Dominica was the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized by Europeans due chiefly to the fierce resistance of the native Caribs. The Caribs, who settled here in the 14th century, called the island Waitikubuli, which means ‘Tall is her Body.’ Christopher Columbus, with less poetic flair, named the island after the day of the week on which he spotted it – a Sunday (‘Doménica’ in Italian) – on November 3, 1493.
Daunted by fierce resistance from the Caribs and discouraged by the absence of gold, the Spanish took little interest in Dominica. France laid claim to the island in 1635 and wrestled with the British over it through the 18th century.
In 1805 the French burned much of Roseau to the ground and since then the island remained firmly in the possession of the British, who established sugar plantations on Dominica’s more accessible slopes.
In 1967 Dominica gained autonomy in internal affairs as a West Indies Associated State, and on November 3, 1978 (the 485th anniversary of Columbus’ ‘discovery’), Dominica became an independent republic within the Commonwealth.
The initial year of independence was a turbulent one. In June 1979 the island’s first prime minister, Patrick John, was forced to resign after a series of corrupt schemes surfaced, including one clandestine land deal to transfer 15% of the island to US developers. In August 1979 Hurricane David, packing winds of 150mph, struck the island with devastating force. Forty-two people were killed and 75% of the islanders’ homes were destroyed or severely damaged. To get a feeling of the hurricane’s force, see the school bus at the Botanical Gardens in Roseau.
In July 1980 Dame Eugenia Charles was elected prime minister, the first woman in the Caribbean to hold the office. Within a year of her inauguration she survived two unsuccessful coups and in October 1983, as chairperson of the Organization of East Caribbean States, endorsed the US invasion of Grenada.
Dominica’s more recent political history has also been turbulent. After the sudden death of popular prime minister Roosevelt Douglas (‘Rosie’) in 2000, after only eight months in office, his successor – the radical Pierre Charles – also died on the job, four years later. In 2004 the then 31-year-old Roosevelt Skerrit stepped into the breach. A popular choice with young people, Skerrit comes from a Rastafarian farming family in the north of the island and is still leading the country today.
The Dominican and Chinese governments formalized relations in 2004 and the sparkling new Windsor Park sports (mostly cricket) stadium in Roseau is a gift from the Chinese that cost an estimated US$17 million. Skerrit broke off long-standing relations with Taiwan that same year, and said on the record that China will give Dominica US$122 million in aid.
In August 2007 Hurricane Dean beat up Dominica and the nearby islands – damage wasn’t too heavy compared to Hurricane David, but there were at least two deaths.
In January 2008 Dominica joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA – a regional trade group that includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, designed to counterbalance American trade power. Plans for a Venezuelan oil refinery on Dominica are up on the air at the time of writing; after the refinery was announced, the tourism industry protested the plan, saying that it would ruin the island’s image.