 were the first Europeans to encounter the Taíno people. Columbus wrote:

They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will...they took great delight in pleasing us...They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal...Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people ...They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing." wikipedia

Tanio & Kalinago>>

kalinago wars and european invasions of the caribbeanBut those that followed Columbus had more than discovery in mind. They were after gold, control of the seas and sugar. Each invading nation -the Dutch, British, French and Spanish- fought to take the islands and make them their own. The indigenous people were enslaved, in many cases. Bands of sailors, loose on Iand for the first time in ages, reportedly plundered villages, took the women and killed the men. The atrocities committed are well known. From 1503 Spain allowed settlers to enslave All caribs south of Puerto Rico. The indiginous people of the small flatter islands were wipped out.

Dominica, lying far south, had the advantage of hindsight as well as a natural fortress. The Arawak people who lived in the north got the message out. They paddled in relays, from island to island and signal post to signal post, and warned their neighbours in the south. Many invading forces were beaten off and ambushed on the open beaches of Dominica by invisible spirits shooting poisoned arrows from somewhere in a jungle.

So successful were the Dominican Kalinago that both the French and English ceded control of the island to them at different times.

kalinago chiefsIn 1660 Governor Willoughby of Barbados appointed a young 30-year-old Carib Chief named Carib Warner as Lieutenant Governor of Dominica. Carib Warner was a Kalinago of mixed race, son of Sir Thomas Warner, the English colonizer of St. Kitts, for whom Carib Warner's Dominican mother worked. Carib Warner grew up in the stately St. Kitts home of an English Lord until the age of 13, when his farther died.

He was a clever diplomat and played the English and the French well, wining the respect of his people and of Willoughby. But the British too were divided; those in Barbados controlled the wealth of sugar and in the leeward islands of Antigua and St. Kitts, other Brits brimmed with jealousy. Meanwhile the Kalinago, fearful of the growing push by Europeans to take their land, set out to harase their progress and their settlements with stealth attacks launched from canoes. Sir Thomas' rightful son, Phip Warner, conspired to change the situation and in 1674 landed in Dominica and under the guise of friendship, entrapped and murdered his half-brother Carib Warner and massacred his village (now called Massac). Its a sad story of English conspiracy and a betrayal which continued for decades. Despite several treaties, right up to 1748, declaring that Dominica belonged to the Kalinago, greed for sugar wealth drove the French and English to continue to fight over the island.


The Kalinago are a people very much betrayed. Betrayed in popular myth, that made Kent's friends afraid to visit his village in case they were eaten. "We were not cannibals, but ignorance of our ways and character, condemned us to that," says Kent. They were betrayed by treaties that meant nothing, betrayed by opportunity, prejudice, jealousy and finally by neglect.

There are only 3000 Kalinago remaining. They live in eight villages on the East Coast of Dominica in an area of approx. 3700 acres called the Kaligano Territory. They have their own chief and also a representative in the house of assembly. They tend to be private and separate people, and their culture has not changed greatly. Today Kaligano by birth are entitled to live in the Kaligano Territories. A Kaligano can cultivate any available land and thus lay claim to it. They are an agricultural people, relying on nature for medicine, food, heath and care of spirit and mind. There is a herb for everything, from feeling sad to healing the body or the mind.

Kalinago Territories

kalinago territory- tending the land- at one with nature in dominicaThe Carib Territiries now called the Kalinago Territory has been compared to American and Canadian reserves in a lot of respects. But it is different in key areas. The Territory was ceded to the Kalinago, which was significant and unique in the Caribbean. But they were largely ignored and marginalized with no attempt to educate and assimilate, as was the case in America. This was both good and bad. They were spared the indignity of been torn from families and boarded into schools far away where abuse and disrespect was rampant. But they lacked an education, and were thus dis-enfranchised from taking a more active role in the affairs of the land. In time, Kalinago leaders spoke out and demanded more: More voice and more inclusion in the modernization taking in place in Dominica. They wanted schools, roads and electricity.

They are not a people who have lost their way, as we see in many Canadian reserves where drugs and alcohol fill the gap in a life without much hope or expectation. The great experiment in The North has robbed some native people of their own way of life and has given them little in return. Kalinago have not lost a way of life. They live off the land, and use it well. They fish, make crafts, built boats and sail out to sea in small canoes, riding the waves with the skills of their ancestors.

Assimilation was not the objective but in the name of preservation many have been negligent. The culture has largely been ignored by both the Kalinago themselves and the governments of the time. When Kent went to school he was one of only 3 Kalinago ever to attend a secondary school. The school in Roseau was several hours away from his home, which meant he had to rent somewhere to live nearby. This the family could not afford and soon he was forced to abandon school. For an intelligent person it was a great disappointment, an insult, and a rejection. Kent became one of the new breed of radicals that voiced concern and criticized the Government for its neglect of his people. He still talks out on all sorts of issues, on the radio and wherever he can.

Myth, mysticism and magic in Carib Cuture.

< view from the kalinago carft shop in dominicaKalinago are a friendly and gentle people and they coexist with governments and non-Kalinago in quiet respect. Ancient art shows Kalinago, referred to then as Caribs, offering fruit and drink to welcome the strangers from another land. It is their way; they are not a fearful people, but they do not seek conflict and they choose a simple life living with nature. They are one with nature and fit into the Dominica landscape as naturally as the birds and animals of the jungle. They are spirits of the jungle: unmatched in agility, stamina and natural knowledge. The Kalinago knowledge of herbs and plants is exceptional. It is said they use over 300 different herbs for medicine are some of the best bush doctors in the Caribbean.

In Kalinago folklore, there was always a shaman, a sort of mystic healer they called the Pyie Man. He cured illness with herbs and spells and smoke. Smoke as used in some Christian ceremonies and as used by Shamballa Buddhist to cleanse and ward off spirits. The Pyie man believed in spirits and called on the power of nature to heal afflicted souls. Herb baths were used to cleanse and restore health. There was a herb for every ailment. In some ways the Pyie man was similar to the African Voodoo and the Afro-Carib Obeah and native Shaman.

All belief systems merged and influenced each other over time. Aspects of Christian ceremonials and sacraments such as the use of oils, herbs and blessed communion wafers were integrated in the beliefs and over the decades, the Kalinago accept Christianity as a part, but not a replacement, of what they believe. The African mask and rituals too found their way into worship and practice.

The Kalinago People believe in nature; a community of common knowledge, unity and balance. They believe in unity and balance above all; knowing that taking power away has a personal and universal effect, that giving enriches all. To many Kalinago, God is the Supreme Being, as natural as nature, powerful, majestic, eternal, universal and present in everything.

A Culture revived

dominica carib basketsThe construction of the Historic Kalinago Village, was an attempt to restore, or at least document, the culture. It is a valuable museum of a history, but many fault it for being unreal. Kalinago do not live as they did, nor do they dance in costumes as portrayed in the tourist festivals. Still, it is of value and the attention from the outside does endear a sense of a people and culture that was and should be.

Pride is not a feature of the Kalinago Culture but pride can be the basis for its preservation. The blood line is dying gradually by intermarriage, emigration and an aging population with a low birth rate. The past Kalinago Chief, Charles Williams, suggested that Kalinago should only marry Caribs, but that went down like a lead balloon.

Some think it is already too late; that the true Kalinago by birth is an exception. What needs now to be preserved is a culture and a history. Blood alone need not define a culture. History has many examples: Carib Warner was appointed as chief of his people although of mixed race and raised as the sun of an English lord. The Kalinago culture is also a state of mind. It has purpose and stands as an example of a way of life that should be preserved.

Helpful Contacts

Kent Augustie: Taxi 1 767 316 2717

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© Ian R Clayton, AXSES SCI 2009

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