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Dr William "Para" Riviere
Dr William "Para" Riviere

Emancipation 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. It 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 said to have had its roots in our comparative wealth as "sugar colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. This wealth 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.

Slave Emancipation

In these circumstances, Emancipation in 1838 was not intended to offer and, in fact, did not 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. The abolition of slavery had been conceded from above to forestall the efforts of the enslaved majority at the bottom to seize freedom on their own accord and on their own terms. This explains why 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 manipulated to constrain 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 twelve years of Emancipation. But their middle class interest did not always coincide with those of the peasant majority. In any case, the other Chamber, namely, the nominated Council would, in alliance with the Governor, 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, with any notion of providing for more effective government, at lower cost.

The Second Emancipation

The second emancipation came 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. During the last third of the 19th century dollar diplomacy or, as it is also called, monopoly capitalism had eclipsed the competitive capitalism of the 18th and early 19th century 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 materials, new markets to absorb manufactures, and avenues overseas for the investment of unutilized surplus capital available in Europe, 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. That was the economic factor.

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 to workers that which was conceived of essentially as a liability to workers.

The Third Emancipation

The coming of Dominica's third emancipation in 1978 merely continued a process begun by the second. By the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Colonial Office considered the continuation of British rule in its Caribbean territories to have been unnecessary to further its economic objectives. These outposts were in a sense millstones around the neck of the Mother Country. Hence, the failed scheme to create a West Indian federation out of disparate elements; it was launched in 1958 but collapsed in 1962. 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. Unlike, say, in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Tunisia and Algeria, 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 to the Governor and his political entourage 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 self-rule and then full constitutional independence 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 were the first and the second.

This, then, is the historically proper framework within which Emancipation Week must be celebrated. Legal emancipation in 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 with Britain was severed, local directorates merely stepped into institutional shoes formerly worn by the colonialists. Thus, the challenge which confronts us today, after thirty-eight years of constitutional independence, is not to parade around fooling ourselves that we are free as a people to control our destiny. The challenge, led by the political directorate is, instead, to remodel those old and outdated colonialist shoes to fit our own feet.

Copyright © William Para Riviere, 2016