History of Roseau, Dominica's Capital

Roseau is the capital of the Commonwealth of Dominica and is located on the south-west coast of the island, bound by the Caribbean Sea. Approximatley14000 people reside in the capital and its environs. Historically, Roseau is the hub of the islands commercial activity. The site on which Roseau was established was inhabited long before the Europeans discovered and began to settle on Dominica. Settlement by Europeans was delayed, due to the unfavorable conditions- as it was not an island with many protective harbors, it was inhabited by hostile natives, and the terrain was inhospitable. Roseau is therefore a “young” city as compared to the cities in other Caribbean islands.

The indigenous people of Dominica the Caribs, strategically settled along the river banks constructing their village huts out of the sturdy river reeds which grew in abundance. The location offered a supply of fresh water, access to the sea and a flat landscape. Much later Roseau would be named by the French settlers for that same reed, rozeaux which flourished on the sandy banks in and around the river.

Central in the chain of islands, Dominica became a more popular midway stop for the French ships. In 1642, the French missionary Father R. Breton came across a Carib village called Sari headed by Carib Chief Ukale, this is the area known today as Roseau.

Once the French wood cutters were able to befriend the Caribs, they began to live with them in their settlements, with further entrenching the European footprint. But as the European settlements began to intensify the Caribs retreated to the forests.

The French choose the same area to settle as it had already been established as the trading post; it had flat land for expansion, and had a fresh supply of water, was on the sea. For many years after the French first settled, the island itself was the object of constant battle between the French and English. Although, the French gained control over Dominica under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, war waged on between the French and British for control over the island. In 1783 the British regained full control but the French remained on the island living on their estates while the British concentrated in the Roseau area.

The British had no intention of utilizing poorer Roseau as the capital of the island. They had chosen Portsmouth for its location in the Prince Rupert Bay as it was situated in the arms of a protected harbor, it had greater amount of flat lands which surrounded the bay. The plans for this development were quickly chucked when the military engineers realized that the threat of malaria and yellow fever outweighed the advantages of Portsmouth’s fine harbor, easy defense and many sources of fresh water. Instead, the honor fell to the mediocre French village of Roseau, which was at that time clustered amongst the river reeds.

Roseau would soon prove a good selection as it was used as the main commercial area on the island and in 1766 it was declared a free port. This meant foreign ships could use the port for trade in legally imported goods.

The British soon realized that the town and its port needed fortification and in 1771, Royal Engineer Captain Bruce, began work on the plans for the sea and land defenses. Fort Young, which was a small wooden fort built by the French was located on a hill which overlooked the ocean and the town, was already strategically located and was rebuilt in stone and named after the first governor William Young. It served as a police station in the 1950’s and in 1967 was purchased by a group of local businessmen, who turned the old fort into the Fort Young Hotel which still operates today.

To compound fortification of the capital, Guy’s Hill, later renamed Morne Bruce (in honor of George Bruce, Captain of the Royal Engineers) was outfitted a fort and garrison. The cliffs and steep slopes gave an excellent position for defense. This fort was located on the eastern hill bordering the city and the fortifications were set atop this hill, where it looks down on the entire expanse of Roseau. Today, this is a familiar and panoramic lookout point.

The British began to make plans for the Town of Roseau and by 1768 the final plans were drawn up. The town was divided into very neat and small blocks which to this date is a unique feature of Roseau. The streets of Roseau were named after lords, kings, queens and other heads of government of its time. Great George Street was named after the king of England, Victoria Street after the Queen of England, and Hanover Street after a member of the Royal house. To this day some streets retain the names given to them.

The architecture of the buildings in the town reflected that of both the French and the British. Verandahs, porticos and fretwork were very popular during colonization and can still be seen in the few remaining preserved colonial houses around town. Some of the town’s architecture was destroyed in fires during the many battles fought over ownership of the island. In 1781 the French troops were blamed for a fire which almost destroyed the entire town of Roseau. In 1806 the Roseau River overflowed its banks and killed over one hundred people and destroyed many homes. In 1979, the country was hard hit by hurricane David, the port and sea walls were disintegrated. That area has since been redeveloped into the Dame Eugenia Boulevard, and where the old port used to be is now the Cruise Ship berth.

The plans by the British to make Roseau the commercial centre of the island was quickly materializing. By 1765 the first government was instated. The main Catholic Church was constructed and when the British abandoned the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church was constructed. By 1885 plans for the Botanical Gardens were being laid down and by 1887 the Public Library commenced as a reading room. Over the years the British built and renovated several buildings such as the Old Market Plaza and the Baracoon Building which now houses the Roseau Town Council offices. Located adjacent to the main port in its time, these buildings were originally used to conduct trade and commerce. The old Baracoon building was a slave trading post.

Roseau is still the main commercial hub of Dominica to this date. The principal government buildings are within its limits, the court, the registry, and the government house, the house of assembly, the police station, the Public library, schools, banks and most major businesses. Many of the historical buildings remain in good condition, and private residences of colonial time are major attractions for visiting tourist and architectural enthusiast. Although the town is relatively small, through its buildings and the culture, the history of the town is remembered and appreciated.


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