Photo by Sebastian Johns

When Hollywood wanted to film the Pirates of the Caribbean they yachted and limoed Johnny Depp to the ‘unspoiled’ Eastern Caribbean island of Dominica to do his thing. Reportedly there was no place fancy enough on the island for Depp and his fellow stars to hang their hats so they were forced to wine and dine offshore. The cast and crew celebrated their hardship experience in a post-production ‘Dominica Survivor Party’. Herein hangs Dominica’s tale – poor people living often hard lives in a place rich in beauty and vibrant popular culture.

Dominica is a small island both in population (72,380) and size (754 square kilometres). Yet the island feels a lot bigger than this, with dozens of mountain peaks, waterfalls and some say a river for every day of the year. This is what the tourist promoters like to call the Caribbean’s ‘Nature Island’.

Roseau, the capital, is a tumbledown kind of town known to raise the eyebrows of the cruise-ship tourists who pour out of their floating apartment buildings and flood the waterfront – ‘This place is pretty poor, Marge.’ Roseau’s ramshackle tin buildings and dirt streets reveal the status of Dominicans in the way the world measures wealth (the second lowest income per capita in the Caribbean after Haiti).

But that is not the whole story – Dominica is rich in many ways as well. In beauty, natural resources and food it is unequalled anywhere in these parts. For a small Caribbean island, Dominica is amazingly self-sufficient in feeding itself, even exporting food to neighbouring islands. So while people tend to be cash-poor you won’t find starvation or even malnutrition on the island. Back in the days when slavery was the scourge of the Caribbean, it never really worked that well in Dominica. It was just too easy to run away and live off the mangos and dashin that grow in profusion in the volcanic jungle that coats the place. This is perhaps why Dominica is the only place left in the world with a population of Caribs – the indigenous people that once inhabited this region, 2,000 of whom still live on the eastern coast.

Dominica nestles among the Windward Islands between two of the last vestiges of French colonialism, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Unlike its prosperous neighbours, Dominicans do not have access to the European market or to French social security. The island, which celebrates its 30th year of independence in November 2008, has had to make it pretty much on its own. It has done pretty well, all things considered – swinging back and forth from Right to Left. But there has sure been some excitement – a pseudo-Rastafarian rebellion that terrorized the island back in the 1970s, for example; and an abortive invasion by US-based white supremacists back in 1981 who planned to turn the island into their own little gambling and tax haven (it’s unclear what they planned to do with the Dominicans). High and low points of recent political history range from Prime Minister Eugenia Charles (the Caribbean’s first female leader) making common cause with Ronald Reagan to intervene in Grenada, through Labour’s Rosie Douglas, who cosied up to Cuba, to the current leader Roosevelt Skerritt, who is steering the island towards the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez.

By and large, Dominicans bear the shifts in the political wind with sceptical good humour. The undermining of the critical banana crop when the big US brands took EU buyers to the WTO over ‘subsidized’ prices for the delicious little mountain variety on which Dominican farmers have come to depend is another matter. This and every imaginable political issue gets thoroughly aired by the Calypsonians who take to the streets and airwaves every February come Carnival time. Dominicans, like most of the others in the Caribbean, combine a fierce sense of democratic autonomy with a wry eye on the outside world: ‘What will they be up to next and how will it land on Dominica’s shores?’

Sebastian Johns

Map of Dominica