The first inhabititants of Dominica were the Arawak and then the Carib Indians. It was reached by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The steep cliffs that circle the island discouraged European landings, leaving it to be one of the last Caribbean islands to be explored. Dominica was alternately held by the British and the French until ceded to Great Britain in 1805 and made a British colony. In 1958, it joined the Federation of the West Indies, a league made up of 12 British colonies. It became self-governing in 1968, gaining full internal autonomy while Britain retained responsibility for external affairs and defense. Independence was granted in 1978. In 1980, Mary Eugenia Charles became prime minister, the first woman to head a government in the Caribbean region.
During 1979 and 1980, Dominica was hit by three hurricanes that devastated the island. Coups attempted by the military in 1980 and 1981 were unsuccessful. In the 1990's, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines agreed to work toward increased political and economical integration.