Roseau is the capital of Dominica and was named after the ‘Roseaux’ river reeds which grew along the river banks and over the area when the first French settlers arrived. It is situated on a gently rounded headland, a fan-shaped river delta made from alluvial deposits brought down by the river and the debris of pyroclastic flows from the volcano at Morne Micotrin (Macacque), which stands at the head of the Roseau Valley.
Amerindian people first occupied the site and were followed by French woodcutters and then by more permanent French settlers who established a sizeable village of French huts, with a church by 1730.
Roseau was attacked by British forces on 6 June 1761 and captured. The British held sway until French forces recaptured it on 7 September 1778. The French attacked the town again in 1805 when it was entirely destroyed by fire. Reconstruction was slow in difficult economic times, but the British laid it out on a grid system and many of the streets are named after famous British figures such as Great Marlborough Street after the victor of the Battle of Blenheim.
In September 1899 Sir Hesketh Bell was appointed Administrator, finding most of the island covered by virgin forest. He wrote: ‘It is all mountains and valleys and said to be the loveliest island in the West Indies. The chief productions are coca, limes and spices.’ Roseau then contained 7,000 inhabitants, the streets were cobbled from the days of the French, lighting was provided by kerosene oil lamps, and public buildings were in a poor state of repair.
There were only three carriages on the island and no motor cars. Only in the 1950s did the town begin to expand beyond its 19th-century boundaries as country people came in on the newly constructed roads across the island seeking education and jobs.
In August 1979 Roseau was gravely damaged by Hurricane David, and again in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. The worst recorded hurricanes hit Dominica in 1781, 1806, 1813, 1825, 1834, 1930, 1979, 2015 and 2017.
Today Roseau and its environs provide a home for 30% of the island’s population. King George V Street contains traditional architecture – hipped roofs and dormer windows, wooden jalousies framed by heavy hurricane shutters, iron and wooden verandas, decorated ornately with fretwork, all seen against a vast backdrop of forest-covered mountains.
There are many eulogies for the beauty of Dominica. Sir Hesketh Bell (1864-1952), Dominica’s first Crown Colony Administrator (serving from 1899 to 1905), wrote: Dominica is certainly the most beautiful of [the Caribbean islands].
Rising sheer out of the great depths of the sea that is usually of a sapphire blue or profound ultramarine, its verdant valleys and lofty mountains rise higher and higher until the pale-green peaks pierce the fleecy clouds that hover over them. Through the centre of each valley rushes and tumbles a mountain stream in a series of little cascades falling into deep bamboo-shaded pools …
The first inhabitants were Stone Age tribes from the Orinoco region of South America in 3000 BC. Then came the Ortoiroids and later the Arawakan speaking Igneri. In 1000 AD the Kalinago /Caribs entered the Lesser Antilles and sailed north, dominating each island in turn. They first discovered Dominica as a rugged southern shoreline with cones rising sharply from the sea. They called it Wai’tukubuli, which means ‘Tall is her body.’
On 3 November 1493, Christopher Columbus first sighted it and called it Dominica after the Lord’s Day. His chronicler wrote: ‘Dominica is remarkable for the beauty of its mountains and the amenity of its verdure and must be seen to be believed.’ Later naval men such as Sir Francis Drake also visited and in 1596 Sir Anthony Sherley recorded: Arriving at Dominica the seventeenth of October, with all our men sick and feeble, we found there two hot baths, wherein our weak men washing themselves were greatly comforted: and the Indians of this place used us with great kindness so that we were all perfectly well before we departed from this place.
The Caribs held the island for 250 years after the visit of Columbus and still held some control when the French colonised it in the early 18th century. Dominica was their last stronghold in the Caribbean, due to the mountainous nature of the island which afforded them many possibilities to hide. Many years later Sir Hesketh Bell gave them a special secured reserve at Salybia, on the east coast.
The British attacked and took the island in 1761, Dominica’s capture being ratified in the Treaty of Paris in 1763. They soon established a House of Assembly and built towns and fortifications. Nevertheless, the French took Dominica and held it between 1778 and 1783. After that Sir John Ord, Bt was sent out as British Governor. Despite further attempts by the French the island remained British.
There were also skirmishes with Maroons – escaped slaves. Emancipation of the enslaved population happened in 1834. Self-determination began in 1925.
Until 1937 Dominica was part of the Leeward Islands but was then transferred to the Windward Islands. In 1951 universal suffrage was introduced. Total self-government under the system of Associated Statehood was introduced in 1967 and Dominica became an independent republic on 3 November 1978. Queen Elizabeth II was the head of state from her accession in 1952 until Dominica became independent. She bestowed knighthoods on three Dominicans: Sir Louis Cools-Lartigue, Sir Clarence Seignoret and Dame Mary Eugenia Charles. She visited the island three times: In 1966, 1985 and for a few minutes at Melville Hall Airport in 1994 on her way to Guyana. Her portrait still appears on Dominica’s currency because Dominica is the only republic in the OECS.
There have been two noted Dominican writers – Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-86), author of The Orchid House (1953) wrote: ‘The island is the real hero’. One of her characters noted: All I could see was a riot of gold and purple and crimson … and the two huge mango trees, the shining silver from against the damp wall and the purple shadows on far hills. Nothing unusual, except to those who had lived like exiles in grey shadows. She was brought up comfortably in Roseau. Astaphan’s store was the orchid conservatory of her grandfather, Sir Henry Nicholls. She launched the Dominica Labour Party on the steps of the Dominica Trade Union Hall, Independence Street and served as Minister of Labour and Social Affairs in the short-lived West Indies Federation from 1959 to 1962.
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) spent her early years in Dominica and left a memorable description of Roseau, putting words into the mouth of one of her characters: ‘Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.’ He was alienated by the threatening character of the landscape.
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