Roseau, the capital of the Commonwealth of Dominica is located in the south western coast of the island on the Caribbean Sea where approximately 14,000 persons reside. Throughout history Roseau has been the commercial centre of the island. Historic Roseau is a very young town compared to many other towns in the Caribbean, since colonization by Europeans was deferred for Dominica was considered difficult to colonize because of its terrain and the fear of the natives who occupied the islands. The following article aims to give insight into the history of Roseau.
The town of Roseau in Dominica, was inhabited long before the Europeans discovered and began to settle on Dominica. History records that a French missionary, Father Raymond Breton visited the island in 1642 and came upon a Carib village in the area now known as Roseau. The Caribs called the area Sari and Carib Chief Ukale was the head of the village. The Caribs settled along the river banks constructing houses out of the river reeds found along the banks. French wood cutters were able to befriend the natives and lived together with them in the settlement, however as the European settlement began to intensify the Caribs retreated to the forests.
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The town of Roseau got its name from the French settlers who were on the island. It was named Roseau for the river reeds, Roseaux, which grew on the river banks on which the town was formed. The French choose Roseau as the area to set up their settlement because of the flat lands and fresh supply of water available from the river. The island itself was the object of constant battle between the French and English. The treaty of Paris gave Dominica to the French in 1763 but war waged between the two nations over the island and in 1783 the British regained full control but the French remained on the island living on their country estates while the British concentrated in the Roseau area.
The British had no plans to make Roseau the principal capital of the island. They had chosen Portsmouth in the north- for its location in the Prince Rupert Bay, which made a great harbor and for the flat lands which surrounded the bay. This plan proved to be futile since the area was surrounded by a swamp and many settlers became sick and the threat of diseases persisted. By 1770 people began to leave the Portsmouth area and it soon became completely abandoned. The settlers went in search of a healthier environment to set up the main town on the island. Roseau was chosen because it was built near the ocean; it was in a harbor although not ideally protected, and the area proved to be healthier for the settlers. Probably the most important reason was Roseau was chosen as the main commercial area on the island was that in 1766 Roseau was declared a free port; meaning that foreign ships could use the port for trade in legally imported goods. To this date Roseau remains the main capital and Portsmouth the second.
The plans for Roseau’s defense began in earnest in 1771. Captain Bruce the British Royal Engineer designed and planned the towns’ fortification. Fort Young was already built by the French and was expanded, Melville Battery was reorganized to protect the New town Area and plans to fortify Guy’s Hill were also made. Guy’s Hill was later renamed Morne Bruce and is a very popular lookout point today. The entire town of Roseau can be seen from the top of Morne Bruce and is one of the main reasons a fort was constructed at this point. In 1964 Fort Young was renovated and turned into a hotel, the Fort Young Hotel. Although the hotel was seriously damaged by Hurricane David in 1979 it was renovated and is operational to this date, and is one of the aspects of historical Roseau still preserved.
The British continued to make plans for the town of Roseau and by 1768 the final plans were drawn by Nathaniel Minshall. The town was divided into very neat and small blocks which to this date is a characteristic of Roseau. The streets of Roseau were named after important persons on Britain; 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. Some of these streets retain the names given to them.
The architecture of buildings in Roseau reflects that of 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. Disasters have had their impact on the towns establishments as well. Many of the town’s buildings were destroyed in fires during battles which took place between the French and the British. 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.
According to the history of Roseau the plans of the British to make Roseau the commercial centre of the island was quickly materializing. In 1765 the first government was established and by 1885 plans for the Botanical Gardens were being laid down. In 1887 the Public Library commenced as a reading room. Over the years the British improved trade by constructing buildings used for commercial use, such as the Old Market Plaza and the Baracoon Building which now houses the Roseau Town Council Offices. These buildings were used for trading slaves and trade business.
Today Roseau remains the main commercial hub of Dominica. The town still houses the government house, Government headquarters, and Public library and has retained some of the architecture from colonial time in its private homes and commercial buildings. Although the town is relatively small its streets are very colorful and lively reflecting the culture and heritage of its people.