Tuesday, June 15, 1982

Conquerors of the Caribbean

I wrote this in June 1982; it was published in Geo magazine in September 1983, my first article for them. At the time, living alone in Manhattan, my total expenses were about a thousand bucks a month. Thus a piece for Geo, after my literary agent took 10%, bought me just over two months to work on a novel. (I was able to work for them only because their kindly editor, David Maxey, took a chance on me. I wrote well but I'd published nothing.) On my first trip for them, I had two assignments: the first meant a week on salt lakes in the wild wastes of the southern Bahamas with 50,000 flamingos. Then came the Caribs, which was also my first assignment with the extraordinary Irish photographer Alen MacWeeney. The Caribs were my real beginning as a traveler and a writer. All those adjectives! Perhaps I learned something over the years. 

On a wild island of legendary beauty, along a steep coast of palms facing the loud Atlantic, the last indigenous race of the West Indies has made its final home.  Once conquerors and roving seamen, now farmers, the Caribs will vanish within a century, doomed by intermarriage.  Yet here on Dominica the last dim echoes of their past may be heard, a past of war-canoes sailing up the islands, of a population that once numbered in the millions, of annihilation by the Europeans—and eventual shelter on these eight miles of rough coast.  

Dominica rises suddenly from the Caribbean Sea between Guadeloupe and Martinique, dense with rain forests and converging mountain valleys.  Mists drift among the peaks, that at three thousand feet and higher are the summits of submerged volcanoes, long extinct.  The few roads are rugged and empty save for an occasional rattling truck or a solitary figure trudging through the fervent landscape, a machete dangling from one hand.  Columbus christened the island on his second voyage, in 1493, and sailed on without ever setting foot, deterred by the apparent absence of natural harbors.  Nowadays the few villages that pepper the coast and even Rouseau, the small, innocent capital, contribute paradoxically to the impression that nothing much has changed here in five hundred years.

The sense of isolation and secret grandeur is overwhelming.  The hurricane of 1979, the frequent landslides due to heavy rains, the ever-encroaching foliage, all have wreaked havoc on the poor roads that attempt those green mountains.  The Carib Reserve—thirty-seven hundred acres that are not even legally theirs, since Dominica achieved independence from Great Britain in 1978–lies on the north-eastern coast of the island, as far as possible from Roseau.  To get there from where we were staying, miles away, we hitched a ride in the back of a truck that would be passing along the road that winds like twine among the Carib hills.  A breeze rushed upon us, as if from a great height, as the truck jolted along through the gathering evening.  A blue twilight spilled across the profuse palms to the sea on our right.  We had been told the Caribs bore little resemblance to Dominican blacks, who make up most of the island’s population.  On our left were hillsides thick with the giant lackadaisical leaves of banana trees. There was no one about, and the twilight was failing.

Then, abruptly, the road curved once again and small houses began to appear on the hillsides. They were small and immaculate, of neat grey breadfruit planks.  Smoke rose from outhouses near them; the vague scents of cooking reached us with the breeze, and we realized we were among the Caribs at last.  There are seven Carib villages that are really one continuous village of houses here and there and in clusters, peeping from the hillsides or set on the road.  But as our truck hurried on we saw no one. 

And then behind us a man stood diminishing in the road, barely visible in the twilight, waving and smiling curiously at us.  We waved back.  He looked oddly dignified, wearing only long trousers, barefoot and barechested; his skin was copper, and his features almost Asian, though milder and unstrained, and the blackest hair imaginable.  Then he was gone behind a curve in the road.  The road descended, and the truck stopped to let us clamber out: we were in Salybia, the main Carib village.

Night was falling, and in the moonlight we saw a stream coursing down over rocks that seemed to tumble up the hillside thick with palms.  An old Carib man, who we learned was a coffin-maker, adjusted his scarlet-ribboned straw hat when he saw us coming.  We were looking for the Carib chief, we said.  He serenely pointed us up a clay path that ran alongside the stream.  On our way up the path a Carib woman holding an infant in her arms stepped back to let us pass and smiled shyly, as if two strangers were expected.

At the head of the path, shrouded in darkness, was the small house of the Carib chief, Hillary Frederick.  He is twenty-five, and was educated for two years at a community college in New York State, where he studied anthropology.  Not long ago he was elected for a five-year term by the eight hundred voting adult Caribs, out of seven candidates.  

In the tradition of Carib chiefs since Jolly John, who led the “Carib War” as it is remembered now—a violent incident with several British policemen over smuggling in 1930—the present chief is more spokesman than leader. He lit a candle and invited us into his house, one wall of which was decorated with pictures cut from magazines, Christmas cards, and a few snapshots.  He was glad to see us, he said, if we would be willing to tell the truth about the Caribs.  The Caribs had never been cannibals, he insisted; whoever had made up that story, centuries ago, was a cannibal himself.  No, the Caribs had never kept slaves.  His mission, he argued, was to bring back the old Carib ways, especially the language, all but entirely lost at the turn of the century, replaced by the French patois and English.  How many pure Caribs remained? we asked.  He shrugged.  Perhaps twenty or thirty, no more.  He did not look at us as he spoke, except when he smiled, and we were never able to determine how much of his false history was deliberate misinformation and how much wishful thinking.

As we left Salybia that night, stumbling down the clay path in the darkness, the Carib Reserve seemed deserted, and it was difficult to believe that the belt of seven villages was comprised of some twenty-five hundred inhabitants, including children.  But Caribs tend to go to sleep soon after nightfall and to rise with the sun, and the next day in the clear morning light Salybia hummed with activity.  In the stream some Carib girls were bathing nude and washing clothes; they were not particularly shy and eventually emerged, in simple dresses, and wandered down the road with huge plastic containers filled with water balanced on their heads, confidently chatting and turning as they walked.  Lean brown dogs roamed about but never barked.  Chickens scurried around the houses, unmolested by cats, and a few black piglets nosed around. 

Today was the week’s banana-boxing day, and a huge open warehouse was fillled with Caribs.  Like most of Dominica they subsist mainly through agriculture, and though there is no private property on the Carib Reserve—perhaps the strongest remaining Carib tradition—a person may live on any land he or she works.  All around the warehouse were long walls of piled bunches of bananas, and inside the open walls bananas were being weighed and passed to a huge tank of water to be washed and then to tables to be boxed for trunks that would carry them to Roseau, thirty-three pounds of bananas per box. Caribs of all ages worked at weighing and washing and boxing, and it was the week’s main communal event besides Sunday mass.  Two thousand boxes were sent to Roseau every week on boxing day.

Beneath several palms a handful of men waited to have their bananas weighed, to receive slips for eventual payment.  A boy with a machete lopped off the ends of fallen coconuts—the Caribs’ other main form of income—and handed the coconuts to people to drink from.  One Carib man lay stretched out on a branch a few feet above us like a sleeping lion; everything we said to him made him laugh.  These men’s features were distinctly Carib, though some of their skins were quite dark, and it would seem certain that long after there are no more “pure” Caribs the features will persist through many generations. Some of these men’s dark skins no doubt went back as far as the seventeenth century, when the Caribs kept black slaves captured from Europeans. We were to find that the chief’s estimate of the number of pure Caribs was inexplicably low—there are certainly over a hundred left, and they are by no means all old.

One middle-aged Carib woman in a blue smock came over to talk to us, followed by her teenaged son, who remained strangely silent, his gaze fixed on the middle distance.  He had fits, she explained, and could not take care of himself, so he followed her around all day and kept her company.  He was her fifteenth child, she said.  After a time she introduced herself: we could call her Mistress Thomas.  We asked what she thought of the chief’s idea of bringing back the old Carib language, was it possible?

She shrugged.  Her voice was rather plaintive.  “I don’t think so, a few of the older Caribs remember a few of the words.  We had a language book but we lost it.  If you want to meet many of the pure Caribs you will find them in Bataka and Sineku, two of the older villages.”  Then she put the problem of intermarriage very simply.  “You see, many of the girls have to leave the Carib Reserve to get work.  And what do they bring back for husbands?  It’s not a white, it’s a black.  And if you have a mango and you graft it with some other plant it doesn’t give you a pure grafted mango.”

The Caribs settled Dominica perhaps as much as a thousand years ago.  They were quite a tall race, and they came from the banks of the Orinoco River in South America and conquered the docile, smaller and lighter-skinned Arawaks who had populated the West Indies in vast numbers for several centuries.  The Caribs had great ocean-going skill, in canoes of up to sixty feet in length equipped with sails, and they were tremendous warriors, as the European accounts are hasty to point out.  The defeated Arawak men were eaten—not as torture but as a means of defeating an enemy’s spirit so it could no longer do one harm, but would give strength from within—and the Arawak women and children were taken into the tribe.  Thus what we speak of as “pure” Caribs are really the result of intermarriage between the Caribs and the Arawaks. The Caribs ate and married their way up the Antilles, but Arawaks flourished in the Bahamas until the European conquest.  Today the only Arawaks in the West Indies are on the Jamaica coat-of-arms.  

Eventually this intermarriage resulted in two languages, one spoken by the women (Arawak), one by the men (Carib).  They merged as the race dwindled, and by the time the language was abandoned by the remaining Caribs of Dominica around the turn of the century the language was proportionally more female than male, indicative not only of the power of the women’s tongues within the Carib society but also of the influence the Arawak culture had on the Carib.

Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with Spain’s power in the New World waning, it was the British and French whom the Caribs resisted and waged sporadic war against, devouring any hopeful monks who visited their islands and carrying off Negro slaves and European women in raids.  It was a struggle the Caribs could not possibly win, and both Britain and France ordered the destruction of the Caribs.  By 1700 the Caribs in most of the other islands had been virtually wiped out, and only four hundred survived on Dominica.  The difficult terrain that has kept the hotel magnates away from this paradise in the present century kept the European settlements to a minimum until the end of the eighteenth century.  Early on the Caribs of Dominica had fled from the island’s western, leeward, Caribbean coast, where the sea is calm and beckons to fishermen, to the rugged, windward, Atlantic Coast, where the sea rages constantly.  A few place names near Roseau—like Massacre, the site of a great Carib defeat—betray the initial attempts to hold on to the western coast.  Throughout this time the Caribs resisted European attempts to enslave them; a captured Carib simply ate dirt until he died.  The Caribs’ own slaves were invariably well-treated, as intermarriage would suggest.

The early attempts at conversion to Christianity also failed. The Caribs devoured the first Spanish priests, who quickly came to the conclusion that the Caribs were not worth the trouble, a conclusion already reached by the Spanish navy. Thus it is to the journals of the French monks of the mid-seventeenth that we owe our knowledge of the early Caribs. Though more amenable toward Europeans through light trade, they were still poor subjects for conversion. Cannibalism was still practiced: the French, followed by the English, were considered the most delicious Europeans, while the Dutch were dull and the Spaniards so tough as to be practically inedible.

These Caribs were tremendously skilled weavers of reeds, (a skill which persists to this day though there is no tourist market), and they slept in hammocks.  Their main weapon was the bow and arrow, used also for sport, and Père Labat in 1700 reported with incredulity seeing small Carib children bring down birds from far away without missing and with absolute ease.  The arrowheads were made from fish bone and smeared with poison sap from the manchineel tree.  Parrots were captured as pets either with blunted arrows, or by setting fire to peppers placed under trees, so that the fumes stunned the parrots.  The Caribs ate mainly fish, agouti (the local possum), manioc, and a kind of beer made from manioc.  The Carib name for Dominica was Waitukubuli, meaning “tall her body.”

Justice among the Caribs was simple.  The wronged party might or might not choose to take revenge upon the offender, and assuming that person did not survive his family might or might not choose to take up the feud.  The Carib practice of adopting a pseudonym for a journey, a pseudonym in which all concerned apparently believed so that any actions performed by that person were treated as if they had been done by another person entirely, derived from the Indian’s dislike of the indiscriminate use of his name by strangers.  We still found a reluctance in the Caribs to divulge their name until deep in the conversation.  The root of this is the belief that one’s name is so integral to one’s person that if evil spirits know it they can do one harm. The traditional Carib love of journey has been diminished over the years by the violence of the Atlantic, though Caribs still think nothing of walking over the mountains to Roseau in order to sell their woven baskets, and until recently this was how bananas and fish were transported for sale.  Several fishermen told me they had sailed to Guadeloupe for the fun of it, in small canoes (the word comes from the Carib canoua), as their forefathers had done.  One morning we met at down on the shore below Salybia with a fisherman named Joseph.  The day before we had waited with the other fisherman in the afternoon as Joseph’s canoe with its square red sail heaved through the high waves to where the other canoes were drawn up on the rocky shore.  Everyone had returned empty-handed that day.  Dolphin and flying-fish are most frequently caught, but there are also shark, kingfish, and swordfish in the Atlantic waters, and the Caribs catch them with a harpoon as long as a man’s forearm, which they can throw accurately at a distance of thirty-five feet.  A stick attached by line to the harpoon floats on the surface to indicate position if the fish dives or the throw misses.  

Joseph rowed us out through the wild surf and then raised the sail.  Walls of gray water rose around us, and the canoe seemed ready to go over at any moment.  “Of course I would prefer to fish the Caribbean, it is always calm,” said Joseph.  “But what can we do?  We are here.  It is disappointing to go out in this rough sea and get nothing.  There are not so many fish as there used to be.  Years ago we caught sharks so big several boats would have to help bring them in.”  That day the sea proved too rough even to try, and we turned back. 

Up from shore we passed the Carib Catholic church, a stone building with a gray roof, green doors flung open like big shutters, and an upside-down canoe as altar.  Lizards were everywhere, and the high palms blotted Salybia, above us, from view.  A man with a close beard was coming down the rough road of stones, flanked by several laughing girls.  Their names—Miranda, Felicia, Theresa, Andrea—suited their caroling voices.  The man was slightly drunk.  He was the gravedigger, he said, had been for several years.  His name was William.

“What’s it like to be a gravedigger?” we asked.

“Yes, I like it,” he answered solemnly, then laughed.  The girls giggled at him.

“What do you like about it?”

“Well, anybody that dies, I bury them!”  He made it sound like fun.  What was fun about it?  “When they’re dead, I don’t want them to smell!  I buried one hundred ten, all dead, for payment.  It’s hard to dig six and a half feet in this hard ground, you know.”  He nodded to us and headed down to the tiny cemetery of Sainte Marie, near the church and the shore, and the girls led us up the hill.

As we passed the long pale-blue wooden school the girls explained that a group of young people calling themselves “Carifouna”—the Carib name for Carib— was trying to bring back the old Carib dances and songs, for the most part forgotten.  Did one learn much Carib history in school? we asked.  Nothing at all.  Because the teachers were from outside?  No, the teachers were Caribs themselves, it was because there was no syllabus, no Carib textbook, ignorance of their own history.  One man, a former chief named Faustulus Frederick and cousin of the present chief, carved masks from coconut and calabash, but his knowledge of the old designs was mostly guesswork.  It was the fault of the generation that lost the language, the girls said, the parents of the oldest living Caribs.  They were told by the priests to give up their Carib ways, that the Carib language and all the old stories were jokes.  Now it was too late.

By now the girls had lost most of their shyness, and they stared directly at us with huge dark eyes.  They were all sixteen or seventeen, none of them married; two had children who lived with them, not with the father.  There is no stigma put on illegitimacy among the Caribs, and we never saw any Carib children without parents or siblings.

Past Salybia, in St. Cyr, thirty men were assembled to help move a house up the road and over the hill.  The men had rigged ropes and logs to help move the house, which ordinarily perched on stilts and flat rocks piled three feet off the ground.  Later the men would be rewarded with rum.

The owner, an old man named Cyrus, took us inside.  The bed and table had been moved out; no, no one made hammocks anymore, though he could make us a watertight basket if we needed one.  On one wall was a frayed picture of Queen Elizabeth in her youth.

 We made our way past Salybia, up several steep clay paths to Bataka, hoping to find someone who remembered even a phrase of the old language.  The young girls had not even known the Carib name for Dominica.  In Bataka the houses were larger, more permanent—Cyrus had feared landslides—and we stopped before a large, extraordinarily well-tended vegetable garden. Beside it a canoe half-full of water was held off the ground by two Y’s of stick.  There were two dams of fist-sized rocks in the canoe, to help it expand. In a few weeks a fire would be lit under it, to boil the water and help the expansion of the wood.

A pure Carib man in his fifties greeted us.  Yes, he was Juan Louis du Pigny.  He laughed when we asked him if he spoke any of the old tongue.  “A little.  My father-in-law spoke some.  But there was no need, with the patois and English, two languages are enough.”  His wife, small son, and two daughters surveyed us from the house.  “It would be good to go back to the old language but difficult.  Anyone from outside can marry a Carib girl and move here.  It was once not that way.  And much of our land is not good for farming.”  He made a helpless gesture with one hand.  In his house flowers stood in glass vases on two tables he had built himself.  “I’m jack of all trades, master of none,” he said with a smile, proud of the expression.

But there were still quite a few pure Caribs left, he said.  “My parents were both pure Carib, and there were ten children.  My wife is pure Carib also, and we have six children.  We are proud to be different, but the ways are gone.  Fish are scarce.  Once if you didn’t have money you could still get enough to eat.  Not now.  Now the Caribs die young, fifty, sixty, seventy.  We are not as healthy a people as we used to be.  My mother-in-law was ninety-four when she die.  My grandmother was one hundred fourteen.  No longer.”

Mr. Du Pigny told of an elderly woman in Bataka who some said was a witch.  He would not say if he thought she was, but he would not give her name either.  She could fly up in the night and change her skin, and could hurt us if she wanted, or heal us if we were sick.  The Caribs still believe the legend of the great snake living up in the high woods—the tête chien—whose passage carved a long staircase of rock to the sea one night.  A few other superstitions persist:  a thatched roof’s reeds are cut during the new moon, because there is a worm that will get into the thatch if there is moonlight.  If there were no worm in the thatch it can last more than a year.

What about the old practice of catching iguanas by whistling, so they fall asleep?  Du Pigny laughed.  “We can still do it,” he said.  “But there are not many iguanas left, either.”

We wandered down from Bataka, back toward the sea.  Near the church and school several men were playing a furious game of cricket—it seemed as good an occupation as any for a dying race on a sunlit morning.  We passed the tiny cemetery, with wooden crosses the color of driftwood, and skirted a ridge above the narrow beach.  The waves were deafening.  A few hundred feet from shore lay two islets of rock, that the Caribs used to believe turned into great canoes at night, to bear the spirits of ancient Caribs out to sea. 

Then we heard a strange, measured sound over the sea’s booming, like someone chopping wood.  We peered over the ridge.  Below us a naked man stood on the sand, wielding an axe with great determination, small against the vast green headlands on either side.  A fallen gommier tree lay at his feet:  he was beginning a canoe.  In the thunderous sunlight of the coast this tireless Carib seemed a shape out of time.

It began to rain torrentially, even though the sun was out, and when we reached the road Salybia looked deserted.  Then we heard giggling, and saw three little Carib girls running up the hill, green banana leaves flopped over their heads.  They squealed with delight and ran past us.  The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. A truck rattled by with a red motto painted on the side:  GOD SAVE US OR WE PERISH. 

We hopped in the back.  Old friends were there already, Mistress Thomas and her fifteenth child, the boy who had fits, the boy who could say nothing.  The truck picked up speed going down the hill, and the boy’s face was transfigured with joy from the rush of air, the billowing palms, the dancing light on the sea.

Then Mistress Thomas rapped on the back window of the truck, which jolted to a stop.  She threw her legs over—she did not need our help—and watched her son slowly clamber out, as if he were doing it for the first time.  His face was still shining with wonder.  The truck started up again, we waved; they waved back and turned away.  The road dipped, and we never saw them again.

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