The Final Conquest

Hurricane Maria as the latest battle in a 500 year war.

Residents take stock of the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Roseau, Dominica, on September 20, 2017. AFP / Getty Images

I visited Dominica in early August this year. Back then, it was still an emerald island. The shores rising out of the sea were, as ever, covered by impossibly green woods. On the slopes of the mountains, trees and plants jostled for space and stretched towards the sun, as though they were on the verge of leaving the ground and soaring into the sky, so that the whole place seemed to be bursting with green. But it was not monochrome: every peak and ravine, every valley and grove had its own shade, intersected by some nuance of blue or turquoise — Dominica claimed to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. It was the most densely forested country in the Caribbean. No other island in the region is so rugged and mountainous. From this base sprouted a history unlike that of any other Caribbean nation — all the way up to the night of September 18, when Hurricane Maria razed everything that stood on the island of Dominica to the ground.

Europe made landfall on Columbus’s second journey. The fleet couldn’t find a place to anchor on the jagged coast, but Columbus swiftly baptized the island after the weekday when he saw it — Dominica, “the day of the lord,” Sunday in Latin. Back home in Europe, the chronicler of the journey reported: “Dominica is remarkable for the beauty of its mountains and the amenity of its verdure and must be seen to be believed.” Columbus himself is said to have — ominously — crumpled up a piece of paper to convey the exceptional irregularity of the terrain.

Here, the Spaniards failed to dislodge the indigenous population. While the “Indians” were exterminated throughout the Caribbean, the so-called Caribs, more appropriately referred to as the Kalinago people — whose reputation the Spaniards succeeded in tarnishing with the false accusation of cannibalism — stayed safe in the luxuriant mountains. Settlers avoided the island for fear of poisoned arrows suddenly showered upon them.

For more than two centuries after Columbus arrived, the Kalinago ruled under the cover of the woods. They used the sanctuary to stage raids against European colonies encroaching on nearby islands and, not the least unnervingly, began to receive black slaves fleeing from plantations. Something had to be done about the free zone: in 1675, a group of London merchants called for the Empire to “destroy the barbarous savages,” while French planters declared it “necessary to wipe them out altogether.”

Massacres on the Kalinago ensued, the most famous of which gave name to a village; in August, there was still a small town called “Massacre” standing on the site. But unlike most everywhere else, the people could not be fully extinguished. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Kalinago had retreated to a particularly inhospitable corner on the northeast of Dominica, clinging to cliffs no one else could master. In August, it was possible to visit the territory of the only surviving Kalinago population, the remnants of a people once in charge of the Caribbean: some 3,000 individuals who still owned their land in common and eked out a precarious existence from traditional handicrafts based on what the forests gave.

Dominica was the last island to be colonized. Flat like the side of a coin, Barbados could be shaved clean of all natural vegetation and transformed into one great plantation for whipping profits out of black bodies and red-brown soil. The same fate was bestowed on island after island, but this one held out for long. As Lennox Honychurch, one of the country’s pre-eminent historians and intellectuals, writes, “[It] continued to stand green and defiant in the center of the chain of the Lesser Antilles,” until the British finally conquered it in 1761. Having exhausted much of the soil on Barbados and other old sugar islands, planters were by now clamoring for fresh land and immediately set about surveying, enclosing, auctioning, and buying plots.

For capital accumulation to get off the ground, however, one obstacle first had to be removed: the woods. In a tract from 1791, planter Thomas Atwood marveled at the beauty of the trees that “by far exceed in loftiness the tallest trees in England. In this island their tops seem to touch the clouds, which appear as if skimming swiftly over their upper branches,” proceeding to explain why they must be cut down. As he wrote, there could be no avoiding “the necessity, in order to render Dominica a good sugar country, of clearing the extensive forests of trees in the interior parts of it. When this is done, and not till then, will this island be distinguished for the number of its sugar plantations, and for the quantity of sugar it is absolutely capable of raising.”

This plan for the denudation of Dominica was never implemented. For as sure as the cat-o’-nine-tails and gibbets arrived with the Europeans, so a new people settled inside the woods: the maroons. From cimarrón, a Spanish word meaning “wild” or “feral,” the maroons — slaves running away to live in the wilderness — were the perpetual shadow of the plantation system, extending into its hinterland wherever it was established.

In Dominica, they found unusually propitious terrain. With comparative ease, slaves could slip away from the plantations and head up to one of the camps in the hills, where their masters were unlikely to ever track them down. Back in August of this year, I could still see the contours of one such camp, named after the legendary maroon leader Jacko, who ensconced his followers on a plateau high up in the rain forest, above the swift-flowing river Layou (which the English unsuccessfully sought to rename “the Thames”). An old farmer named Magnus, with a few words of English and intimate knowledge of the forest and a small plot of land not far from the site, guided us.

It was a steamy, rainy day. The unbroken clouds above our heads floated into the valleys and took momentary hold of land below, as though straining to soak up as much of the island as possible. The vegetation overflowed, figs and palms, guavas and cedars, mahoganies, tree ferns, and swamp apples running over each other. Magnus picked leaves of wild basil to give to my daughter, to her delight. After having waded knee-deep through the Layou, we could take only one route up to the plateau: through stairs cut deeply into the cliffs, forming coiling defiles, at their narrowest less than half a meter wide. Any company coming here would have to walk in single file.

Carved high above the other, the more than one hundred steps made for slow and arduous climbing, further impeded by carpets of slippery leaves. In the deepest wild of Dominica, this over two-centuries-old man-made construction stood intact: a mousetrap for the English soldiers, easily picked off by Jacko’s maroons.

The planters could never quite tame the island. Honychurch’s In the Forests of Freedom: The Fighting Maroons of Dominica describes how Dominica was effectively divided into two zones: one tiny ribbon of plantations along the coastlines, and one vast interior realm of maroon power where the whites dared not tread. An English governor referred to the latter as an “imperium in imperio,” a state within a state. Loosely federated villages were ruled by black chiefs, who had often been born in West Africa and knew how to arrange small huts and gardens into self-sufficient communities, protected by armed fighters and actively expanded by recruiters sent down to the estates.

Neil C. Vaz argues that these societies were inspired by the egalitarian ethos of the Igbos and other West African nations and conducted a persistent campaign of revolutionary subversion against the plantocracy. For the maroons, the forests of Dominica were not obstacles for exchange value, but storehouses of use value: with frustration, Atwood detailed how the wild yam, game, and innumerable fruits — “what the sea, rivers, and woods afforded” — allowed them to live “very comfortably.”

Inevitably, the two states came to blows. Several rounds of fighting in the late-eighteenth century left the maroons an even more formidable force than before. In the early 1810s, the number living in their zone was put at 800, but the lines between maroons and slaves were blurring: the plantations leaked like sieves. Many had to be abandoned. Slaves came and went as they saw fit; one day in 1812, all eighty slaves on the plantation of Castle Bruce resolved to decamp for the woods.

The costs for protection against maroon raids drained the finances of the colony. To save the beleaguered colony, the white governor declared all-out war on the maroons in 1813 — “all indiscriminately will be put to the bayonet” — and sent out the only force that could fight them with skill and motivation: other slaves, promised their freedom if they killed a chief.

Desperate blacks pitted against desperate blacks, the whites won the final war in Dominica. In July 1814, a party of “black rangers” entered Jacko’s camp and surprised the aging leader; he made a desperate last stand, killing two rangers and wounding a third before being shot through the head. The triumphant governor reported to London that Jacko, who titled himself “governor of the woods,” had been “in the woods for forty-six years in hostility to his Majesty’s Government.” The other camps fell in similar fashion, with the bodies of shot or executed maroons methodically burnt and martial law upheld, and the colonial regime finally achieved some tranquility.

But it was too late. After centuries of resistance from first the Kalinago and then the maroons, the English had lost the opportunity to turn Dominica into a lucrative sugar, cotton, or coffee island. It was the shortest and frailest plantation system anywhere in the Caribbean. After the abolition of slavery in 1834, there was not — uniquely — any white ruling class that could uphold power by other means: Dominica fell to the blacks. The former slaves retreated inland to engage in subsistence farming.

When English author Anthony Trollope stopped by in 1860, he lamented that “there are no shops that can properly so be called. The people wander about, idle, chattering, listless, there is no sign of money made or of money making.” From his perspective, a human society could not possibly descend to a lower state, and until formal independence in 1978, Dominica did indeed seem to frustrate all the British Empire’s schemes to turn it into a source of profit.

From the opposite perspective, the maroons founded a high culture. As Polly Pattullo describes in Your Time is Done Now, a recent book on their history, the maroons are said to have “set in train a tradition in Dominica that ensures that abuse of governmental power can be challenged by direct action of the people. Concomitant with this is an independence of spirit and a combative assertion of equality.”

On emancipation day in 2013, two hundred years after the declaration of the final war, the authorities unveiled a statue of a maroon blowing a conch shell — a severed chain around his wrist — in the central roundabout in Roseau. Back in August, it was still standing, as were several stone buildings from slave plantations, overgrown by vines and intricate root systems. The forest cover on the island was greater than at any time since the English conquest. For Honychurch, the maroon legacy has inspired “a respect for the forested citadel of this island,” where most peasants, such as Magnus, practice subsistence farming and trade on a small scale.

It follows that Dominica was poor. While the neighboring island of Guadaloupe is a satellite of the EU, filled with smooth traffic and the advanced facilities of a Riviera resort town, the population centers of Dominica had, back in August, a ramshackle appearance. The trade union headquarters in Roseau was housed in what looked like a cottage. Few buildings were higher than two stories, often made of wood; even the main street had potholes.

But this underdevelopment was also a resource: in the last decades, Dominica branded itself “Nature Island” and sought to attract tourists not to sandy beaches (there are few) nor to luxury hotels (there are none), but to the splendor of its unspoiled landscapes. When the government responded positively to Hugo Chavez’s proposal to build a giant oil refinery in 2007, popular outrage forced it to shelve the idea. Despite the forces stacked against it, Dominica continued, for some time more, to stand green and defiant.

Then came the storms. In August 2015, tropical storm Erika — not even a category 1 hurricane — unleashed torrents of rain over grounds already saturated from weeks of rain. In the middle of one night, a series of landslides rumbled down the hillsides. As of August this year, the country was still licking the wounds from that disaster, most visible in the southeast, near what used to be the town of Petite Savanne. A smattering of brightly colored blue and pink villas remained perched on some outcrops; of their many neighbouring buildings, no traces could be seen. The hills looked as though they had been flayed. The grass and roots and trees had been removed in dozens of long stretches, the brown soil exposed to the air. Home to nearly 1,000 people and the country’s small bay oil industry, Petite Savanne was virtually obliterated by the landslides.

Erika killed thirty people — out of a national population of 70,000, this meant a larger proportion killed than by Hurricane Katrina — and destroyed infrastructure equivalent to 90 percent of the GDP. The same terrain that proved a blessing to the Kalinago and maroons had turned into a curse. With its precipitous slopes, Dominica had become extremely vulnerable to landslides in this new era of anomalously protracted rainfall.

Erika was nothing compared to Maria. A category 5 hurricane, Maria slammed straight into Dominica last Monday. As of this writing, CNN has just aired the first aerial footage of the island: it shows a brown country. “Not a tree untouched across the island,” says the reporter. “Thousands snapped in two. No greenery left. There was spectacular rain forest here. No more,” he announces while flying over clear-felled areas and shattered houses. The extraordinarily ferocious winds of Maria appear to have blown away Dominica’s forest cover.

No one yet knows how many have died — there has been no word from most of the rural areas, no survey of the landslides, no digging out of the bodies, no accounting of the devastation. But it appears that the fate of Petite Savanne is that of Dominica as a whole. The current estimate is that 97 percent — in other words, all — of the houses have been badly damaged. The flaying is island-wide, the rivers as brownish-grey as the mountains. It looks like nothing is left.

Signs are, in other words, that this island has been thrown into an uninhabitable state. By what force? After Erika, the World Bank took stock of the losses and declared: “Dominica lost almost all its GDP due to climate change.” This time, Dominica has been leveled by climate change. So has Richard Branson’s own private island, but he has some resources to fall back on; someone like Magnus, if he is still alive, has not. This is an island brought to its knees.

In an earlier epoch, Dominica could perhaps have been rebuilt — back in August, a new village for the survivors from Petite Savanne was still under construction — but in a warming world, we know the hurricanes will return again, stronger, fueled and refueled by the excess energy stored in the ever-warmer seas. Who has sent that energy into the system? Certainly not the descendants of the Kalinago and the slaves and the maroons. This is not the Anthropocene: this is the Capitalocene, where the capitalist mode of production exacts its brutal and total revenge on a place like Dominica — not an intentional revenge, of course, but a structurally determined one. After all those years, the destruction initiated and desired by people like Columbus and Atwood is on its way completion.

It is time to see this for what it is: a war. On September 19, Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea; the day before, he and the class he represents had just achieved something similar in Dominica. This war might be undeclared, but it has all the objective qualities of one: a group of people systematically and knowingly killing another group or otherwise laying their lives — including their culture, history, and the very lands on which they stand — to waste. It is shock and awe plus scorched earth tactics. It is affluent, predominantly white people dumping their lethal substances over the heads of poor people, predominantly people of color, with immeasurable beauty eradicated in the process. But is anyone fighting back? Is this a war of two combatants, or only one?