Like an ancient parchment overwritten with time, the Grenadian landscape is strewn with the remnants of the various peoples who have inhabited these small islands. For almost two millennia, they have written, rewritten, altered and reshaped each other’s imprints on the environment. Today, the Grenadian landscape is a tapestry of cultures and peoples who have struggled, fought for and against, rebelled, oppressed, exploited, survived, and triumphed. They have preserved cultural memories of far-off places, danced to ancestral rhythms, prepared foods that have nourished for generations, told stories of folk spirits that roamed the nocturnal landscape, and scribbled mysterious mythologies on rock faces. All of this has been somehow creolized over the centuries to create the “Isle of Spice” that we celebrate with its rich cultural heritage. As visitors explore Grenada, the places they visit, the activities they enjoy and the people they meet are living, breathing testament to this cultural heritage.
Indigenous beginnings dotted across the landscape
It all began, of course, with indigenous peoples from South America who inhabited Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique for the longest period of our cultural history. Though often overlooked, today we recognise the importance of the islands’ indigenous past that dates back to around 300 Current Era (CE), with ceramics and pottery found at over 90 sites so far. These artefacts (many of which are housed at the National Museum) reveal stories of migrations of diverse peoples, plants and animals, of foods and their preparations, of the making of tools, and the cultures of these first Grenadians. Their legacy is most present in our agriculture, especially our vegetable gardens, with crops like cassava, sweet potato, arrowroot, and (Indian) yam, and fruits like guava, mammee apple, sapodilla, and soursop.
The indigenous lifeways are dotted across the landscape, including petroglyphs or “Carib Stones” adorned with chiseled faces of humans and animals, and symbols which can be seen on rocks at Waltham, St. Mark, and Duquesne and Mt. Rich, St. Patrick. Although most traces of indigenous peoples and cultures have been overwritten by those who came next, the Grenadian landscape has been enriched by its indigenous past and this needs to be recognized for its continued contributions to our rich heritage.
European settlement and plantation agriculture
The advent of European invasion in the 16th century and their settlement of Camáhogne (the indigenous name for Grenada) after 1649, resulted in profound changes to the landscape and its indigenous peoples, particularly the displacement and ultimately the destruction of the Kalinago (Caribs) and Kalina inhabitants. In the 500 years since, the islands have gone from sparsely populated indigenous spaces to the modern day where almost every piece of ground is impacted by some form of human activity today.
The large scale settlement of the French and then the British and their enslaved (Africans) significantly transformed the Grenadian landscape with dramatic demographic changes and the introduction of numerous exotic flora and fauna. Slave-plantation agriculture supplied international markets with crops like tobacco, indigo, cocoa, coffee and sugar. Provision gardens dotted the mountainsides to feed an ever-growing population, and urban centers and extensive infrastructure emerged to connect the islands’ social and economic activities.
For almost two centuries, the Grenadian landscape was overshadowed by the specter of plantation agriculture and slavery, a reality that is unimaginable today. Plantation ruins can be visited at places like Dunfermline, St. Andrew or Belmont, St. Patrick, and offer glimpses of this dark era with a sort of curated decay, telling but an inadequate tale of what really happened across this tortured landscape.
The origins of Grenadian society as we know it
The end of slavery in Grenada and across the English-speaking Caribbean in 1834 and apprenticeship in 1838 brought about another profound change across the landscape when tens of thousands of formerly enslaved finally threw off the yoke of enslavement. This was the beginning of the Grenadian society that we know today, with many ex-enslaved gaining access to lands and farming on their own, establishing communities and villages. They would also grow crops like banana and spices, especially nutmeg, which dominated the economy in the 1900s.
The political landscape has seen many changes, especially after 1950. In 1951 agricultural workers demanded and won basic labour rights under Eric Gairy. This period was referred to as Sky Red, as during the disturbances, many buildings were set ablaze. Grenadians also received universal adult suffrage in that year, Associate Statehood with the UK in 1962 with the demise of West Indian Federation, and finally Independence in 1974. Five years later, the island witnessed a most profound change when the New Jewel Movement led by Maurice Bishop staged a coup d’état, taking the country on a radical and new path towards economic development. There were many social and economic changes that benefited Grenadians, but political infighting resulted in the implosion of the Grenada Revolution with the executions of Prime Minister Bishop and allies on 19 October 1983 at Fort George, where the bullet holes can still be seen in the inner courtyard. The political vacuum left the door open for a massive US (and Caribbean) invasion a week later, the relics of which are still scattered across the terrain.
Grenadians, however, are resilient, and have created a society fashioned from the ruins of slavery and colonialism, from their memories of ‘home’, from the dreams of their enslaved ancestors, and the hopes for their children.
That society is realised in the Creole amalgam seen today, and celebrated across Grenada, in its villages and its towns, along its coasts and in its valleys, in its streets and in its parks, in its English language littered with French Creole words, in the diversity of indigenous, French and British place names, in its parliamentary democracy with the British monarch as head of state, in its carnival with masquerades like Jab-Jab, Shortknee and Veko, in its religious celebrations of All Saints Day, in its Big Drum dance in Carriacou, in the telling of Ananci Stories, or tales of malevolent spirits like Mama Glo and Sukuyant, in its foods like coucou, oil down, callaloo soup, and pelau, and in its rum punch sprinkled with nutmeg. These have all come together to create our Grenadian landscape and our island identity, that we are so proud to share with the world.
John Angus Martin is a historian, archivist and author of several works documenting Grenada's history and culture. An executive council member of the Grenada National Trust, he is the author of their new 'cocoa' table book, 'Grenada Heritage: A pictorial journey through place and time'.