Kalinago People

Grenada, The Gateway And Spirit Of The Kalinago People

  • 07 October, 2014
  • by Grenada Spot

"Grenada, the Gateway and Spirit of the Kalinago People"
Some five thousand years ago, indigenous explorers who set out from Lowland South America headed out in search of new lands for farming, fishing and hunting. Their first stop was Grenada which was then known as Camaghone (Kamahone).

It was considered the gateway to a new world of volcanic islands. Trinidad and Tobago at that time were continental while Grenada was the first oceanic island of the chain, born from the seabed in a series of violent eruptions. It was on Camaghone which was recorded the dramatic event resulting in the lost of its Kalinago (Carib) inhabitants.

As colonizing forces advanced across the island's landscape in the 17th century, the indigenous Kalinago people were routed. Past histories have focused on the unfortunate human and physical loss occasioned by the genocide. Here our history had not only focused on the loss of the indigenous cosmology but, also on the perception of the Kalinago people's place within this environment which they had considered their island world.

It shows how the process of contact and cultural exchange had begun years earlier and that by the time a group of these Kalinago natives had jumped to their deaths over the cliff at Sauteurs in northern tip of Grenada, their world had been turned upside down. Their culturally structured place within the cosmic and ecological pattern of this archipelago had disappeared and their lives no longer made any sense within it.

Since then, the Kalinago perception of the Grenadian environment, and its indigenous people's place within the cycles of this tropical oceanic island, has been wiped out. An alien vision of this environment has been imposed over the period of the past four hundred years. This era gave an insight of the Kalinago concepts of their island, Kamahone (Grenada).

It correlated the island's relationship with the continent to the south and made revelation of its role as the indigenous gateway from the mainland to the islands. It shows how relevant the indigenous concepts of the environment still are today. It justified that elements of this cosmology need to be regained and more widely understood if we are to come to terms with the balance needed in the human ecology of neo-colonial Grenada.

The study of Amerindian interaction with their specific island environments along the chain of the Caribbean archipelago are enmeshed within the human ecology of the indigenous people before and after contact with Europeans. Kalinago life was linked to the geology, climate patterns, vegetation and maritime features that influenced the ways in which the islands' natural environment was utilized.

Comparative studies of such practices as ethnobotany, sources of raw materials for tools and other technology, knowledge of hunting and gathering areas, fishing grounds, routes of navigation and mythical geography are dependent on a comprehensive understanding of the geology, geophysics and natural history of the island.

Such an exercise requires us first to revisualise the region, stripping it to a purely geographical entity, seeing it from the perspective of the cultural interaction of a horticultural and hunter-gatherer people and the human ecology of their survival within the natural environment of these oceanic islands.

Distinct styles of pottery, divided into successive ceramic series extending along the island chain from the mouth of the Orinoco River, have formed the basis of theories on regional systems and chronological frontiers of settlement and culture. Following the course of the South Equatorial Current as it curved up into the Caribbean, and aided by the close proximity of the islands to one another along the chain, various groups of mainland people moved from the Orinoco delta northwards.

How these groups integrated or succeeded each other has been a hotly debated issue in Caribbean archaeology. Wilson (1994) represents the most recent view that historical and archaeological evidence from the Lesser Antilles suggests that there was more cultural heterogeneity than had previously been recognized.

Although speculative, I feel it is more likely that the prehistoric and early historic Lesser Antilles contained a complex mosaic of ethnic groups which had considerable interaction with each other, the mainland and the Greater Antilles.

As now, the individual islands and island groups would have 'complex mosaic' composed of popular trading centre and isolated backwaters at the time of this immigration are supported by Allaire (1977). "Warlike Caribs" wiping out "peaceful Arawaks" is an outdated theory.

Trading, raiding, intermixture between groups and a transfer of knowledge across the islands and to and from the mainland between all groups is now accepted.

As Grenada's richly varied archaeology has shown, the island was in the midst of this moving mosaic of Amerindian culture. The Kalinago people (called Caribs by the Europeans) were inheritors of what had gone before.

The cosmology of the Kalinago, their perception and understanding of the world they lived in, had been inherited from generations of islanders before them. It had been transferred through tribal elders in story and song, by instruction and ceremony so that it gave them order to the chaos of the world. It was aimed at achieving balance between good and evil.

It anchored the society in a symbiotic relationship with nature. It gave structure to their lives. This relationship was based on observation and a deep knowledge of their environment. The Amerindian in the islands was an integral part of the natural cycle, and the spirits which held it all in place had to be understood and placated. Without this, the people's access to, and use of, the natural resources available for gathering, hunting and horticulture would be greatly hindered.

The move to the islands meant a cultural transformation from a continental world to that of an island world. The geophysical structure of the islands determined a very different flora, fauna and marine ecology from what existed along the rivers and coastline of the continent. The cosmology had to change as well.

It was not only the techniques and resources of hunting, gathering and horticulture, which had to be restructured. The main characters that made up their mythology had to be transformed. There were no jaguars, tapirs or anacondas here and so the protagonists of the island mythology gradually took on the guise of bat, frog, gecko, owl and boa constrictor.

These were important in placing men and women's roles into the orderly cycle of life's work and the group's survival.

For modern Grenada, the ultimate defiance, when a group of Kalinago leaped off of the cliff at Sauteurs has become a symbol of heroism, a legend of nationalism and yet another local story with which to embellish the "tourism product".

Contact and culture exchange in both trade and war between Europeans and the Kalinago was in progress long before the first permanent settlement was established on Grenada by Du Parquet in 1650.

As in the days before Columbus, the island had been in the centre of the route between the islands and the mainland and the Kalinago of Grenada were already fighting off the threat of the European advance into their territory. A combination of trade and armed resistance had been the most obvious Kalinago approach to Europeans from the time of first contact.

The earliest impact on the Kalinago of Grenada was slave raiding. On 30 October 1503, the Queen of Spain was persuaded to issue an order proscribing capture or injury for any Indians, whether living on the islands or the mainland, but making an exception of "a certain people called Cannibals" who could be captured and enslaved (Sauer 1966:161). More specific orders were given in the cedula of 23 December 1511 which granted Spanish colonists the right to capture and enslave Kalinagos.

On 1 April 1609, three shiploads of English settlers arrived in Grenada but were attacked by Kalinagos as soon as they disembarked. Within a few months the whole undertaking was abandoned but the idea remained that Grenada could be used as a base for trade and attack on Spanish interests in Trinidad and the mainland (Williamson 1926:19). So active was the movement in and around Grenada, it was one of the reasons Thomas Warner rejected it as a place for settlement.

It was too close to the Spanish in Trinidad and Venezuela and there was far too much Kalinago traffic passing by between the mainland to and from the northern Windward Islands (Williamson 1926:12). It was against this background of over a century of cultural and physical contention that the net was finally being drawn around the Kalinago control of Grenada.

During the French occupation, the Kalinagos planned an attack on the French settlement, but Le Comte got news of this in advance and raised a force of 300 men "to take the war to their Carbets and force them to leave the island."

In response to this threat, the Kalinago of Grenada sought the help of those in Dominica and St.Vincent to attack the French. The ensuing guerrilla war raged along the coast and across the hills of Grenada. One group of Kalinagos was cornered while making a final stand on the now famous headland at Sauteurs and they leaped over the cliff edge to their deaths rather than surrender.

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