DOMINICA  |  Dominica, Dominica Travel Guide
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A Brief History of Dominica

A Brief History

Dominica’s history is similar to its French neighbors’, Guadeloupe and Martinique, with one significant difference – the British held power until the island became an independent republic. Along the way, there were enough tangles and takeovers to give the new nation a riveting cultural twist.

Early Residents

Dominica’s first residents were from South America. First were an ancient tribe of Ortoiroids, who lived on the island about 5,000 years ago and vanished without leaving much of a mark. They were followed by the Arawaks, who worked their way up the Antilles and arrived on Dominica around 2,000 years ago. They were a peaceful group of artists and craftsmen who left remnants of elaborately decorated pottery as proof of their existence.

About 1000 AD, groups of South American warriortribes stormed ashore demanding land and conquering the Arawaks. These people, which we now call Caribs, built villages controlled by chiefs and obtained food by hunting and fishing. In their native language, they called their new home Wai’tukubuli, which meant “tall is her body,” and referred to the island’s towering mountains that jut steeply out of the ocean.

Christopher Columbus

Columbus sighted these magnificent mountains when he circled Wai’tukubuli with a 17-ship armada in 1493. Since it was Sunday morning, he called the island Dominica (Latin for the Lord’s day) and wrote in his logbook: “Dominica is remarkable for the beauty of its mountains... and must be seen to be believed.” Columbus himself didn’t land on Dominica, although some of his men anchored off the leeward side and reported finding people and huts. Over the next century, various European expeditions visited or passed by the island, mentioning its outstanding beauty in their diaries. The first settlers didn’t arrive until 1632.


French colonists came to Dominica about the same time that they began settling on Guadeloupe and Martinique. However, the English also wanted a presence in the Lesser Antilles, and the two countries battled over the islands for many years. In addition to struggling with one another, the Europeans had to contend with the Caribs, who were reported to enslave or cannibalize their victims. Constant battles with increasingly larger European troops gradually drove the Caribs inland and subdued their aggression.

After decades of back-and-forth agreements and precarious control, Britain was granted rights to Dominica in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Within a decade, they had surveyed all the land, established towns, brought in slaves from Africa to work the plantations, opened free ports and elected officials. The French continued to be an important part of island life, and vied for political power at every opportunity. In 1778, while the English were distracted by the American Revolution, French troops seized the island and remained in control until the Treaty of Versailles returned British rule in 1783.

Napoleon, always looking for a place to stir up trouble, invaded Dominica in 1805. His troops burned the capital city and held government officials hostage while attempting to establish control. After several days, the French forces agreed to accept a large bribe to leave the island, and the British resumed business as usual, which included dealing with civil unrest.

Slavery & The Maroons

For years, Dominica had been a refuge for escaped slaves called Maroons. Some fled from local plantations, but large numbers of them came from neighboring islands. Dominica’s dense, mountainous forest provided the perfect hideout for the slaves who formed guerrilla armies for protection. While the French and English fought each other, they also had to fight off attacks from the Maroons, who had the advantage of escaping into the forest if a battle got rough. When France declared a brief end to slavery on their islands from 1794 until 1802, Maroons joined French forces and French whites supported Maroon guerrilla raids in a united front against English plantation owners and the British militia. Finally, in 1814, the Maroons were overwhelmed by British troops, and their leaders were publicly executed. But by this time coffee and sugar production was low and export was almost nonexistent. When all slaves were freed in 1834, Dominica was in a deep economic depression and traditional plantations were struggling.


Conditions were right for the emergence of a new middle class. During the last years of the 19th century, Dominica became a modern farming and fishing community. Limes and cocoa were among the first new industries, followed by a thriving banana boom. Foreign investment and aid allowed improvement in public services and a sturdy infrastructure developed.

Gradually, Dominica took steps to become autonomous. It became a self-governing British possession in 1967, and all foreign ties were cut in 1978 when the island became an independent republic. Today, the government is headed by a president – elected by the House of Assembly – and a prime minister, who leads the Cabinet of Ministers. A general election is held every five years.

Culturally, Dominica is the result of its past – totally free and independent, but deeply affected by the history that made it so. The cuisine tends to be Créole, with unequivocal French twists. Streets and villages are named a jumble of English and French words, but most residents are descendants of African slaves and speak a West Indian patois. The island is also home to the only remaining community of Caribs, descended directly from original South American tribes. Their reservation, Carib Territory, covers 3,700 acres on the eastern coast, and their traditions are evident islandwide.

Last updated December 6, 2007
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