Carib Basket from Dominica

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in case 118 there is a modern Carib lidded basket from Dominica (1898.19.1). It is a plaited plant leaf basket called a pagala. Caribs were warlike native South Americans who inhabited the Lesser Antilles and parts of the South American coast at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Dominica is the most unspoilt of the Windward Islands, lying between Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south. The original Arawak population was ousted by Caribs around 1000 AD, and they dominated most of the Eastern Caribbean by the arrival of Columbus. Today, some 3000 Carib descendants live on Dominica, whose original Carib name was Waitukubuli.

The lidded basket in patterned black and brown weave was donated by Mr Skeat (1891), brother of the Crown Surveyor who laid out the boundaries of the Carib reserve from 1896. The Dominican Carib Territory (eventually established in 1903) comprises 5700 acres, with an extensive coastline, on the eastern side of the island. Modern Caribs continue to live by farming, fishing, basket weaving and building traditional hand-made dugout canoes. The early Caribs and Arawaks were skilfull potters, carvers and weavers. Today, there are small craft shops along the coast road, south through their territory, from the Carib villages of Salybia and Sineku to David Bay.

The Dominican lidded basket can be compared with a Carib basket (1961.7.25) made in 1881 from the aerial roots of Monstera pertusa rather than palm leaf. Guyanese relatives of the island Caribs provide another example with the woven hunting satchel (1958.3.40) in Case 23 in the Upper Gallery called a pakala or sacki. Woven from the manali palm (Ischnosiphon obliquus) the black patterning is manali bragon (note the Dominican basket) and was made at Akawaio. Similar Guyanese Carib baskets on display in the Museum demonstrate affinities in style and craft continuity that still exist among the Dominican descendants of the early populations of the eastern Caribbean. Modern Caribs of Dominica produce woven straw and palm leaf goods, such as mats and hats, for the local tourist trade. Dominican Caribs adopted much from enslaved Arawaks and maroons (escaped slaves) – indeed the technique of watertight basket making may be African in origin.

First printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum. July 2003.

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