Caribbean Cool: Dominica’s Vibrant Creole Heritage

International outdoors and adventure buffs increasingly flock to Dominica for its beautiful flora and fauna, gin-clear Caribbean waters, and fantastic adventure, hiking, and other tours.  As you fly into Dominica’s tiny Melville Hall airport, it’s readily apparent why the tiny Caribbean island bills itself as “the Nature Island.” Outside your windows you’ll see lush, green mountains with 4,000-foot drops, rivers (there are said to be 365, one for each day of the year), rainforest preserves, and five volcanoes.

Dominica

But Dominica promises, and delivers, far more than just natural beauty: It’s also justly famed for its friendly people, lip-smacking cuisine, and colorful cultural traditions. Like many other Caribbean nations, the French and English colonized Dominica, and you’ll find their legacies merged with African and other influences on this gorgeous melting pot of an island. Read on to learn more about this eco-paradise, which lures visitors not only for its pristine natural phenomena, but also for its enduring Creole linguistic and cultural traditions.

Introduction to the Island

Dominica

Dominica is sandwiched between Martinique and Guadeloupe in the eastern quadrant of the Caribbean. Like most of its sister Caribbean nations, Dominica has been affected by waves of colonizers and other cultural influences throughout its history. Unlike many, however, it retains a rich indigenous tradition, and is the sole Caribbean isle with an extant tribe of Carib Indians, who, along with the Arawaks, were the original inhabitants of the region. You’ll find Carib culture preserved and safeguarded in several villages in southeastern Dominica.

Far more noticeable, however, is the vivid Creole heritage of the majority of the residents, which is readily displayed as you traverse the small island, just 29 miles long and 16 wide. Many locals still proudly rear their children speaking kreyol, learning traditional dance steps, and listening to calypso and other Creole tunes on the radio. And you’ll see garden plots everywhere, planted with avocados, bananas, citrus, coconuts, plantains, and other agricultural staples that find their way into ubiquitous Creole dishes like sancoche, a delicious blend of codfish, coconut milk, and spices.

It’s important to note what constitutes “Creole” with regard to both the language and culture of Dominica’s 72,000 residents. Simply put, Creole describes a French-based language, also dubbed Patois or Patwa, that has evolved over the past four centuries via the interactions of French colonizers and their African slaves who worked on overseas plantations in the Americas. Both populations were far from home, and the culture and lifestyle that came to characterize the French colonizers, the slaves, and their subsequent progeny also came to be known as Creole.

This legacy is felt very strongly in Dominica, where the national motto is Apres Bondie C’est La Ter, which translates as “After God, it is the land,” stressing Dominica’s Creole-French traditions, Catholic faith, and agricultural bounty. This reverence of the people for the land helps explain why, unlike all too many of its Caribbean neighbors, Dominica remains such a well-protected and ecologically green destination.

The Creole Language

Until the 19th century, the French and English competed for ascendancy on Dominica, with the British Crown ultimately gaining control. Unlike the British, however, who primarily lived in the capital of Roseau, the French resided on smaller estates throughout the island, and the agricultural livelihood and Creole heritage seen today began to thrive. When slavery was abolished in Dominica in 1834, local emancipated slaves, along with others from nearby French-controlled Martinique and Guadeloupe, took gradual control of the farm estates. The island went on to become an associated territory within the British Commonwealth, and became independent in 1978.

Sealife in Dominica

Sealife in Dominica

Today English is the official language, but most Dominicans also (or only) speak Creole, in part because of the pervasive historical French influence. Creole is a distinct language mingled with Caribe and African words as well as French, and has its own grammar, syntax, and inflexions.

Perhaps above all, it is this shared language that defines “Creole” in most Dominicans’ minds; a Creole can be of any race.  We even find this multicultural blend in the roots of the word Creole: Derived from the words Criollo in Spanish and Kriolo in Senegalese, it is dubbed “Kwéyòl” or simply “patwa” on Dominica.

Dominica

And while Creole is a French-derived language, it should be noted that people who speak only French cannot understand it. However, Creole speakers from elsewhere in the French West Indies—as well as the islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, and Re Island—are usually able to communicate with Dominicans speaking Creole.

Sealife in Dominica

While Creole was once the predominant oral language in rural regions of Dominica, its use had been declining steadily among younger people on the island. Historically, speakers of Creole have encountered discrimination on Dominica, a residual effect of the island’s colonizing influences and the misconception that Creole is a bastardization of French.  To remedy this, in 1981 the government established the Konmité Pou Etid Kwéyo`l (the Committee for Creole Studies) to help preserve the language. Today you’ll find books, television programs, and other materials produced in Creole, and it is taught to schoolchildren in order to promote this proud linguistic legacy.

Creole Culture

If you are in Dominica on the last Friday in October, consider yourself doubly blessed, because the island marks Creole Day on that day with unbridled enthusiasm and pageantry. Festivities are held throughout the island, with traditional Creole costumes, delicious food, and plenty of special music and dance events.

Dominica

Girls everywhere will be wearing colorful skirts called jupes, and you’ll see men donning a costume of black trousers, white shirt, and red sash tied at the waist. There will be beautiful, antique renditions of formal Creole dress, as well as plenty of straw hats and festive madras plaids. Worn only on special occasions, the woman’s complete outfit comprises a long white petticoat, a jupe, a foulard over the bust, and a bright madras headwrap, all augmented with large earrings and other heavy gold jewelry.

If you’re hungry, march right up to almost any restaurant, which will surely be serving delectable renditions of Creole cuisine. Menu items you might sample for lunch include crabs, sancoche, smoked pork, fresh fish, callaloo, breadfruit, plantains, and fresh coconut cake. Afterward, check out the Creole dances performed by eager schoolchildren, as well as all sorts of hip-shaking music, including Cadence-lypso, a style from the 1970s that was a forerunner of contemporary Creole music.

When it comes to folk music, Dominican artists usually perform songs that are an amalgam of European and African influences. In particular, you’ll hear French quadrilles performed, usually accompanied by a “jing ping” band complete with accordion and loud percussion. The island’s rich musical heritage also comprises other traditions, including songs called bélé, storytelling, kids’ song, and music from the Carnival season.

All this festivity culminates in the annual World Creole Music Festival, held in Roseau in late October or early November. It packs in Creole musicians and enthusiasts from around the globe for a three-day music extravaganza.  There’s no better time to be in Dominica, and to listen to the swaying rhythm of first-class artists like Ali Campbell of UB40, the Swinging Starz, Third World, and other musicians. Kick back with a rum cocktail, a big plate of Creole cuisine, and let this little island work its magic on you.