What kind of emancipation did our African ancestors obtain on the 1st August 1838? That supposed freedom from enslavement cannot be properly understood if treated in isolation, that is to say, disconnected from our total history, as if it had an inner logic and life of its own. If examined within the framework of our total historical experience, the emancipation of 1838 will be seen to be for us merely the first of at least three major emancipations, the second of which was the gaining of universal adult suffrage and the official recognition of trade unions in the period 1945-1951 and, the third, the acquisition of constitutional independence in 1978. Each would end a specific phase of colonial rule. More particularly, each such emancipation represented the way in which our colonial masters sought to accommodate to the fact that it was no longer possible or desirable or necessary to rule the island in the same old way, and that a new scheme of things was required.

In the 1830s the increased intensity of resistance to enslavement combined with the growing unprofitability of slave-based staple production to make it both impossible and undesirable for the British to continue the enslavement of Africans in their overseas territories. Legal emancipation offered a solution. By the same token, in light of the persistent struggle against crown colony government engaged in by Cecil Rawle and others in the 1920s and after, and the restlessness of unorganised workers, the Colonial Office considered it undesirable in the years following the Second World War to continue to insulate the greater majority of the population against participation in the political process. The preferred mode of emancipation was, firstly, to recognise trade unions and, secondly, to grant universal adult suffrage and provide for greater access by elected representatives to the halls of the legislature. And, given the rise of dollar diplomacy and the consolidation of transnational corporations, administrative control of a territory by its Colonial Power had by 1978 long, long ceased to be necessary for exploitation of the resources of colonies. The new dispensation would be constitutional independence.

This explains why each of these emancipations has offered such limited possibilities in terms of our self-determination. Each was meant essentially to enable colonial rule to continue on a new basis. Whatever progress our people appear to have made as a result of these accommodations was incidental, and represented what the colonialists perceived was required to reasonably facilitate the principal and ultimate goal of colonial rule, namely, the exploitation of colonial resources so as to foster the accumulation of capital for development of the metropole. No colonial power conceived of its colony as an object of development. Not even the white settler colonies of Australia, Canada, New England and the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of North America were held by Britain with that in mind. Together with the slave-based non-white territories, they existed in the British scheme of things for the exclusive benefit of the Colonial Power. That they number among the developed nations of the world has been explained in terms of economic strategies adopted during periods of neglect by the Colonial Power. By contrast, our current impoverishment may be accounted for by our comparative wealth as sugar colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, which invited strict control by Britain and, because of this, deprived us of any latitude to choose for ourselves strategies designed, as in the white settler colonies, to generate capital accumulation for internal development.


Thus, the 1838 emancipation did not, and was not intended to, offer much scope for the self-development of the black population or for the construction of a new free-labour society in which the recent entrants would be treated as the human equals of the others. It had been conceded from above to forestall the efforts of the enslaved majority to seize it on their own accord. In the event, the Abolition Act failed to provide the population to be emancipated with the material, social or psychological tools with which to embark on the new journey. No land. No hoes. No hut. Persistence of the idea of the racial inferiority of blacks. Passage of laws seeking continued degradation of the African character. By contrast, the former slave-owners were handsomely rewarded with 20 million pounds sterling for their loss of property in slaves. And the island legislatures were used to contain the emergence of the newly freed population as craftsmen, small-scale traders and, most of all, as peasants and middle farmers. Indeed, non-whites were in full control of the Dominican Assembly within 12 years of Emancipation. But their middle class interest did not always coincide with those of the peasant majority. In any event the other Chamber, namely, the nominated Council in alliance with the Governor, would act as a brake on the ambitions of the elected Assembly.

Yet, against the greatest of odds the majority population made as much as was possible of the 1838 concession. A peasantry developed. Villages were built. Chapels were opened. Mission schools were started. Income was generated. Hence, it was only a matter of time before increasing numbers would satisfy the electoral franchise and, by this, come to take control of the chambers of government from the white planter minority. Blacks in command of whites! The merger of the Assembly and Council in 1865 to form a single, instead of a two-chamber legislature and the dissolution of the local legislature in 1898 to make way for the imposition of Crown Rule had more to do with the fear of this possibility than, as stated in official circles, to provide for more effective and less costly government.


The second emancipation occurred in the period, 1945 – 1951. It was conceded as a response to changes in the global economic picture as well as, in terms of timing, to the struggles against Crown colony Rule and the rise in working class consciousness. At the global level, the role of colonies had undergone slight modification. Dollar diplomacy or monopoly capitalism had during the last third of the 19th century supplanted the competitive capitalism of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution because of the associated technological advances had caused an enormous increase in the capacity of nations to produce. To realize this capacity, industrial raw material, new markets to absorb manufactures, and avenues overseas for the investment of unutilized surplus capital at home would be needed. Now, colonies were perceived in terms of satisfying those needs. That is to say, their role would change from that of mere exporters of staple products like sugar and coffee, as was done during the period of enslavement, to, additionally, as sources for extraction of industrial raw materials, as markets for sale of metropole-produced manufactures and as avenues for the investment of surplus capital. But it was possible to exploit colonies in this way indirectly rather than directly by the old colonial method of direct political administration. The vehicle for so doing was the giant corporation which transcends natural boundaries and has loyalty only to profit-making. Its advent in Dominica can be traced to the early beginnings in the island of CDC, Cable and Wireless, L.Rose and Company. Royal Bank of Canada and Barclays Bank.

The significance of the grant of universal adult suffrage must be examined against this background. Of course, it represented a major advance from the standpoint of the electoral empowerment of the masses. But the British government entertained no fear whatsoever that this by itself would emancipate anybody. The same is true of its recognition of trade unions. The real fear was that the working class, judged by the level of unrest in the late 1930s, might constitute a disruptive force to the colonial order, if left unorganised and therefore, uncontrolled. In colonialist thinking, trade unions might well have represented an institution by which working class militancy might be channeled and stifled. It is a tribute to the trade union movement that unions have been able since the formation of the Dominica Trade Union in 1945 to transform into an asset that which was conceived of essentially as a liability to workers.


The coming of Dominica's third emancipation in 1978 merely continued a process begun with the second. By the end of the Second World War the Colonial Office considered the continuation of British rule in its Caribbean territories to have been unnecessary to further its economic objectives. They were in a sense millstones around its neck. Hence, the failed scheme to create a federation out of disparate elements. There is the proposition that this experiment was essentially an attempt by the Colonial Office to establish a structure that would facilitate continued economic exploitation at less cost. Self-government on an island basis followed. And then, constitutional independence. The terms on which Associated Statehood was acquired in 1967 signaled a clear desire by the Mother Country to terminate the colonial relationship.

There was no struggle. It was served on a silver platter. The mode of the island's insertion in the global economy would remain unchanged. The political successors had been schooled in the practice of Westminster politics during the years of constitutional progression embracing semi-responsible government, responsible rule and the ministerial system, and full internal self-government through the agency of Associate Statehood. The institutional set-up would remain unchanged. And it would be managed by a corps of civil servants trained in Westminster-style administration. In effect, the emancipation conceded to Dominicans in 1978 would be as inconsequential as the first and the second.

This, then, is the historically proper framework within which Emancipation Week might be celebrated. Legal emancipation is 1838 was not intended to enable our newly freed ancestors to take charge of their own lives. It is a testimony to their resilience and courage that they were able to make such an indelible mark particularly on the economic and political landscapes. This more than anything else deserves celebration. But colonial rule continued. Subsequent accommodations would be made. And even after the constitutional link was severed, local directorates merely stepped in institutional shoes formerly worn by the colonialists. The challenge which confronts us today, after 36 years of constitutional independence, is to remodel is to remodel these shoes, in this period of globalization, to fit our own feet.

(Dr William Para Riviere is an historian and attorney at law)

Copyright © William Para Riviere, July 2014