Thanks to its abundance of water, Dominica has long been popular with settlers. After its discovery by Columbus in 1493, it was for centuries engaged in a tug of war between British and French colonizers and the indigenous Kalinago. Dominica achieved independence from Britain in 1978 and is a member of the Commonwealth.
Dominica was the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized by Europeans due chiefly to the fierce resistance of the Kalinago, the indigenous people whose ancestors are believed to have migrated here from South America around 1200 AD. They called the island Waitukubuli, 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 (‘Domenica’ in Italian) – on November 3, 1493.
Daunted by the Kalinago 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 from then on 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 became an independent republic within the Commonwealth on November 3, 1978 (the 485th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery).
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.
In July 1980 Dame Mary Eugenia Charles was elected prime minister, the first woman in the Caribbean to hold the office. She survived two unsuccessful coups right after her inauguration and subsequently managed to stay in office for 15 years.
Dominica in the 21st Century
Dominica’s more recent political history has also been somewhat of a roller-coaster ride. After the sudden death of popular prime minister Roosevelt Douglas (‘Rosie’) in 2000, after only eight months in office, his successor Pierre Charles also died on the job, four years later. In 2004 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; he was re-elected in 2009 and 2014.
Skerrit moved quickly to sever long-standing diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of ties with mainland China in exchange for US$100 million in aid. The filming of the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies in 2005 was another boost to the island’s economy.
In January 2008 Dominica joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) – a trade group that includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, designed to counterbalance American trade power. Following a special ALBA meeting in February 2009, Skerrit announced that he had secured at least part of a US$49 million fund to boost food security in the Caribbean.
In 2013 the first long-distance hiking trail in the Caribbean, the 115-mile-long Waitukubuli Trail, was officially inaugurated.
Dominica has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes and tropical storms, most recently in August 2015 by Tropical Storm Erika. Heavy rains and winds caused floods and mudslides, and destroyed buildings, roads, bridges and the entire village of Petite Savanne on the southeast coast. At least 20 people were killed, and at the time of research the island is still recovering from the devastation.
Feature: Dominica & China
Shortly after taking office in 2004, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and re-established ties with the People's Republic of China in exchange for major financial support for the so-called 'Four Pillar Project.' This involved major funds toward the construction of a grammar school and the snazzy Windsor Sports Stadium in Roseau, the rehabilitation of the west-cost road linking Portsmouth and Roseau, and the construction of a new state-of-the-art hospital in Roseau.