Main languages: English, Creole
Main religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist)
The overwhelming majority of the population of Dominica is of African descent; however it is one of the few islands in the Eastern Caribbean that still has a population of indigenous people.
About 4,000 indigenous Kalinago (Caribs) (www.avirtualdominica.com) represent the only sizeable minority on the island. They live on the east coast in their own 3,782-acre territory and are the largest remaining Kalinago community in the Caribbean region.
Most people who identify themselves as Kalinago are engaged in farming, fishing, and handicrafts. Unemployment is thought to be higher than in rest of the country, while income is under the already low national average. About 65 per cent of the Kalinago population is between the ages of 18 and 35 and there are no longer any surviving speakers of the indigenous languages.
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Dominica is the most northerly of the four English-speaking Windward Islands. It is located between Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean Sea and has an area of 751 sq km.
Early colonial era
The original inhabitants of the island now called Dominica were the indigenous Kalinago-Taino (Carib-Arawaks). They sailed their fleets of large canoes back and forth between the Guiana coast of South America and the island of Hispanola (today Haiti/Dominican Republic) from around 3000 BCE to 1500 CE, settling throughout the Caribbean in successive waves.
The indigenous name of the island was Wai’tu kubuli, which translates as ‘Her Body Is Tall.’ Columbus named it Dominica as a result of first sighting it on a Sunday (Spanish: Domingo)
Fierce Kalinago (Carib) resistance kept European colonizers at bay for nearly 200 years, while indigenous communities were being destroyed elsewhere in the region.
The island’s terrain was ideal for resisting foreign invaders. As a result, by the mid-17th century Dominica had become a refuge for other Kalinago groups escaping the regional colonizing efforts of the Dutch, French, and English.
France eventually claimed the island in 1635 and established starter colonies but was unable to overcome Kalinago resistance. After abandoning it in the 1660s France formally ceded the island to Britain in 1763. (See also St Vincent)
The British established plantations and for over two centuries shiploads of Africans were brought in to provide forced labour. As the island was settled, the Kalinago were driven north to the least accessible land in the mountains and along the rocky shoreline.
In 1805 Dominica was formally made a British colony and like the rest of the British Empire, slavery on the island was abolished in 1833. By 1838 Dominica had become the first colony in the British West Indies to have a legislature controlled by people of African origin. In 1896 Dominica was made a crown colony under direct control of the United Kingdom government.
Following nearly 130 years of marginalization in the mountains, the diminishing Kalinago population was able to petition the British colonial administration which in 1903 set aside a 3,700-acre reserve, now known as the Carib Territory.
Carib-Kalinago continuing dissatisfaction with their situation eventually flared up in September 1930 in a conflict with colonial police. This led to two shooting deaths. It was only in 1970 that a road suitable for motor vehicles was finally cut through the territory, and telephones and electricity did not follow until the 1980s.
Pre- and post-independence period
Under colonial administration Dominica was attached to the Windward Islands group in 1940 and between 1958 and 1962 was a member of the short-lived West Indies Federation. Five years later the island became an internally self-governing state and in 1978 became a fully independent nation.
Like other Caribbean nations Dominica was also affected by the political and economic turmoil of the 1970s, especially the movement toward political independence, which was prominent in several African and Caribbean countries at the time.
For a section of the African-descended population these currents signalled the arrival of a long overdue change. Their response was to reject the prevailing establishment value system in exchange for what they saw as a worldview more in keeping with their desire for greater expression of their ancestral African heritage and speedier movement towards black redemption after five centuries of exile and slavery.
As in other places in the Caribbean some in Dominica sought an answer in the adoption of the practices and lifestyle connected with the Rastafarian philosophy. This especially included dress, hairstyle, diet and the use of natural herbs (particularly marijuana) for medicinal purposes and religious enlightenment.
However this trend especially alarmed the traditionally circumspect political establishment. They saw the growth of this movement in their midst at best as deviant behaviour, and at worst as a direct challenge to their political power and more Eurocentric worldview.
As a consequence beginning in the late 1970s Dominica’s small Rastafarian community increasingly became the object of profiling and harassment by the authorities, which linked them to marijuana production and alleged subversion.
The spirit of rejection of colonial values was not confined to the small group of Rastafarians. In 1991 Chief Irvince Auguiste of the Carib Territory announced that Dominica’s Kalinago did not wish to participate in proposed celebrations for the quincentenary of Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean, stressing the legacy of suffering experienced by the region’s indigenous peoples.
Dominica is a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth. Unlike most other former British Caribbean colonies, Dominica does not recognize the British monarch as head of state, having become a republic on independence. The country’s head of state is the president. Executive power rests with the cabinet, headed by the prime minister. The Carib Territory is governed by the 1978 Carib Act. Residents over the age of 18 are eligible to elect a Chief and a six-member Council of Advisers for a five-year term, as well as voting in national elections. The parliamentary representative for indigenous people is a Carib-Kalinago who serves concurrently as the Parliamentary Secretary responsible for indigenous affairs.
The movement towards greater political independence re-gained momentum in 2004 when Dominica’s sitting Prime Minister Pierre Charles died and education minister Roosevelt Skerrit assumed leadership. Skerrit became the country’s youngest Prime Minister (31 years old) and at the end of 2008 remained the second youngest state leader in the world.
In January 2008 Dominica became the first English-speaking Caribbean state to join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA in Spanish). ALBA’s founding documents explain the organization as being anchored in “cooperation, solidarity and complementarity as an alternative to the neo liberal model.”
Dominica’s initial contact with ALBA dates back to June 2005 when the island signed the Petrocaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement along with 13 other regional countries. This was aimed at promoting ” energy security, social and economic development, and integration of the Caribbean through the sovereign use of energy based on ALBA principles.”
Along with other heavily indebted Caribbean basin countries (e.g. Honduras, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Nicaragua) Dominica can trade agricultural goods for concessionary oil prices from Venezuela which is the biggest petroleum producer / exporter in the Americas region.Dominica is not a major tourist destination and is largely dependent on banana cultivation for its export earnings. Unemployment (23 per cent) and poverty (30 per cent) are high, and the per capita annual income is less than US$5,500.
Membership in ALBA has allowed Dominica to obtain dozens of medical personnel from fellow ALBA member country Cuba, to train nurses in Dominica. Cuba has also agreed to establish an intensive care unit at Dominica’s major hospital.
In addition, ALBA founding member Venezuelan has donated several millions of dollars to help build housing on the island and upgrade the agricultural sector. Furthermore the Venezuelan government has offered to double the number of university scholarships available to Dominican students from 50 to 100.
Venezuela was also the first country to offer assistance to Dominica after Hurricane Dean, hit in August of 2007, causing widespread destruction to infrastructure and what was left of the shrinking banana industry. According to Dominican officials, hurricane damage was estimated at 20 percent of the country’s GDP ($162 million) and economic growth slowed to one percent.
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