A Culture on the Edge
Kent Auguiste, was my great number and Carib Taxi driver. A Carib by birth and by character, he use hours educating me on Carib folk lore, and the experience of growing up Carib in Dominica. Not a happy story, deprived of education, and robed of their sense of worth by religious doctrine, he says; “We all become Peter, Paul and Mary. Our ancestral names of the Kalinago are lost now, a sad fate for the first people of this land, who have been here for 5000 years”.
Kent was the prefect man for the Job. He was a good teacher, patent and knowledgeable and very well-connected. His brother had been Chief of the Carib people and he was friendly with everyone it seemed. We met the new Chief, Garnett Joseph, and we talked about history, education, culture, religion and beliefs, about heath, prejudice, the state of the nation and the future. All in one day, traveling from Roseau to the Carib Territories and back via Jungle Bay. We picked up several people on the way, one a Carib Woman traveling to the Territories and another a young bright Carib man who was foreman on project building a jungle retreat for an America executive. At our stops we met and chatted to all sorts of beautiful Carib people.
Here is my account of that day, what I learned, observed, thought about and afterward researched and wrote about over several months. The words are my own, except were i have quoted others, like the personal accounts of Kent. It is peppered with my own observation and insights which are thoroughly personal and not intended to speak for a people or their culture.
I worry a lot about writing about other 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. We are entitled to a point of view and sometimes we have a right to proportion it.
Dominica; a Carib Fortress
The history of Dominica is the history of the Caribbean with a salient difference – Dominica was a fortress like no other Island. It withstood countless invasions and become a Kingdom of the Carib people.
The Dominica Carib fortress with its think forest, steep mountains and few harbours, was hard to penetrate. The Carib People; fearless, inventive and totally tuned to character were tireless in defense of their island. “They were master of the Dominica island fortress” Kent tells me. “The Africans, French, English and Spanish Invaders thought the Caribs of Dominica 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”.
A network of lookouts and inter-Island communication (canoes) kept them informed on the intruders, men with shinny 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 canvass sails.
Columbus is thought to be the first European to land on the Caribbean Shores and his journals are of a friendly and hospitable people.
“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
But 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 native people were enslaved in many situations. 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.
Dominica lying far south had the advantage of hindsight. 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 of what to expect. Many invading forces were beaten off and ambushed on open beaches of Dominica, by invisible spirits shooting poisoned arrows from somewhere in a jungle.
So successful were the Dominican Caribs that both the French and English ceded control of the island to them at different times.
In 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 Carib 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 island Antigua and St. Kitts other Brits brimmed with jealousy. Sir Thomas rightful son Phip Warner conspired to change the situation and in 1674 landed in Dominica and under the guess of friendship entrapped and murdered his half-brother Carib Warner and massacred his village (now called Massac). It is 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 Caribs are a people very much betrayed. Betrayed in popular myths that made Kents’ 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, jealousy and finally by neglect.
There are only 3000 Caribs remaining. They live in eight villages on the East Coast of Dominica in and area of approx. 3700 acres called the Carib Territory. They have their own chief and also a representative in the house of assembly. They are a private and separate people and their culture has not changed greatly. Today Caribs by birth are entitled to live in the Carib Territories. A Carib can cultivate any obtainable land and consequently lay claim to it. They are an agricultural people, relying on character 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.
The Carib Territories is often compared to American and Canadian reserves in some respects. But it is different in meaningful areas. The Territory was ceded to the Caribs which was meaningful and rare 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 in schools far away where abuse and disrespect was rampant. But they lacked an education, and were consequently dis-enfranchised from taking a more active role in affairs of the land. In time Carib leaders spoke out and need 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 complete the gap in a life without much hope or expectation. The great experiment in The North has robed some native people of their own way of life and given them little in return. Caribs 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 groups 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 Caribs themselves and the governments of the time. When Kent went to school he was tone of only 3 Caribs 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 provide and soon he had to abandon school. For an intelligent person it was a great disappointment, an insult, and a rejection. Kent became one of the new copy of radicals that voiced concern and criticized the Government for its neglect of his people. He nevertheless talks out on all sorts of issues, on the radio and where ever he can.
Myth, Mysticism and Magic in Carib Culture
Caribs are a friendly and gentle people and they coexist with governments and non Caribs in respect. Ancient art show 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 character. They are one with character and fit into the Dominica scenery as naturally as the birds and animals of the jungle. Like spirits of the jungle, unmatched in agility, stamina and natural knowledge. The Carib’s 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 Carib folklore there was always a shaman, a sort pf 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 strength of character to heal afflicted souls. Herb baths were used to cleanse and restore health, their was a herb for every ailment. In some ways the Pyai man was similar to the African Voodoo and the Afro-Carib Obeah and native Shaman.
All belief systems merged and influence each other over time. Aspects of Christian ceremonials and sacraments such as the use of oils, herbs, blessed communion wafers were integrated in the beliefs and over decades the Carib accept Christianity as a part, but not a substitute, of what they believe. The African rituals, disguise and rituals too found their way into worship and practice. The Carib People believe in character; a community of shared knowledge, unity and balance. They believe in unity and balance above all; knowing that taking strength away has a personal and universal effect, that giving enriches all. To many Caribs, God is the supreme being, as natural as character, powerful, majestic, eternal, universal and present in everything.
A Culture Revived
The construction of the Historic Carib Village, was an attempt to restore or at the minimum document the culture. It is a valuable museum of a history, but many fault it for being unreal. Caribs do not live as they did, nor do they dance in costumes as portrayed in the tourist festivals. nevertheless 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 characterize of the Carib Culture but pride can be the basis for its preservation. The blood line is dying little by little by intermarriage, emigration and an aging population with a low birth rate. The past Chief Charles Williams suggested that Caribs should only marry Caribs but that went down like a rule balloon.
Some think it is already to late; that the true Carib 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 Carib culture is also a state of mind, it has purpose and stands as an example of a way of life that should be preserved.