“My people would like to have our own schools and judicial system”, Reina tells me. It is about the fifth time he emphasises the ‘my people’ in his presentation of Carib history and customs in Kalinago Barana Autê, the full-scale reproduction of a Carib village that is at the heart of the Carib Territory on the east coast of Dominica. He is my guide to the village and his identification with the Carib cause is understandable, since this is the only remaining tribe of Carib Indians in the whole of the Caribbean.
I arrived in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, four days ago and, after spending a day there, had toured the island from Scotts Head in the south, up to Portsmouth and the Cabrits National Park in the north and then, loosing my way, across the rugged interior over to the Atlantic coast and the sandy beaches of Calibishie, before I arrived at the 15 km² ‘Carib Territory’, designated as such by the British in 1903.
Some 3000 Caribs are living in the territory, where they do not have political autonomy, and the last Carib speaker died in the 1920s. I gather from Reina’s story that they feel the cultural pressure of the outside world and more specifically that they feel discriminated against in legal matters by the black/mixed slave descendant majority on the island. “Having your own schools, I can imagine, but your own legal system is probably a tall order”, I suggest, and indeed also Reina also not expect that to happen any time soon.
That there is a reservation left at all is already remarkable because of the Taino, the other people that inhabited the Antilles at the time the Spanish discovered the Americas, no original descendants are remaining at all. On the other hand, in a remarkably generous gesture considering the mores of the time, in around 1600 the French and English originally agreed to leave the whole of Dominica to the Carib people, although the fierce nature and fighting abilities of the Kalinago may have also played a role in that magnanimity. That plan however floundered in 1715 when, after a revolt on Martinique, poor whites fled the island and crossed the strait to colonise the southern end of Dominica. By 1727 France officially claimed the island.
Dominica is the youngest of the Caribbean islands (soon to be robbed of that distinction by Kick ‘em Jenny, a volcano rising to the ocean surface just north of Grenada) and its rugged nature is one of the reasons why the Caribs managed to hang on while the French and the English battled over the ownership of the island. They were able to escape the Europeans by withdrawing into the mountains and from there attack the colonist’s settlements with the ferocity and skill they became feared for. Yet their numbers, as those of the Tainos, declined dramatically through wars, extermination and pandemic diseases.
“The term cannibalism is derived from the word Carib isn’t it?“, I ask Reina as he is indicating on a map how the Tainos and Caribs populated the Caribbean and what happened after the Spanish arrived. The Tainos came first, moving up from the South American mainland and spreading north until they inhabited all the Antilles. They were followed around 1200 AD by the Caribs who drove out the Tainos of the Lesser Antilles. “Not at all, the name Carib has nothing to do with cannibalism”, Reina corrects me and his disapproving look shows how much he resents the suggestion.
He is true to form, since the Carib community also criticised the film ‘Pirate of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’ for depicting the Caribs as cannibals, yet the Spanish from Columbus onwards observed cannibalistic practices, all be it not for food but as a ritual to obtain the powers of slain enemies.
I am the only visitor and after his explanation we walk the grounds together. “So the married men would not live together with their wives then”, I repeat what he just explained to me. They would all sleep together in the ‘Karbet’, the longhouse, and I suspect it may have had to do with the warring traditions of the Carib who fought many battles with the Tainos and captured so many Taino women that the Taino language was also widely spoken among the Caribs themselves, another aspect of the culture Reina is apparently not keen to acknowledge.
The Tainos are thought to have lost 80 to 90% of their population in just 30 years after the Spanish arrived. It is this particular phenomenon seen all over the Americas that always intrigues me and I have never seen the question asked, let alone answered: Why was it that the Amerindians suffered so much from small pox, influenza, measles, typhus and other disease they caught from the Europeans? Why did the Europeans not die en masse from diseases the Amerindians were carrying? It is not for some kind of general immunity, since pandemics had ravaged the European continent regularly before and after Columbus. The ‘Black Death’ pestilence pandemic alone killed some 20 to 30 million Europeans in just 6 years (between a third and a half of the European population) after its introduction from Asia in 1348.
“Yes, I will also have one“, Reina answers the query of the rather ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ looking baker in his bakery hut a little bit further along the village path, after I have bought a freshly baked cassava bread. “We are walking together, so it will be easier if I also have one myself“, he explains, probably because he is getting his for free. And as we walk on, I tear pieces of the still warm and rather compact bread and I must admit it tastes delicious.
“Wouldn’t it be worth it to set up a hotel or something?”, I suggest to Reina after we finished the tour and are back in the main building, “It might help to attract some more visitors to your village”. I myself had stayed in Calibishie the night before and like the hotels in Roseau I had found it relatively expensive for the quality on offer. “We have a home stay programme”, he explains to me, “so people that are interested can become more aware of our culture“. Not the same in my book, but I understand it is not easy since the number of tourists coming to the island is limited and arriving by cruise ship anyway. I thank him for his engaging explanations and am on my way to that other Carib sight along the coast: ‘L'Escalier Tête Chien’ (‘The Dog’s Head Stairs’; though what the dog’s head has to do with the mythical snake I find depicted alongside it, is still a mystery to me).
‘They are selling their birthright as a nation’, I think when I am back in Roseau reading the Chronicle (‘Newspaper of the Nation’) while I hide in the courtyard of the Fort Young Hotel to escape the deafening carnival music outside. ‘Some high-ranking officials of the Dominican government are selling diplomatic passports for $2 million dollar US a piece to whomever finds that a fair price for a new identity‘. When I read about it the first time in the Chronicle of January 13th, I took it with a pinch of salt, the paper seems to be supportive of the opposition United Workers Party and may be tempted to overstate the matter somewhat. But this time the Chronicle gives names and details and that makes the story a lot more credible.
There are those little tell-tale signs that for me indicate you may be dealing with a ‘funny’ country, like an entry tax, a departure tax or having to pay for a temporary driver’s licence. ’Normal’ countries usually do not resort to those tactics to siphon money from tourists, though admittedly in more developed countries , airport user fees maybe included in the airfare. Honduras charges a €2.10 entry tax, Samoa charges €4.80 for a temporary licence and Curaçao levies a €6 departure tax. Dominica however is the first case I come across that charges me for all three: €7.50 upon my entry, €9.23 for a temporary driver’s licence and €18.15 for my departure.
Also sales-tax-wise the Dominican case is remarkable with a 15% tax over the amount of the sale and the another 10% over that total again, bringing it up to a combined 26.5%, where many prices are already quite high to start with. In a country with an average monthly income of €327, I pay largely over €100/night. While in the Garraway Hotel my lunch, consisting of a main course, desert and a glass of wine, is over €40 (and frankly quality and presentation would not even merit half of that). ‘They are trying to tax their way out of financial difficulty’, my guidebook tells me, but the Chronicle article suggests the government has found another way to cash in: selling diplomatic passports.
The www.thedominican.net website provides some salacious details: Francesco Corallo, boss of Atlantis/BetPlus outfit and suspected member of the Italian mafia, was appointed as the Dominican ambassador to the FAO and the Italian police desisted arresting him after he claimed diplomatic immunity, even though the FAO denied having any knowledge of the man. In 2009 the Swiss authorities denounced the diplomatic immunity of Dominica’s ambassador to Switzerland, Roman Laschin, after he was charged with criminal acts and the US brushed aside the diplomatic pleas of Rudolph King after he was arrested on fraud charges. While in 2007 the US embassy denied a visa to Barbadian national Leroy Paris after questioning why a non-Dominican national was named as a goodwill ambassador. (Which reminds me that discredited Dutch businessman Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, involved in several fraud and corruption cases in the Netherlands, also is said to have a Dominican passport, but that may also be of the Dominican Republic.)
“What do you think of the corruption and the rumours about the selling of diplomatic passports?”, I ask the British owner of the Calibishie Lodge where I have stayed for the night. He is not that concerned. “He is a young guy and his political opponents are jealous of his success”, he is referring to Roosevelt Skerrit, Dominica’s prime minister since 2004 (then 31 years old). “Just recently he managed to obtain a $60 million loan from the Canadians, I don‘t know how he does it, but he does“, he adds, to prove his point. His wife is from Trinidad, he tells me, and she assures him it is the same all over the Caribbean. So if Skerrit takes a bit of that money he is not too worried about it. It is not the sentiment however I found talking to other people who do worry the EU and countries like the USA and Canada will eventually impose a visa requirement on all Dominicans.
‘Skerrit is the ‘Most visionary leader in the Caribbean today’’, this time it is ‘The Sun’ newspaper reporting the words of the St Vincent and the Grenadines’ Minister of Culture, before going on to mock the minister: ’No he wasn’t joking and he was sober. Apparently’.
It would seem that the minister was talking of a ‘Hugo Chavez-type of vision’ with the Skerrit government moving further towards ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas: the left-leaning grouping of South American states promoted heavily by Hugo Chavez to counter US influence) of which St Vincent and the Grenadines is an active member (it also includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and the smaller Antillean islands of Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica).
“My son is going to the London Olympics for the Dutch team…”, I look at the black guy next to me waiting in line for the ferry that will take us from Dominica to Martinique. “Your son is going to compete for the Netherlands? But you are Dominican, aren’t you?” He is. We started to talk a little bit standing in the queue while it took an age for three French girls ahead of us to finish the boarding formalities and he tells me he is on his way to Martinique for medical treatment and when I tell him where I come from he springs the surprise on me.
“How come…”. It turns out his wife came from Curaçao and unfortunately died early, leaving it up to him to raise their five children. ‘My son Fabian met a Dutch girl and since he is a very good triple jumper and because of his mother could apply for a Dutch passport to become eligible for the Dutch team. He himself is a civil engineer and lived in England for twenty years struggling to raise the five children on his own. He did alright though, they all finished university and landed good jobs. So did he himself, he now has his own civil engineering firm in Dominica and from what I have seen there is plenty of work for decades to come.
“Fabian Florant”, I repeat. “OK, I will keep an eye out for your son”, I promise, as the French girls are ready at last and we can move on to board for the one and a half hour trip across the Martinique Channel and seas rough enough for quite a few drained faces to get that little plastic bag out of the side pocket of their seat….