The Kalinago of Grenada

By Margaret Hughes

We call them Carib, Arawak, Siboney. They called themselves Kalinago. These early Grenadian inhabitants, from around the time of Christ to 1650 AD (approx), unfortunately, have been largely forgotten, and their story has been overwritten by European colonisers.

A glimpse into the lives of these interesting ancestors was provided by Dr. Lennox Honeychurch, a distinguished Caribbean anthropologist from Dominica when he visited Grenada at the invitation of Mrs. Beverley Steele, Resident Tutor, UWI, School of Continuing Studies in January last. His visit generated great interest and contributed widely towards an appreciation of the important heritage left us by the Kalinago. Dr. Honeychurch spent ten days here. He spoke to artists, teachers, students, local organizations and the general public both in Grenada and in Carriacou.

A tour of Kalinago sites, supervised by Dr. Honeychurch, was taken by many Grenadians and evoked enthusiastic expressions of appreciation. Some told me "the trip revealed how fortunate we are to have this rich heritage". Others said,"the only perspective I had of our history was the European one. Now, I have another" and "the Caribbean is one of the most diverse regions in the world"

In Carriacou, after a tour of sites, the school children and teachers returned to listen to a lecture. Gertrude Simon, who hosted the Carriacoun visit , reported, " Dr. Honeychurch's visit can be summed up in words of local participant, Raul Paterson, "I knew the lecture was a success, when I saw it was after seven and the people were still listening." Gertrude Simon continued, "because of the impact, we are hoping to invite him back. People who could not attend, now want to hear him"

Dr. Honeychurch delivered a lecture with slide show to 40 students and artists at T.A. Marryshow College. Reporting this interesting event, artist Susan Mains says all were eager to hear of the potential of incorporating the spirit of our Kalinago heritage into the language and presentation of the visual arts. "Dr. Honeychurch's focus gave meaning to the figures used by the Kalinago," she said, "these all carry iconology which can be incorporated into the visual arts, and there was a lively discussion about making art, not only as a souvenir item sold to tourists, but for cultural enrichment."

Peter Antoine, who organized the Grenville visit, reports it was a great success. The atmosphere in the "Old Church" was intimate, he said, and the audience was enthusiastic. The evening was hosted by the Grenada Education and Development Programme (GRENED) and St. Andrews Development Organization (SADO) and a report by Charles Boehm of Grened, not only covered this session, but captured the essence of Dr. Honeychurch's visit to Grenada. "Dr. Honeychurch started by noting the proximity to Pearls, on Grenada's Eastern Coast which he described as 'the most important archeological site in the Caribbean. This area was a major stopping point for the Kalinago nation as they travelled northward from the Orinoco River basin in South America. As the southernmost of 'volcanic Caribees,' a geological term for the Windward Islands, Grenada was central to 'the peopling of the Caribbean.' "

The Kalinago were drawn to Pearls by its rich soil, fishing, and natural resources. They arrived with agriculture and pottery skills. Honeychurch described their close connection to the earth and its subsequent effect on their worldview. The Kaninago religion was based on the seasons and their cyclical patterns. Winter and summer equinox were carefully tracked, as were rainfall levels, because the wet and dry seasons were critical for life. The dry season was considered the men's domain, because their skills of hunting and gathering were in demand at this time. This was represented in pottery and other art by the bat, a creature which was more prevalent during the dry months and bore more male characteristics (aggressive, restless, migratory). Conversely, the wet season was regarded as 'feminine' in nature, a fertile time for growing crops and maintaining stability. The frog was identified with these qualities and thus figures prominently in petroglyphs and pottery designs.

Other symbols commonly used by the Kalinago included owls (representing the underworld) manatees (once inhabitants of Grenada's bays and inlets), simple face designs, suns, moons, and cosmological figures.

Gorge at St. Patricks with Carib Stopn Chalking Petroglyphs at St. Patricks

Petroglyphs, such as the ones found near Mt. Rich, in the North of the island, are a major legacy of the Kalinago. These rock carvings seem to be placed symbolically, possibly to catch the sun's rays and measure seasonal progress. Unfortunately, modern scholars know little about their true meaning. Honeychurch made an interesting point on this issue by comparing Kalinago images to modern symbols such as signs for men's/women's restrooms, traffic signs, etc. We take them for granted on a daily basis because they are basic communicators of meaning within our culture. Once removed from their original context, they are just as baffling to outsiders as the Kalinago petroglyphs are to us.

Petroglyph Detail at Mt. Rick, St. Patricks


Dr. Honeychurch also touched on the topic of ethnobotany, which seeks to learn more about a culture through its use of plants and vegetation. While many of Grenada's most popular crops such as mango, breadfruit, and banana were imported during the colonial era, others have been here for millennia and were important to the Kalinago. Sugar apple, or lakikili, has been in Grenada for over 2000 years; the Kalinago boiled its leaves to make a tea for spleen pain. Such medicinal knowledge mingled with similar African know-how when slaves began arriving in the islands, still exists today. The cassava, or manioc, was a vital staple for Kalinago, as was the tannia, or taya, and the soursop. The reedy rosear plant, referred to as ariboo, was crucial to the Kalinago. Its fronds were thatched to create an effective roofing material for their huts, while arrows were made from its stalks. If the tribe was going to war, the fishbone arrowheads might be dipped in poisonous manchineel sap.

Kalinago Sharpening Stone at Grand Mal

Also very important was the conch: its meat provided sustenance, while the shell was versatile. It could be sharpened into a blade or axe by grinding on volcanic stone - like the one at Grand Mal or Telescope, where a former Kalinago grinding stone is now called "Knife and Fork Rock." Conch shells also served as a sort of three-dimensional map, as their features mimicked the mountainous terrain of the Windward Island.

Honeychurch entertained the participants with several examples of Kalinago folk tales. As with all religions, their purpose was to create order in society. Thus, the story that explains the origins of the "man-in-the-moon" in which a father must flee the earth after a doomed romance with his daughter, also discourages incest. The Kalinago explanation for the Orion and Seven Sisters constellations centres on a pair of star-crossed lovers, while other tales confirm the existence of flora and fauna such as the crested hummingbird.

Further signs of the Kalinago lifestyle are the craft of canoe building with practitioners today in Dominica and St. Lucia hand-carving boats out of a single tree trunk. Linguistic contributions of the Kalinago exist in our language such as hurricane which comes from their word oorakan, while their term hamak is the ancestor of our "hammock" kayak has remained unchanged.

The prevailing currents of the Caribbean basin, especially from the Orinoco River, strongly influenced indigenous migration. When asked why the Kalinago left South America and migrated north in the first place, Honeychurch answered with the analogy; why do West Indians move to England? Answer; to find opportunity and improved economic prospects, "just as it was for the previous inhabitants of our islands."

Wonderful new horizons were opened up on the history of the Grenadian ancestors during Heritage Week.

As the saying goes "you don't know where you are going, if you don't know where you are coming from" and these new horizons opened up for us an important and exciting vista. But, where will we go from here ? Will we preserve these priceless artifacts, petroglyphs, pottery and locations ? They are important to us not just as a tourist attraction. They are priceless jewels of our heritage and must be preserved. They enhance our environment. They inform and delight, giving us and our children a historical link with the past and a truly Grenadian identity.

1st March 2003

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