The cabrits


Part 2
Natural Setting
The People of Oyouhayo
The Bay for Wood and Water
Site for a Capital

The Cabrits and Prince Rupert Bay

The Cabrits, Prince Bay and Douglas Bay form a capsule that contains a bit of everything that makes Dominica a spectacular example of tropical beauty.  But there is a bonus, for upon the twin hills of the Cabrits lies Fort Shirley and the scattered 18th century garrison that tells us of the island’s history.  Pre-Columbian farmers and warriors lived along the shore and some of the most famous adventurers anchored their vessels here.  Revolts in the cause of liberty were fought and lost among the battlements.

This is an introductory booklet which was first published in 1982 to commemorate the Fort and Battle Bicentennial, 1782 – 1982.  A more detailed version, Historic Prince Rupert’s Bay is in production.

From childhood I was made conscious of these details of nature and history which have continued to hold my fascination.  It is important that the people of Portsmouth and of Dominica generally are aware of these unique features, and I hope that this booklet will encourage the maintenance of the National Park at the Cabrits and the development of Fort Shirley as a center for information and study on every aspect of Dominica’s natural and historical life, a sort of Institute of Dominica to be used by Dominica and visitors alike.

This new edition has been expanded to include colour photographs and a proposal outline.  There is a great deal more to be told about the Cabrits and Prince Ruperts’s Bay but I trust that this little booklet will provide a nucleus for the production of more material on this interesting part of Dominica.

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The Natural Setting

Prince Rupert’s Bay lies between two of Dominica’s largest mountain formations: the volcanic massifs of Morne Aux Diables to the north and Morne Diablotin to the south.  Both are named after Diablotin birds which once inhabited the steeper slopes but became extinct because of over hunting by the French settlers. 

The Bay is in fact formed by ridges running from these two mountains and by the alluvial deposits, the mud and rocks, washed down from the slopes.  The flat land on which the town of Portsmouth stands is so low that in some places it is below sea level.  This caused the formation of many swamps which were the greatest drawback to the settlement and development of the place.  Malaria and Yellow Fever carried by the swamp mosquitoes made the area a notorious graveyard for European soldiers and coloniste.  Not until the 1950’s did eradication campaigns free Portsmouth from this reputation, but by then the Portsmouth from this reputation, but by then the inferior port of Roseau was firmly established as the capital.

The mountains overlooking the Bay are of volcanic origin.  Morne Aux Diables,  The younger of the two massifs, still has sulphur springs near its summit and there are hot springs on the banks of the Picard River.  One nearest the shore is shown on maps of 1768 as having a temperature of 105° F (40° C)  and was recommended as a medicinal bath for ships’ crews.  The twin hills of the Cabrits are the cones of extinct volcanoes similar in origin to Cashacrou or Scotts Head in the south.  The hills were once a separate island until the flat isthmus of sand, coral and stone was formed by the action of the tides and ocean currents sweeping in from Douglas and Prince Rupert’s Bays.

Although the swamps along the Indian River, in Lagon and on the Cabrits isthmus have had their drawbacks, they provide some of the few examples of coastal swamp forest on the island.  Mangrove forest is swamp forest which develops on land regularly in contact with salt water.  Tree families such as Fabaceae and Clusiaceae which can tolerate these conditions are the most common.  The widespreading stilt roots and ‘flying-buttress’ roots enable the plants to obtain oxygen from the air rather than from the waterlogged soil.  The ferns, grasses, palms and other plants which grow along the rivers and at the Cabrits swamp all have their own specialized version of breathing roots.

In its natural state the mangrove swamp plays a vital role in the life cycle of many birds, insects, fish, crab crayfish families.  The trees and these creatures in the early stages of life.  The roots particularly are a veritable nursery for many water-based creatures.  Herons, egrets and doves breed in the trees.  The Cabrit hills are covered with the secondary growth of day deciduous coastal woodland.  In the center of Douglas Bay lies a coral reef which is one kilometer long.  The shore rises steeply into the tropical rainforest and streams tumble through the shady ravines and valleys into the two bays which provide some of the most magnificent tropical scenery in the world.

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The People of Oyouhayo

Oyouhayo Village

Prince Rupert’s Bay was an ideal setting for the pre-Columbian people of Dominica.  It possessed all the requirements of the island-bases tribes who roamed the Caribbean from 5 000 BC: the sheltered bay, fresh water, reefs and fishing banks, land for cultivation and abundant forests bearing all the wood, thatch, bark, fruit and herbs which they needed for their self-sufficient existence.  They called the bay Oyouhayo and the island Waitoukoubouli. 

Hardly any archeological study has made of the area, but through the years visiting experts and enthusiasts have picked up clues which indicate that settlements existing here following the pattern of other Amerindian habitation in the Lesser Antilles.  When the Spaniards first reached Prince Rupert’s Bay, first without landing in 1493 and then more effectively in 1502, they found the area inhabited by Indians who spoke Cariban, a language, which like Arawakan, is widespread in eastern South America.  The material culture of these people belonged to the final pre-Columbian age, or period of development, in the Caribbean area; that age is know as the Neo-Indian.  This means that the Caribs, like the Arawaks on other islands, made pottery.  They also knew the art of farming and were skilled mariners.


It is probable that bays such as Prince Rupert’s were populated by man early as 5 000 BC.  We know about the Arawaks from their finely decorated pottery chards and also from artifacts on other islands, but about the Caribs of Prince Rupert’s Bay we have the  more definite reports of Spanish, French and British visitors who called here after 1493.

The Carib villages along the Bay were each made up of a small number of house with the carbet or communal longhouse in the midst of the dwellings.  Reports indicate that these dwellings were on firm ground out of the reach of the swamps.  Missionaries and other visitors in the 17th century described the giant carbet of the chief of Ouhayo on the bank of the Indian River.

This was a splendid site for a major village.  The canoes entered the river from the sea, paddling up to the firm ground some 300 metres upstream.  Here, surrounded by smaller dwellings was the longhouse of Oyouhayo, the big meeting place where the men assembled.  It was 40 to 50 metres long and could hold some 150 hammocks slung from the several stout posts supporting the roof.  This vaguely oval building was thatched with cachibou leaves tied down with mahoe bark cord.

The men were the fishermen, hunters, warriors, boatbuilders and basket makers.  The women’s work was plant, prepare and cook food.  They also spun thread, wove hammocks and made clay vessels for holding food and liquid.

This pattern did not change as soon as a single Spanish caravel rounded the Cabrits point November 3, 1493, circled the bay and then sailed out again.  Dominica, through the Caribs and its terrain, resisted colonization for a longer period than any other island of the Caribbean.  Although many visitors called at Ouhayo during the next 250 years, the Caribs still held sway over the area until about the 1740’s.

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The Bay for Wood and Water

Christopher Columbus only saw Dominica from a distance in 1493.  It was not until June 18, 1502 that he actually visited the island, landing at “the Bay on the North-west Shore”.  Dominica was a natural stopping place for ships during the age of sail, for the Trade Winds carried the vessels across the Alantic to the Dominica – Guadeloupe Channel. After weeks at sea the crews needed fresh water, wood for their stoves and fruit which they obtained from the Caribs.   Warm springs on the banks of the Picard River also provided them with medicinal baths.  Prince Rupert’s Bay was therefore a popular refreshment stop for the ships of all nations.

Pedro Arias de Avila called here in 1514 with 19 vessels and 1500 men and later suggested to the Spanish Council of the Indies that the island should be held by Spain for the purpose of refreshing crews no colonists settled here, but by 1535 the Board of Trade in Seville made the Bay an official dividing point for the treasure galleons on their way to Central America.  In 1557 on of these convoys loaded with treasure was totally destroyed on the cliffs north of the Cabrits when it was caught in a hurricane on its homeward voyage.

As adventurers of other nations followed the Spaniards in their mad grab for the riches of the New World, visitors to the Bay increased.  The French pirates or corsairs called often.  In 1565 the English captain John Hawkins arrived with his first shipment of slaves bound for the flourishing Spanish colonies.  The following year he was back again with his cousin Francis Drake.  This famous “seadog” was at Prince Rupert’s Bay on his own in 1585 at the start of the plundering ‘Indies Voyage’. Another English adventurer Richard Grenville was here that same year.  John White, the North American colonist, was here in 1590, and George Clifford, 3rd of Cumberland, called in 1596 and was entertained by the Carib chief of Oyouhayo. Two of his captains then danced with the chief’s daughters, which was quite a social achievement:

The French sent the missionary Fr. Raymond Breton in 1642 who stopped off at Oyouhayo on his way to live at Itassi (Vieille Case).

In 1652, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I was running away from the navy of Oliver Cromwell and found refuge in the Bay which bears his name.  Another important soldier associated with the Bay was Lord Cathcart who died off Dominica in 1740 on his way to fight the Spaniards at Cartagena. A monument to his memory stands in Portsmouth and it is believed that he was buried beneath the mass of locally cut stone.  By then French were beginning to settle the place and this caused the British to attack and eventually capture in 1759 the island which had hitherto been “neutral”.

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Site for a Capital

When the Treaty of Paris in 1763 transferred Dominica to the British, Surveyors and engineers were quickly sent out to the island to lay plans for the towns, plantations and coastal defences.  In August 1765 a portion of land at Prince Rupert’s Bay was divided into 206 lots separated by 23 streets with a large central square.  On the eastern side of this were to stand the Courts of Justice, House of Assembly and Government offices.  On the bank of the Indian River there was to be a market place and dockyard.  The town was called Portsmouth and it was intended to be the capital of the colony.

This was a natural choice, for the Bay is an excellent harbour and the surrounding land slopes very gently.  But it never became the capital for people who tried to settle there found it sickly and were forced to abandon it and move to Roseau. By 1771 it looked like a deserted village.  In an effort to spur on development, Portsmouth was declared a free port in 1766 so that it could be used as a trading post for ships of all nations, but this did little to improve its importance.

The Royal Engineers who came out to establish the forts to defend the island against the French and other foreign forces noted the strategic importance of the Cabrits headland at once. From 1771 there hills, but building began in earnest late in that decade just before the French captured the island again.  From 1778 to 1782, French engineers took over where the British had left off in the hope that they would hold the island permanently. But the Treaty of Versailles, influenced by the British victory at the Battle of the Saints, returned Dominica to the British.  From then, until 1813, work on the Cabrits garrison was a start – and – stop affair.  By the end of it, the British, employing rented slaves, white artisans, soldiers and engineers had covered the 200 acres with one fort, seven batteries, six cisterns, powder magazines, ordnance storehouses, barracks and officers’ quarters to house and provide for 500 men and a company of artillery with officers.

Lieutenant Charles Shipley of the Royal Engineers provided most of the plans, but the driving force behind the construction was General Thomas Shirley who served as Governor of Dominica and later of Antigua.  He was insistent in the need for fortifications on the islands and on the Cabrits garrison Fort Shirley bears his name.

Stone was cut down the coast at Grand Savannah, boulders were carried, cannons hauled, land cleared and by the end of it all 35 cannons of various sizes were pointing seaward from the Cabrits waiting for the enemy.


More about the Cabrits: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

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