Dominica like many other Caribbean islands has been inhabited since around 3100 BC. The first settlers were the Ortoroid people who set out from the South American mainland and gradually spread northwards through the Caribbean island chain. Evidence suggests they became extinct around 400BC. Later came the Arawaks (Igneri) who settled in about 400AD. Their way of life was agricultural and peaceful with a well-defined culture. By 1400 this was about to change as the Caribs (Kalinago) from South America moved their way up the Caribbean. The Caribs were strong warriors and successful in eliminating the Igneri from Dominica, as well as other Caribbean islands. The island was known as Wai'tukubuli at that time.
On Sunday 3rd November, 1493 Columbus became the first European to sight Dominica officially, and named it ‘Dominga’ The Spanish were the first to try to colonise islands in the Lesser Antilles but were met with strong resistance. Attempts to colonise Dominica with their Christian missionaries were futile. The Spanish did not have the skills or knowledge of the mountainous terrain to win over their enemy.
The English and the French, started to arrive in Dominica at the start of the 1600's, in their race to colonise the area, and in 1627 the island was claimed by France. They established small settlements and started small-scale and extracting timber. Soon more land was cleared, and labour needs were met by bringing African slaves to the island.
In 1664 Sir Thomas Modyford, a sugar plantation and slave owner in Barbados, was appointed first governor of Jamaica, for the British. Modyford began expanding plantation agriculture, with cacao and sugarcane. By the early 1700s sugar estates worked by black slaves were established throughout the island, and plantation profits dominated the economy. The slave trade grew, and both males and females of all ages, were labourers on the plantations, domestic servants, as well as skilled tradesmen, technicians, and traders.
Between 1748 and 1761, Dominica was declared neutral territory by both France and Britain. In 1761 the British attacked and gained control. Between 1756 and 1763, was the Seven Years War between Britain and France. After several battles, the British finally occupied Dominica in 1761, In 1763 with The Peace of Paris, Dominica was officially ceded to Britain.
During this time the Carib population dwindled with European diseases and superior firepower, from 5,000 in the year 1647 to just 400 in 1730. Some fled to South America however the majority were wiped out. During the 1760s Amerindian survivors withdrew toward the northeast side of the island where 233 acres around Salybia came to be called the 'Carib Quarter'. Around three thousand Caribs still inhabit Dominica today, most of them living in Carib Territory up in the North East of the island.
Between 1763 and 1778 the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought around 40,000 Africans to Dominica, many for sale to planters in neighbouring French-colonized Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St.-Lucia.
The British introduced a system of colonial government, however the freed slaves, black estate owners, and the large slave population remained completely excluded from involvement in political and economic discussions and decision making. Profitable trade developed between the colonies and Dominica in wood, rum, horses and cattle.
The 1775 war was declared by the North American colonies against Britain, encouraging the French to attack the British fortifications in 1778, they were victorious. This caused English inhabitants to leave the island, putting a strain on the agricultural economy. Dominica was then hit by a hurricane in 1779 and again in 1780. In 1781 Roseau was destroyed by fire.
In 1782 the English naval battle, The Battle of the Saintes, saw the English defeat the French, and in 1784, with the Treaty of Versailles, control of Dominica returned to the British.
Maroons and escaped slaves, had grown in number and confidence. They were well armed and fought the English between 1785 and 1786. They were eventually cornered and defeated and their leaders imprisoned and/or executed. Fighting between the Maroons and British lasted until 1815. The French attempted an invasion in 1797, but were defeated.
The Abolition of Slavery Act, passed in the British Parliament in 1833 and became law in Dominica on August 1, 1834. The Census riot in 1844 followed, taking place mainly in Grand bay, where angry freed slaves and caribs revolted.
In 1832 three black members were elected to the Dominican House of Assembly, and by 1838 there was a black majority, making it unique throughout the British ruled islands. Political tensions grew rapidly as legislators began to press for laws promoting the welfare of the newly liberated citizens of the island. Dominica experienced increasing domestic political unrest.
The British formally granted around 3,700 acres of common land to the Caribs in 1903 and officially recognized the office of chief . Relations were strained and in September 1930, there was an uprising. It wass started by police as they entered the Carib territory searching for ‘smuggled’ goods. The already disgruntled Cribs resisted, and eventually the police retreated, but not before leaving two Caribs shot dead and the Chief Jolly John imprisoned.
In 1945 the first Trade Union was formed in Dominica, the Dominica Trade Union, and in 1951 Universal Adult Suffrage introduced. Throughout he late 1960's, 1970's and early 1980's there was political instability. The Independence Constitution, was recognised officially on 3rd November 1978. The following year in 1979 Hurricane David devastates the island.
Making history in 1980 Eugenia Charles, becomes the first female prime minister in the Caribbean, replacing Oliver James Seraphine. Patrick John, prime minister from 1974 - 1979, after coup attempts in 1981 was tried and acquitted, until 1985 was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Increasing political stability from the mid 1980's allowed Dominica to focus on tourism.
Find out more about people in Dominican History.
Thomas John, Chief of the Caribs
Find out more about the history of the Caribbean Islands