Gli Gli Voyage – Traditional Caribbean Canoes

by Mimi George and Aragorn Dick-Read

In 1995 a 35 foot long Carib fishing canoe made in Dominica Island. The tree that became Gli Gli grew on the 4000 acre parcel of remote Atlantic coast that is home for Carib (Kalinago) people. They are the survivors of violent European incursion in the 1600s.  Sugar plantations thrived everywhere on Dominica except the mountainous area that became the Carib Reserve. There the trees had not been cleared for sugar production. Kalinago people used these trees to make canoes and crafted baskets and sold them to plantation owners.

For hundreds of years the Kalinago community lived in near total isolation from any other Carib people. They wondered if they were the only Carib people left.  As generations of youth attended British schools and followed British requirements, knowledge of Carib language was lost. In 1995 a group of Carib youth aimed to sail a traditional canoe down the Lesser Antilles chain of island to the Orinoco Delta in South America. They wanted to reconnect with any surviving Carib people there.   The idea was to make a symbolic journey to reconnect the surviving Kalinago Carib of the islands with their tribal heartlands in Guyana.

Gli Gli is the Kalinago name for the sparrow hawk, once revered as a totemic symbol of bravery. The project was led by two artists and activists, Kalinago Carib Jacob Frederick and Antilles born Aragorn Dick-Read. Gli Gli was the final work of the last master canoe builder of the Carib Territory, Etien Charles (‘Chalo’).   He directed 21 young people in the ancient art that had helped avert their extinction.

Gli Gli

Gli Gli – – Photo Credit: McDuff Everton

Gli Gli is an open boat. The group felled a huge Gommier Tree to form the keel. Gommier is so-named for it’s very gummy, gluey sap.  They dug out the tree, then widened the opening widened using water and hot rocks. They fastened large planks to the sides, and carved collar–shaped ribs (frames) from white cedar to support the entire inside.  They chose to use metal fasteners throughout because that was what was done for so long in building canoes for sale to plantations. They installed a pintle and gudgeon rudder because some of the crew were not confidant they had the skill required to steer using the old free-form, lashed on, sweep that was traditional.  The seams were sealed with the gum from the tree.  A sail was made using the template of a traditional Carib sail.

hot stones in water to spread opening - Photo Credit: McDuff Everton

hot stones in water to spread opening – Photo Credit: McDuff Everton

Two years later they sailed for Grenada,Trinidad, and then Guyana. They were able to meet with various Carib and Arawak communities on the Pomeroon River, all of whom are keen to receive the ‘Gli Gli’ on its arrival.  Together they discovered that they sang the same songs and danced the same dances. They visited Carib communities and archaeological sites. They engaged with the public, the media and schools. They bought supplies and made Carib craft work, which they sold along the way to pay their traveling expenses.

After return to Dominica the crew continued its mission of reconnection and cultural revival of any remaining First Peoples throughout the Caribbean chain. In 2007 they sailed north and further extended their lei of hope.  Now Gli Gli carries school children from Trellis Bay on Beef Island, the far east end of Tortola Island of the British Virgins. The Carib community on Beef Island sells crafts in hopes of founding a school of seafaring for youth of the islands.

Another dream is now being planned. One of the Gli Gli crew, John Francis, Aragorn Dick-Read, and other members of the Dominica and Tortola communities, aim to build a slightly longer canoe. This time they will use a traditional steering sweep and no modern fasteners. They want to sail it to reunite with the Carib community in Belize.  There in Belize are the only Carib communities left who still speak the Carib language.  Revival of Carib language is another key to revival of Carib culture.

Gli Gli and escort schooner - Photo Credit: McDuff Everton

Gli Gli and escort schooner – Photo Credit: McDuff Everton

Good Moon Organic Farm:

African slaves of the British conquerors of Beef Island, Tortola built rock walled terraces into the steep mountainside back in the 1700s.  At that time sugar was so valuable then that it was worthwhile growing cane in narrow terraces. Rum was distilled in a small stone structure. Now farm tools are housed there.

Before the British came there was mahogany forest.  Now Aragorn Dick-Read, and his family, Carib crafters, and woofers clear the choking brush away from the iconic Caribbean Saber and breadfruit trees. The Saber trees make fine canoes, and the breadfruit were brought here by none other than Mr. Blye.  Piles of scrap wood lie in heaps that will be burnt to make charcoal—a traditional fertilizer that brings the poor and arid soil to life by providing nutrients and by harboring water. Among the terraces, a large leafed variety of Taro, known here as Taenia, wave in the strong trade winds.  Taenia was and is still the main staple of First Peoples of these islands.  Good Moon Farm supplies yachts and restaurants with fresh vegetables and fruits. Carib artisans harvest materials at the farm to make crafts that Dick-Read sells in his studio in Trellis Bay.

As we walk along the steep switchback paths through the terraces Aragorn picks a variety of greens and aromatic leaves, such as Cinnamint. He gives us a branch of it to make an infusion of delicious and broadly medicinal tea. Hokule’a crew drank this on the 5 day voyage to Cuba.