Our Grenadian Ancestors

Don't waste your time. Don't bother to look for it in the history books. They won't tell you anything because it happened long before Caribbean history books were written. And that's why nobody knows for sure. You can make a good guess however, that, plus or minus a century or two, the first Grenadians came to the island about two thousand years ago.

Archeological evidence suggests they arrived about the time Julius Caesar and his Roman legions successfully attacked Britain for the first time.

It was about that time, too, that Herod, Governor of Galilee, was shaken by news given him the by three Wise Men from the east. They predicted a King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem.

The Arawak

Whatever the exact date, archeological research indicates these first Grenadians were Amerindians of the Arawak tribe. They originated in South America and there is an interesting theory concerning their settlement in Grenada.

These Arawaks were excellent seamen and skillfully navigated the coastal waters of the mainland. Those waters are known for their strong winds and tides, and the theory is that some of these seamen were accidentally swept out to sea, ending up hundreds of miles away on a Grenada beach.

Like so many of today's visitors, they found the beach and, indeed, the whole island, attractive and spread the news. Others followed, paddling their dug-out canoes northward from Trinidad. They established their first village at the south end of Grenada, close to Point Salines International Airport where the big jets touch down, and called the island Camahogne.

These Arawaks, a quiet, peaceful people, were agriculturists. They cultivated cassava, maize, sweet potato and other crops They expanded through the island setting up many other towns and villages, but their tranquil life was brutally disrupted.

The Warlike Caribs

About 700 A.D., disaster struck. Grenada was invaded by another Amerindian tribe, the warlike Caribs, and the Arawaks didn't have a chance. The invaders swept viciously through the entire island and no Arawak man was spared. All were massacred. Then, all Arawak women and children were rounded up to be the Carib's wives and slaves.

The descendants of these Arawak/Carib Amerindians made up the Grenadian population when Columbus sighted Grenada on 15th August 1498. But he did not see them. He sailed past the island and these first Grenadians remained undisturbed until 1609.

English Come and Go . . .

In that year, a party of Englishmen tried to set up a colony and their's is an unhappy story. The Caribs gave them a hard time. Many were killed and, because of Carib harassment, it was impossible to establish plantations which was the purpose of the settlement. The existence of these pioneers was laced with terror and, within a year, those few who survived were forced to abandon the venture.

About 30 years later, another attempt at colonisation was made when a party of Frenchmen tried to land. But, the Caribs had lost none of their traditional fierceness. They attacked the would-be colonisers so aggressively and the Frenchmen were glad to beat a hasty retreat.

The Caribs were a tough bunch. They were a well-built, olive-skinned race with a certain brave swing in their walk. High cheek bones were a characteristic with almond shaped eyes and long black hair.

Some records say they were cannibals. It is believed that, after defeat of their enemies, the victorious Caribs would :"...eat part of the prisoners of war while they were in triumph, which they rather did out of malice, chewing only one mouthful and spitting it out again ...."

But, there is also a positive side to these people. They were ingenious hunters and invented a unique way of catching wild ducks. A calabash (gourd) with eye-holes was fitted over the hunter's head and he entered the water up to his neck and waited patiently. Unwary birds, unconscious of the danger lurking behind the drifting calabash, were seized by the legs, dragged under water and drowned.

One of the problems of those days was preservation of meat and the Caribs solved this in a manner which has been preserved to today.

From the root of the cassava plant, these Grenadian ancestors processed a liquid they called "casareep". They discovered that, cooked in casareep, meat will last indefinitely. Fresh supplies may be added, the only requirement being that the pot be heated to boiling point every day.

This kitchen technology has been handed down from generation to generation, and casareep can now be bought in the supermarkets. Meat cooked in casareep with added pepper and other ingredients is the well-known Grenadian "pepper-pot", and there are legends of family pepper pots, started decades ago, being passed on to younger generations as heirlooms.

French Come and Wage War . . . more or less successfully

These first inhabitants were still in possession of Grenada in 1650 when 200 Frenchmen arrived from Martinique. This time, the Caribs were willing to sell the island and the Frenchmen bought it at a bargain price. They paid for it with a few knives and hatchets and with a quantity of glass beads. And, for good measure, they threw in a couple of bottles of brandy for the Carib Chief.

But this deal didn't stick. Whatever alerted the Caribs to the unfairness of the business they had done, they changed their mind within a year and wanted to recover their island. So, they started a campaign of terror against the settlers. Any Frenchman found in the woods was killed and it became dangerous to travel into the countryside. Matters went from bad to worse and the Frenchmen realised that, if they were to continue to develop their plantations, they had to do something.

That "something" turned out to be a full-scale war against the Caribs. Boarding several boats in St George's harbour, a contingent of about 100 Frenchmen sailed up the west coast and attacked the Carib's strongest fortified village which was perched at the top of a steep mountain.

The location of that village had been well chosen. It had only one approach, and the Caribs did not wait for the French to find it. They met their attackers as they approached the beach at the foot of the mountain and fought fiercely to prevent a landing. But their poisoned arrows were no match for French firearms and they were forced to retreat.

Even then they did not give up. Large boulders and tree trunks were rolled down on the advancing Frenchmen. This failed to stop them, however, and the village was captured with great slaughter of the Caribs.

This did not put an end to hostilities and both sides continued to prepare for a decisive show down. The French sent to Martinique for reinforcements while the Caribs, regrouping on the east side of the island, were strengthened by large numbers of their kind who poured in from St Vincent.

The crisis came when the Caribs, considering themselves to have grown to a sufficiently large number, resolved to take on their French enemies. They decided they had become strong enough to capture the town and fort which stood on a narrow neck of land then separating the inner harbour from what is now the yacht marina.

Eight hundred Caribs took on this challenge. Armed with their poisoned arrows and with their clubs, they stormed the approaches to the fort, and the result was total disaster.

Waiting until the screaming Caribs were almost up to the stockade around the fort, the French opened up with their canon and small arms, releasing a death-dealing shower of chain and grape shot together with bullets from the small arms.

The dead and dying lay everywhere. The ground before the fort was soaked in blood and it was then that the French counter-attacked. Poisoned arrows and clubs had no chance against French firearms in a pitched battle and the outcome was inevitable. The small remnant of the attackers was compelled to flee into the woods with the Frenchmen in hot pursuit.

As far as the Frenchmen were concerned, this had to be an action resulting in total extermination. They had had enough of Carib harassment. They wanted to make sure they had the island to themselves and they chased the fleeing Caribs all the way to the northern tip of the island until they cornered them on a towering headland overlooking the sea.

Of the original 800 attackers of the fort, only some 40 now remained but, for them, surrender was out of the question. Death was preferable to their fate at the hands of the French. So, as the Frenchmen closed in on them creeping through the bushes, guns at the ready, this story came to a tragic end. The Caribs flung themselves over the cliff and died in the swirling waters below.

The Frenchmen soon found, however, that their troubles were not yet over. The dramatic death of the forty fugitives did not mark the end of the war. There were still Caribs in the island and they longed for their revenge. They now knew better than to plan another attack on the fort, but Grenada sat on a powder keg of hostility which needed only a spark to set off the explosion.

That hostility existed throughout the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and a series of unfortunate incidents precipitated the inevitable confrontation.

First, a Frenchman, acting on unfounded suspicion, flogged a Carib. Another, having had too much to drink, picked a quarrel with a Carib Chief and would have killed him if his pistol had not misfired. The final straw came when a number of Caribs were tricked on board a vessel in an attempt to carry them off as slaves.

This was too much for the Caribs to bear. Everywhere, they vowed death to the white man and, in Grenada, a general assembly decreed that every Frenchman was to be massacred. But there would be no frontal onslaught this time. The lesson had been learned. Instead, they would be guerrilla warfare.

In these circumstances, the Caribs had a distinct advantage, and this tactic may have had eventual success. However, the Frenchmen were not prepared to continue to live under these conditions. They would not sit and be picked off one by one. Drastic action was required.

Leaving the fort quietly under cover of darkness, a strong force surprised the east coast Carib village at daybreak and launched a vicious attack. Regardless of age or sex, they cut to pieces every Carib they found. Vegetable gardens were uprooted, huts were razed to the ground, canoes were seized and packs of bloodthirsty settlers hunted the woods, ravines and mountains liquidating any survivors of the massacre.

This bloody event marked the end of resistance by Caribs living in Grenada but did not mark the end of French troubles. Infuriated by the massacre, Caribs from St Vincent and other islands made surprise raids on outlying areas of the island. They killed every white person they found and did as much damage as they could.

Again, the French resolved that positive action was needed. Two ships were equipped and commissioned to deal with the marauders and this proved to be the answer to the problem. In a series of skirmishes, the Caribs were so severely mauled they were forced to abandon the raids and, at last, there was peace in Grenada.

When the well known Roman Catholic priest, Pere Labat, visited Grenada in 1700, there were still Caribs on the island. Labat was concerned to find a few of them squatting on church lands in the St Mark's district, but they posed no threat. Today in Grenada, however, except for a quota of the mélange of blood now flowing in Grenadian veins, there is no longer any living evidence of the Caribs.

The Archeological Record

But there is archeological evidence of their occupation. There are several petroglyphs, the most important of which is at Mt Rich in St Patricks. Here, a huge boulder is covered with scores of rock carvings. Some show clear relationship to fertility symbolism but the mystery of others is still to be unrivalled.

There are, too, many sites, complete with kitchen middens, waiting to be scientifically excavated. Some work has been done already, but there is no complete island-wide plan to unlock the information waiting to be unearthed. A definitive, all inclusive exploration of these ancient Carib dwelling places is still to be done.

When that day comes, if archeological finds excavated in South America and in other Caribbean islands may be taken as an indication, fascinating material will be recovered.

There will be painted potsherds, curious beads, beautiful ornaments, incense burners and other vessels used in religious ceremonies.. There will also be unusual cooking utensils and ingenious shell tools, all material which will tell the tale of a long-ago existence difficult to visualise today.

Displayed, this material will be not only an education to today's generation but a fitting memorial to the first Grenadians.

Alister Hughes

[adapted for the Grenada's Story web site: 15 September 2002.]

This web site is published and promoted by Margaret and Alister Hughes for the people of Grenada, in the hope that the stories recounted here will help to restore the heritage of Grenada to all.

This is a site for all Grenadians and well wishers. We invite the active support and assistance from all Grenadians and wellwishers in order to preserve, defend and promote the heritage of the country.