Tour Of The Caribbean – Victorine and her Forefathers

A SPECIAL interest attaches to Dominica in that it is — as Dr. Nicholls says—” the only island where pure-blooded descendants of the original inhabitants of the Antilles are to be found.” There is in a remote spot on the northeast coast of the island a Carib Reservation provided by the Government. Here these ancient people live in peace and contentment. Although their numbers are diminishing, they can still muster about three hundred. ” They pay no taxes, but are required to keep open the main road through the Reserve, and their chief receives a small stipend from the Government. They are now quiet, peaceful, and well mannered. . . . They have lost all trace of their double language (for the men used to speak one language while the women spoke another), and occupy their days by fishing, making their celebrated waterproof baskets, and cultivating small plots of West Indian fruits and vegetables.”

It would appear that the earliest-known inhabitants of the West Indian island were peoples of two types, the Arawaks and the Caribs. They both came from the South American mainland, the Arawaks from Northern Brazil, the Caribs from parts further south. Both are described as races of the Mongolic type, with yellow to olive-brown skin, long, lank, black hair, a broad skull, almond-shaped black eyes, slightly oblique, and bodies of moderate stature. The Arawaks were no doubt the earlier of the two to reach the islands, were savages of a low type, indolent, gentle and unprogressive. The Caribs, who gradually displaced these docile folk, were of greater average height, were fierce, warlike and intelligent, and frankly addicted to cannibalism. They could claim to be a race of fine people. Drake when he visited Dominica describes them as ” very personable and handsome strong men.”

At the time of the discovery of the New World by Columbus the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas were inhabited by Arawaks, the Lesser Antilles by Caribs. It was a day of lamentation for the islander when he met with the enlightened white man, who came from the unknown East bringing with him the ” blessings of civilisation.”

The place of meeting of these two was at an island called by Columbus San Salvador, but now known as Watling’s Island. It received its latter name from a sin-hardened old pirate, John Watling, who was shot in 1681 while attempting to plunder a city. It is a small island, some twelve miles in length, belonging to Great Britain, occupied mainly by salt-water lagoons and low wooded hills ; it yet manages to support a population of 600 people, and to merit a reputation for breeding excellent sheep and cattle. Watling’s Island is the first land sighted by the mail steamer in her homeward journey from New York to the West Indies. It should therefore be familiar to many. If the ship passes in the night there is still the flash from the lighthouse to show where the island lies.

It was an ever-memorable morning, the morning of October 12, 1492, a day portentous and terrible. The naked savage of San Salvador, when he gazed from the sea-commanding hills, must have wondered where the great water that spread eastward came to an end. The West he knew : there were familiar islands, and that wide continent which figured in the traditions of his tribe. As to the East, the white beach at his feet marked the extremest limit of the known world. From behind the eastern sea rose at dawn the sun and at night the stars, while from out of the same mystic heaven blew the abiding wind ; but nothing that had life had ever emerged from over the unchanging ocean rim. No canoe that had passed beyond that margin had ever returned to the land again.

Now, on this October morning, there came from out of the unknown three fearsome things that moved upon the sea.’ The islander would behold the faint image of a towering ship made ghostly by the uncertain haze, and so colossal that its masts reached to the clouds. As the dawn broke he would see the foam about the sullen bows, the bellying sails, the castle on the fore, the tower on the poop. Every wondrous rope and spar would be cut clear against the tender light ; the rocking yards would stretch across the clearing sky ; the figures of men and the gleam of arms would be seen along the rail. It was not for him to know that the banner at the mizzen was the standard of Castile, and that the great cross painted on the mainsail was the sign of the Redeemer. This ship from out of the unimaginable abyss would seem to the islander to have sailed from the sun. As it came on the sky around it would break into lilac and crimson and gold, light would radiate from it as rays from a planet, and encircled by the many-coloured halo of the dawn, the majestic craft would roll towards the land.

Columbus, clad in armour and wearing a scarlet cloak, landed on the beach with profound solemnity, and in this wise the wild man and his destroyer met. The simple naked folk brought as presents balls of cotton, spears and parrots, and received in exchange scarlet caps, beads, and hawk’s bells. The foremost and ever present desire of the adventurer from Castile was that “the Lord in His mercy would direct him to find gold ” : after that came a yearning to see these poor untutored people ” free and converted to the Holy Faith.” To see them free ; they who were as free as the sea-birds ! To strive that they may be “saved from the darkness of their happy innocence, and brought to the light of a religion that had just evolved the Inquisition ” !

It would have been happy if the bartering had ended with balls of cotton and hawk’s bells; but it soon became a traffic in which the only island goods that were marketable were human lives.

The three vessels of Columbus were the Santa Maria,100 tons, the Pinta, 50 tons, and the Nina, 40 tons.

The first settlement of the Castilians was on Haiti. The natives here—estimated at about a million in number—were the childlike, unresisting Arawaks. They were soon wiped off the earth. They were made to work as slaves in the mines until they died of starvation and excessive toil. They were massacred wholesale with appropriate treachery, were hunted down as if they were rabbits, were decimated by imported diseases, or beaten to death for not attending Mass. The gentle Queen Isabel did what lay in her power to protect them. Slavery was by her forbidden, but the prohibition was easily evaded by ingenious forms of indentured labour. It was urged, too, that it was good for the natives to work in mines, as idleness was demoralising. The poor Indians could not look after themselves, the slave-driver said, and moreover if they remained in their villages ” it was impossible to instruct them in the principles of Christianity.” Even supposing that they were enslaved, murdered, or worked to death, at least in every instance they were baptised.

When Haiti became depopulated the pious Spaniards extended the field of their missionary labours to the Lesser Antilles ; but in these islands the cause was not blessed, for they had to deal with the warlike Carib who was more than a match for them. Thus it was that these pioneers of civilisation turned their attention to the Bahamas. Here they kidnapped the docile islanders without having to murder very many of them, baptised the survivors and sent them to the mines to rot.

It was never forgotten that the object of these man-hunting forays was to enable the Arawak to be instructed in the Holy Faith. ” It would be necessary,” explained the Governor of Haiti, ” that they should be transported to Hispaniola (Haiti) ; as missionaries could not be spared to every place and there was no other way in which this abandoned people could be converted” It was by this energetic method of extending the blessings of religion to the abandoned natives of the Bahamas that those islands became as bare of human life as a desert.

The zeal with which the ministers of God from Spain kept the recently baptised savage from heresy and insured his attendance at Mass attracted the notice of such explorers as came to the New World. Samuel Champlain, for example, made a voyage into these waters between the years 1599 and 1602.’ He gives, in the book he wrote, a picture of seven Indians burning in one fire, while a couple of elaborately dressed Spaniards stand by to watch them roasting with unaffected boredom. The abandoned natives were probably being burned alive on account of inaccurate views as to the Real Presence, but as they were ignorant of the Spanish tongue the offence was small.

In another engraving Champlain shows how the savage, after he had been brought under religious influences, was induced to attend the service of his church. At the door of a house of prayer stands a priest with a book in his hand. The fingers of the other hand are raised as if he were about to pronounce a blessing. In the forecourt an Indian is being beaten with a club by a very powerful man. The ecchymosed savage is gazing at the priest with curiosity. It is explained that the club, which would fell an ox, is a means of Grace whereby the thoughtless were led to attend to their devotions. It is further explained that each convert who was absent from Mass received at the hands of the athletic missionary thirty to forty blows from the Gospel club in the precincts of the place of worship.

Champlain in his account of the natives remarks that “they are of a very melancholy humour.” Those who were irregular in their church attendances and who survived their bruises and broken ribs had certainly reasons for depression.

The Caribs in the smaller islands, although they may have had the good fortune to escape the missionary, fell victims to the man with the musket and the man with a keg of brandy under his arm. They both came to him with lies on their lips and treachery in their hearts. The Carib had to fight for his life and for every foot of his native land. He had to fight in turn the Spaniards, the French, the English and the Dutch. It was the hopeless battle of arrow and spear against powder and ball ; the war of the naked savage against the world. The brown man, however, held his own valiantly. In Dominica he defied all comers for some two centuries and a half. He had strength, sagacity and courage, and behind him the generous arms of an impenetrable forest. He might have held his islands longer but for his taste for rum.

During my stay at Dominica I was able, through the kindness of Dr. Nicholls, to make the acquaintance of a pure-blooded Carib from the Reservation. She was a girl of ten, whose name was Victorine. She was a picturesque little maid, with pretty manners and a singularly sweet voice. Her complexion was yellow-brown, her hair long, lank and black. She had the lacquer-black eyes of a Japanese doll, almond-shaped and a little oblique, a fine mouth and lips, slightly prominent cheeks. The type of her face was distinctly Mongolian, without the least suggestion of the negro in its outlines. She was as erect as an arrow and walked as only an Indian can walk. Her dress was of pink stripes, and her head-dress a primrose-coloured turban or madras. (See frontispiece.)

Victorine was brought out to see the steamer. It was her first experience of a large ship. Everything delighted her except the engines. It was about the bath-rooms that she was the most curious, for in a quite imperious manner she signified that it was her pleasure to visit them a second time. She seemed to connect them somehow with religion. She was not as graceful in her mode of eating as in her walking. She was given tea, but declined the use of a saucer as superfluous. Whatever she ate was first dipped in the cup.

Victorine could claim at least an interesting ancestry. Her people roamed the island for centuries before Columbus came. They saw the sailing hither of the first great ship the Marie Galante. They watched the landing of Drake and Hawkins when they came for ” refreshing,” just as now they may gaze at blue-jackets coming ashore from the modern ironclad. Victorine may not be ” the daughter of a hundred earls,” but among her forefathers might have been that ” King of the Cannibal Islands ” who is for ever famous in the English nursery song.

She might still have been attracted by a scarlet cap, a string of beads, or a hawk’s bell. None of these being at hand, she was offered her choice of certain commonplace articles. With a remarkable precision and with more than mere instinct she selected a purse and two half-crowns, those being the largest of the coins laid out before her. It was impossible not to feel that the most fitting present for this little wild thing, with her brown skin and piercing eyes and her wilder ancestry, would still have been a hawk’s bell.