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“Dominica1778” by Philippe Buache – Boston Public Library Map Collection.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dominica is the most mountainous island in the Caribbean. The land rises in places straight from the sea, towering to high peaks. This rugged landscape is softened somewhat by the luxuriant forests that coat the hills and give the island its distinctive verdant beauty.
After nearly 3,000 years of human habitation, Dominica, known to many as “the Nature Island of the Caribbean,” is one of the few places where untouched primary tropical forests can still be found. More than in most islands, this rugged terrain has guided the course of Dominica’s history. The steep mountains and deep valleys provided the early Carib Indians with a natural fortress against European colonizers, making Dominica one of the last islands to be fully colonized. These same features later provided a safe haven for escaped slaves. Since then, the struggle between man and mountain has significantly affected the direction and pace of Dominica’s development by determining the location and cost of roads, farms, and buildings.
The island’s first settlers were the Arawaks, an Indian people from the Orinoco region of South America, who arrived in Dominica and the neighboring islands of Martinique and Guadaloupe about 1,000 years B.C. (see The Pre-European Population, ch. 1). These first known settlers lived peacefully until they were almost completely decimated by the more aggressive Carib Indians, who arrived in Dominica in 900 A.D.. In the late 1980s, there were no known living descendants of the Arawaks in Dominica, but the Carib population numbered about 1,500.
Some 593 years after the Caribs settled in Dominica, Christopher Columbus first sighted the island on his second voyage to the New World. Unaware that the Caribs had already named the island Waitukubuli (“Tall is her body”), Columbus renamed it Dominica, after the Spanish word for Sunday, the day of his arrival, November 3, 1493.
For the next 200 years, no European power was able to conquer Dominica. The determined and often violent resistance of the island’s Carib inhabitants was a major deterrent to colonization. As the Spanish empire grew in the 1500s, Dominica became increasingly important but only as a point for collecting wood and water. The island’s resources were abundant, but attacking Caribs put the mariners at great risk. Only in the year 1627 when the French standard was raised did a European power claim the island as an occupied possession. Fifty years later, following repeated hostilities between the French and English over the island’s ownership, a treaty was signed between the two countries declaring Dominica a neutral territory to “be inhabited by the savages to who [sic] it has been left . . . .”
Long years of battle against French and English settlers and diseases contracted from these adversaries took their toll on a once defiant people until the Carib population was reduced drastically from a high of 5,000 in the year 1647 to just 400 in 1730. At this point, permanent settlers from Europe and other island colonies began to move into Dominica in increasing numbers.
French settlers were the first to establish themselves on Dominica, extracting timber and commencing small-scale farming. As more land was cleared, the French met labor needs by bringing in African slaves, who were already in the other West Indian colonies. In addition to working the plantation fields, these slaves were permitted to establish provision gardens and to raise small stock. Much of this produce was sold at Sunday markets where slaves from neighboring plantations gathered to socialize and trade. Many slaves saved the income from these sales and used it to buy their freedom from the estate owners. This practice led to the early establishment of a group of free black inhabitants known either as “Afranchis” or “mulatre,” many of whom later owned small estates and slaves. This unique mix of slave plantations owned by Europeans and Africans, existing alongside small garden plots and farms cultivated by escaped slaves, freed slaves, and Carib Indians, charted a markedly different colonial course for Dominica compared with that of the sugar colonies of Barbados and Jamaica. In these other islands, classic slave plantation structures became entrenched around large-scale sugar cultivation, which delayed the emergence of the system of small-scale, peasant farming that still characterizes Dominica’s agriculture.
The evolution of this mixed agricultural sector was interrupted between 1756 and 1763 by the Seven Years War between Britain and France. After several battles, the British finally occupied Dominica in 1761, and two years later, in the Treaty of Paris, the French ceded the island to Britain.
Under this new European power, several changes occurred that greatly affected Dominica’s future. The British introduced a system of colonial government in which the authority of the crown was vested in an administrator who had responsibility for defense, the treasury, law and order, and religion. British planters, merchants, and professionals were appointed to serve in a local assembly or legislature that sat as an oversight body to the administrator. This alliance of British property, wealth, and political power created a system of government that excluded the French planters from participating in the governance of the island. The result was increased tension between the growing number of British settlers and the French planters, who continued to be important to the export earnings of the colony. The freed slaves, black estate owners, and the large slave population remained completely excluded from involvement in political and economic discussions and decision making.
Another significant development of this period that still affects land ownership patterns in Dominica was the distribution and sale of large tracts of land to British citizens resident in Britain. A land tenure system of absentee ownership rapidly became entrenched, and speculation by the owners kept good agricultural land out of production.
Beginning with the 1770s and continuing for the next sixty years, events throughout the world caused rapid and major changes in the island’s colonial status. The 1775 declaration of war by the North American colonies against Britain disrupted a thriving trade that had developed between the colonies and Dominica in wood, rum, horses, cattle, and other items. In 1778 France took advantage of British difficulties in America to reclaim several British colonies in the West Indies, including Dominica; however, only a few later, in 1784, control of Dominica returned to the British through terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Finally, the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in the British Parliament in 1833 and became law in Dominica on August 1, 1834. These events thrust Dominica firmly into the period of open struggle for an end to crown colony rule.
In 1832 three black members were elected to the Dominican House of Assembly, and by 1838 there was a black majority. Dominica became the only island in the British West Indies where white rule was successfully challenged. Political tensions grew rapidly as legislators began to press for laws promoting the welfare of the newly liberated citizens of the island. When legislators attempted to extend voting rights to freed persons without property, the conservative British merchants and professionals, by then organized into a political party, countered with a call for the creation of a single executive council comprising nineteen elected representatives and nine members appointed by the crown. Following elections conducted under the rules limiting voting rights to those of property, the blacks lost control of the government. As a result, they increased agitation against crown colony rule and launched a campaign that advocated the removal of the land tax and called for a special investigation by the British government into the affairs of the colony.
In response to this challenge, the British attempted, for the first time, to meet the social and infrastructure needs of the island. Roads were built through the mountainous interior, agriculture was supported with research, extension services, and training, and agro-industry was begun with the processing of lime juice for export to Britain. By the start of World War I, sufficient goodwill toward Britain had been re-established to encourage locals to volunteer for service in the British army.
The event that singlehandedly thrust Dominica into the modern era was the publication of the Moyne Commission Report in 1939. The Commission itself had been formed in response to riots that erupted throughout the British West Indies in the late 1930s. The report exposed the primitive conditions of the colonies and called for a comprehensive economic development program (see Labor Organizations, ch. 1). During the next twenty years, Dominica experienced what many of that generation refer to as “the good old days,” when British aid, trade, and investment boosted local living standards, created jobs, trained public servants, and provided education and health facilities.
The expectations of workers and farmers rose with the advent of roads, radios, and newspapers. In the 1950s, demands for better work conditions, higher farm prices, and more land for farming began a period of popular social and political activism that led to the formation of trade unions and political parties representing the interests of workers and small farmers on the one hand and business interests on the other. The 1961 election of a government led by Edward Oliver Leblanc, a small farmer and agricultural extension worker, marked an important turning point in Dominica’s history. Leblanc was the first person without links to the city- based ruling elite to ascend to government leadership in Dominica.
The political platform of his Dominica Labour Party (DLP) was very simple–“it was time for the little man to begin enjoying the fruits of his labour.” Leblanc had first come to prominence as a member of the Federal Party, which represented Dominica in the short-lived West Indies Federation, and subsequently led the DLP to electoral victories in 1965 and 1970 (see The West Indies Federation, 1957-62, ch. 1). In 1967 he negotiated Associated Statehood with Britain, a constitutional status essentially one step removed from political independence, which made the Dominica government responsible for all aspects of state except external affairs and defense. Although Leblanc resigned as premier in 1974 for reasons of health, the DLP, under Premier (the pre-independence title for head of government) Patrick John, won the next general election in 1975 and led Dominica to political independence in 1978.
(source U.S. Library of Congress, Caribbean Islands – A Country Study)
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