Dominicans who were familiar with the Botanic Gardens during its glory days would probably have tasted and enjoyed an exotic fruit known as lychee which was grown experimentally in the Gardens, and which folks in Roseau refer to as “leechee”.
But many Dominicans today may never have heard of an area on Dominica known as “Leeches Swamp” although adults from Marigot, Concord, Wesley, Londonderry and other communities in the island’s north-east would be very familiar with that small coastal wetland located close to the Melville Hall-Londonderry Main Road. There is even a small bridge known as Leeches Bridge which is located in the vicinity of Leeches Swamp.
The Wetland: This elongated wetland is located a short distance north of the eastern end of the Douglas-Charles Airport runway at Melville Hall and relatively close to Cabana or Londonderry Beach. At one time a small amount of water flowed through that wetland.
This particular wetland is classified as a marsh on account of its being dominated by non-woody plants, including a species of water lily, ‘jon’ – a non-cutting sedge related to ‘razor grass’, spike rush grass and large amounts of a plant with a prickly stem and whose leaves appear to be pointing upward; that latter plant is known in science as Montrichardia arborescens.
Wetlands, with their aquatic plants, mosquitoes, mud and sometimes stagnant water are not popular places in general. But what made Leeches Swamp notorious and to a certain extent popular was the presence of blood-sucking leeches, yes, leeches, therein! This invertebrate is known in Dominican Kwéyòl as ‘sansi’, a word which translates loosely to mean ‘sour blood’.
Origin of Leeches on Dominica: Retired Forestry Officers Charles Richards and Charles Watty who both grew up and still reside in Wesley note that Leeches Swamp was so named on account of the introduced leeches. Watty informed the writer also that he was told by his parents that several years ago leeches had been brought in from Guadeloupe and released in that marsh where they multiplied.
It is not certain whether leeches were introduced to other wetlands on Dominica. However, retired primary school principal Joseph Russell of Woodford Hill notes that a small coastal wetland located near the Woodford Hill Beach and containing water lilies, umbrella sedge and ‘kòk chyen’ never had leeches during his lifetime – as far as he knows.
Leeches in the West Indies: A Google search on the Internet revealed that prior to the 1820s, leeches were not known to occur in the West Indies. Researchers believe that a species of medicinal leech, now referred to as the “Caribbean leech” (Hirudinaria blanchardi), first arrived on some Caribbean islands such as Martinique, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and others, from ships carrying labourers (indentured servants) from colonial India to
the islands, starting from the mid-1840s. Researchers were also very surprised to find a different species of leech on Guadeloupe, a species that originated in Senegal in West Africa, and was supposedly introduced to that island in the 1820s for breeding purposes to facilitate leech therapy.
Collecting Leeches From Leeches Swamp: Watty also noted that when growing up as a young boy he would sometimes see what he described as “truckloads of people” coming from different parts of the island to collect these segmented worms from the ‘swamp’.
But the method of collecting these small invertebrates was most interesting – if not disgusting and disturbing to some. According to Watty, the female harvesters would pull up their skirts whilst their male counterparts would roll up the legs of their trousers, remove their shoes, then both men and women would go stand or walk about in the ‘swamp’ for several minutes.
By the time those persons got out of the marsh several leeches would have attached themselves onto their legs. By that time also, the leeches would have begun to become swollen with blood that they had sucked from the harvesters’ legs. A little bit of salt would then be applied to the skin of the leech which would cause them to detach from the harvester’s skin. The sucked blood would then be squeezed out from the leeches which would then be placed into small jars with water and taken away.
Trading in Leeches: Edwina Joseph who grew up and resides in Roseau recalls that during her childhood days a certain shopkeeper in Lagon (then officially known as Queen Mary Street, now Independence Street), actually sold ‘sansi’ in jars with water and a small piece of charcoal. Petronald Green, from Newtown, also notes that when he was a young boy, a certain lady residing in central Newtown rented and sold leeches to interested persons, to be used for folk medical purposes. Watty also remarked that some persons from his community would return the creatures to Leeches Swamp after they had been used.
Richards recalls his parents telling him that at one time ‘French people’ – most likely from Guadeloupe and/or Marie Galante, traveled to Dominica to collect leeches from Leeches Swamp, and that local fishermen and hucksters going over to Guadeloupe would carry along a few leeches collected from the ‘swamp’ to be sold to the Guadeloupeans.
While visiting the Parc National de Guadeloupe in 2005 the writer observed a few folks who had traveled by bus up to Grand Etang lake in order to collect leeches from underneath pieces of boards, planks and logs which had been left along the edge of the lake to serve as substrates for the leeches to attach themselves to.
Leech Therapy: The health benefits of leech therapy cannot be overemphasized. Accident victims, wood sawyers, and sportsmen who suffered certain types of injury during say, a football game, are only a sample of local beneficiaries.
According to an internet post, leeches help to improve blood flow to regions where it has slowed or stopped, thus preventing tissue death. Leech saliva contains hirudin, an anticoagulant and anti-platelet agent that works to prevent blood clots and reduce the amount of congested blood in the tissues.
Recent Physical Changes To Leeches Swamp: Watty and Richards remark that during the last few decades there have been significant physical changes to Leeches Swamp. For one, the Bwa Mang trees – freshwater swamp trees – that once lined the edge of the small ravine flowing into the western end of the wetland have died. And secondly, the part of the marsh closest to the Main Road was backfilled around 1984, during the rehabilitation of the Hatton Garden to Portsmouth Road. Today, cattle can sometimes be found grazing on the backfilled section.
Records of Leech Harvesting and Therapy in Dominica? There may not be any record of when leeches were first introduced into Dominica, or when leech therapy was first practised on the island. Historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch notes that the book, “200 Years of Health Care in Dominica” makes no mention of the use of leeches on the island, although leech therapy may have been practiced while the publication was being written or even prior.
So, while the sight of leech harvesters stepping out of Leeches Swamp with these blood-sucking creatures tattered onto their legs may seem gross, and some may even cringe at the thought, it must be remembered that those persons, the sellers and even renters of the leeches were providing a very valuable service to the community, a service that may have practised without the knowledge of the medical authorities and so was not officially recognized. But then, Dominica’s involvement in leech therapy may have been practised
‘under-the-counter’ (anba kontwè-a, as we say colloquially and in Kwéyòl).