The Rise & Fall of Patrick John
A Gripping Biography of Promise & Loss
By Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.
On March 29, 2019, Dr. Irving W. Andre launched The Rise & Fall of Patrick John (Pont Casse Press, 2019). In what is undoubtedly the most dramatic biography of a Dominica government leader, the promise and loss attendant to John's journey from humble beginnings to the apex of political power, and then his fall during a popular insurrection is laid out in stark detail.
In crafting this biography Andre has had the good fortune to interview eminent Dominicans such as local educator and former Saint Mary's Academy (SMA) principal Egbert Germaine who knew John from his earliest days at the Roseau Boys School. We learn that John showed early signs of academic prowess; earning good enough grades in mathematics and literature at the Saint Mary's Academy to earn a teaching spot at that well-respected institution. Aside from exhibiting respectable academic pedigree, we learn that John is a capable footballer with the Combermere Football Club and a some-time costume designer at the annual carnival who pens calypso songs from time to time, A trade unionist with strong support from port workers and possessed of the common touch, John could stir a crowd with his powerful, and often witty calls in defence of the working people. In that regard, John was a master of crowd-pleasing political invective as he would often hurl volleys at the parliamentary opposition Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) as led by heartless blood-suckers. On the Labour Party political platform of that time, it was not uncommon to hear DFP leader Mary Eugenia Charles castigated as Madame Dracula.
However, the biography is frank in noting early troubling questions that arise over John's stewardship of finances at the Roseau Town Council during his time as Mayor. John wins election to office in 1970 and serves under the legendary Premier Edward Oliver LeBlanc. He outmanoeuvres Ronald Armour to win the leadership of the Dominica Labour Party when LeBlanc resigns. In an ironic twist, the tremendous successes of the Labour Party-led government under LeBlanc evolved a 1970s society that was better educated and possessed of a civil-service heavy middle class with salary expectations that exceeded the ability of the public purse to meet. In that milieu stepped, the university-educated Black Power radicals gathered under the banner of the Movement for a New Dominica (MND). Even more confrontational is the Civil Service Association (CSA) led by Charles Savarin which becomes a relentless opponent of the John led Labour government. Any honest appraisal of the Dominica economy of that era will admit that the levers of finance capital resided in foreign-owned banks such as Barclays Bank and the Royal Bank of Canada; agriculture was dominated by the British firm Geest which monopolized the banana trade and set the prices in a manner most unfavorable to the local farmer; that Cable & Wireless held total sway in the telecommunications sector, while L. Rose & Company dominated what was left of value-adding in the island's once-buoyant lime industry. Local ownership of businesses such as Dominica Coconut Products, Fort Young Hotel, and Bello Products was promising but not within government control or part of any public/private partnership. As a result, the government of John - without investments in industry, agriculture, telecommunications or banking, had to depend on the narrow financial platform of taxes from inland revenue or modest grants from the colonial authorities in London. Faced with such a daunting reality, the Labour Party government sought to seek a socialist path based on some land reform, institution building and a "buy local" campaign.
However, by 1976 Dominica was increasingly divided. Regrettable attacks on tourists were blamed on Dread-lock wearing youth linked to university-educated Black Power radicals. The government reacted with the mailed fist and unleashed the security forces, especially after the murder of the U.S. tourist John Jirasek during the carnival of 1974. MND notable and former SMA student leader Desmond Trotter was arrested and tried for the murder. Represented by Grenadian lawyer Maurice Bishop (who would later lead the Grenada Revolution) Trotter was convicted and sentenced to hang. The MND and Trotter's supporters alleged a "frame-up." and many students and unemployed youth took to the hills to form encampments, away from an unjust colonial society they called "Babylon." The John-led administration felt a responsibility to act. It was John's view that he had to ensure the survival of the already weak tourism sector, while also assuring fearful farmers that the government would protect them from crop-stealing Dreads. The government, with DFP support, passed the Prohibited and Undesirable Societies Act (AKA the Dread Act) in 1974. That act of parliament made it legal to take the life of any Dread found in a residence, allowed the arrest of any Dread without a warrant and denied bail to anyone wearing "a badge of the society" i.e. dreadlocks. In the anti-Dread campaign waged by the Dominica Defence Force and Royal Dominica Police Force Special Service Unit in Dominica's mountainous interior, many lives were lost. That campaign often saw brutality unleashed against innocent youth that created resentment against the Labour Party government led by John that would explode into full-blown insurrection following the May 29, 1979 riot.
Despite the discord of the 1970s, Patrick Roland John's administration made real beneficial gains that improved the lives of Dominicans then, and still. The Labour Party administration led by John founded Dominica's National Commercial & Development Bank, eradicated many shanty-type dwellings around Roseau and replaced them with proper modern housing developments at Bath Estate and River Estate. The government also opened the new deepwater harbour at Fond Cole and started the Dominica Social Security system.
John's greatest achievement, however, was to take the island to independence from Britain on November 3, 1978. Success at independence required good governance, proper planning, transparency in government operations and the inclusion of competent Dominicans at home and abroad without regard to party allegiance.. Despite having had the support of the youthful intelligentsia gathered around the Popular Independence Committee led by Rosie Douglas, John distrusted the political left which would have been his natural allies. In 1978 John had fired Labour Party cabinet members Michael Douglas and Ferdinand Parillon for their role in an alleged communist plot. John then pivoted to South Africa and through his Attorney General Leo Austin offered to have Dominica front for that racist pariah regime to secure oil supplies that it lacked due to an embargo by OPEC. John's name was also linked to a hare-brained scheme to overthrow the government of Barbados with the assistance of Barbadian gunrunner Sydney Burnette Alleyne. It has been to Dominica's undoing that some Labour Party leaders have allied with international bandits, rascals, schemers, and frauds in a fashion that undermined the legitimacy of their office, or ill-served national interests. It was John's attempts to quell opposition to his increasingly errant rule, which led to the May 29, 1979 clash outside parliament in which Phillip Timothy was martyred in the cause of liberty and a dozen others wounded. The biography recounts that one by one, Labour Party parliamentarian resigned their positions in the cabinet- often aided by a rain of stones. The first Labour Party minister to resign was Olver Seraphin who then went on to become interim Prime Minister until elections in July 1980.
In 1980 Mary Eugenia Charles' DFP won the elections. John would have none of it. Instead of going back to a life of service in the teaching profession, or trade unionism, John sought to regain power in a most unorthodox manner: a coup d'etat. That coup was a bizarre partnership with elements of the DDF led by former Captain Malcolm Reid, allied with Dreads under the leadership of Algernon "Algie" Maffie and Ku Klux Klan mercenary Mike Purdue. The coup failed and the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan mercenaries were arrested in Louisianan after Maffie disclosed the plot. However, in the turmoil derivative of that coup plot, there was a riot and killing in the 1981 carnival when a government edict demanded that all bands cease playing at 6:00 PM. Ted Honychurch, the father of historian and then Government Press Secretary Lennox Honychurch was kidnapped and killed by a Dread band led by Leroy "Pokosion" Etienne. And on December 18, 1981, elements of the DDF assaulted police headquarters under a barrage of gunfire, killing policeman Alexander, wounding Chief of Police Oliver N. Philip and wounding a half dozen policemen. In a companion assault on that awful night, DDF Corporal Howell Piper was shot and killed at the Stock Farm State Prison by police sentry Winston "Ambeh" Philbert. Philbert's quick action in thwarting the attack on the prison prevented the release of the imprisoned Patrick John and DDF Captain Malcolm Reid. By preventing Patrick John's release Philbert may have saved his life. The local security forces may well have summarily executed John upon capture - had he been released.
In an event symptomatic of the lawlessness of the period, Sargeant Major Ashton Benjamin was summarily executed by a police squad during mopping-up operations on December 19, 1981, though he had sought to surrender. John was later tried, convicted and imprisoned after his initial prosecution had failed due to a misapplication of the law of evidence by the presiding judge.
John would later be pardoned by the same Prime Minister Mary Eugenia Charles he sought to overthrow. He would go on to lead the Dominica Football Association and build that organization's headquarters. In a sign that his trials and tribulations had not imparted the wisdom that is modesty, John called the edifice Patrick John House. In a further display of errant leadership, Patrick John who had led the local football association for some time was banned by the international football organization, FIFA, for misconduct in office.
In summary, the biography of John's rise and fall is a cautionary tale that all current and future politicians should heed. Patrick John had successes. He will always be noted as a leader who championed Dominica's independence from Britain. He was the Premier who presided over the formation of the National Commercial & Development Bank, Social Security scheme and housing projects for working-class citizens at Bath Estate and River Estate. Sadly, his arrogance led to this fall from power and his attempted coup with the help of mercenaries led to deaths on the island he claimed to love.
The message inherent to this splendid work by Judge Irving Andre on the life of John is that one should never squander the goodwill of the masses and become deaf to the people's cry due to arrogance. Political power is never everlasting and every leader must strive to serve the national interest, not just one's party or cronies.
John was a gifted and popular politician whose lack of integrity and lust for power overcame better judgment. Patrick John's death on July 6, 2021, after a long battle with ill health, closed a tumultuous chapter in the history of Dominica. May his passing compel sober reflection on the need for our national leaders to reject arrogance, embrace humility and exalt the national interest over selfish partisan or personal interest at all time