The "Sovereign Rights" of Kalinagos - 2
Dr. William Rivière Historian The island's bureaucracy was gratified that no document was unearthed to support the Kalinago claim to "sovereign rights, duties and privileges." Agents of the Colonial Power, as they were, this was made patently clear. In a letter written three weeks before the 1930 riot, Acting Administrator Baynes had responded to a request by Headman, Jolly John, that his people be exempted from payment of taxes, by intimating that he had no power under the law to grant such a request. Baynes explained his position this way: "the Caribs are under the same law as everybody else in Dominica and must pay taxes like everyone else. They have been given the Reserve to live in, and have a Chief to look after their interests, and the way in which you should perform your duties as Chief is to encourage the Caribs to respect the law, and to be good and loyal subjects."
As to Administrator Bowring himself, his view of the personality of the Kalinago was less diplomatic. It smelled of the racism on which colonialism thrived. "Carib men", he stated, are a worthless and indolent lot, addicted to drink whenever they can procure it. Whenever they earn money by the sale of canoes the proceeds rapidly disappear in rum; they are undoubtedly good fisherman, excellent canoe-builders, but their most lucrative pursuit is that of smuggling, a matter which it is practically impossible to deal with under present conditions." The Administrator was more charitable to womenfolk. "The women, I am told," he wrote, "are different. They are generally of good morality and faithful to their husbands, anxious to acquire money and keep it." The Administrator would certainly not recommend the conferment of "sovereign rights" on such a community. Elliot, who held the office before Bowring, was even more brutal. This Administrator is reported to have expressed the opinion that "if it were not for reasons of sentiment I think the Reserve might be thrown open in a few years time, and sufficient land allotted to each family." He concluded: "They are bound to become absorbed in the native population before long." Heskeith Bell, also a former Administrator of the island, described Elliot as "not being sympathetically inclined to these people and seems to have absorbed some of the Creole prejudice against them". His reaction to the Petition to the King, dated 28th June 1928 and earlier mentioned, in which the Kalinagos had expressed disapproval of his Administration is instructive. Elliot was not in office at the time the Petition reached his desk. In the event, Acting Administrator Peables had, in response, visited the Territory and made favourable recommendations to Secretary of State, Avery, concerning the rights of the Kalinago. But, Elliot on his return from leave sought to block the recommendations. He suggested to the Secretary of State that Acting Administrator Peables had "insufficient knowledge" of the "somewhat delicate" state of affairs, and had thus acted hastily. And he made it clear that, if he had his way, the Territory would have been "thrown open" within twenty years, that is to say, by 1948, "for the reason that it appears that few, if any, pure-blooded Caribs would then be left". He wished the community's leader to hold the title "Headman", instead of "Chief", on the ground that "the small remnant of pure Caribs does not justify the appointment of a "Chief". Far from supporting a greater degree of antonomy, Elliot recommended a "somewhat closer supervision" of the community because he believed its residents to be "confirmed smugglers".
It is of interest that the Kalinago found support among local persons who gave evidence before the Commissioners. For example, J.B. Charles, the elected representative for the island's Eastern District in which the Territory was located, proposed that Headman Jolly John, who had been suspended after the riot, should be reinstated as "Chief". His reasoning was pragmatic: "The people are not accustomed to go before the Magistrate. (Jolly John) is the only person now to settle disputes and he cannot do so now." Further support came from Ralph Nichols, son of H.A.A. Nichols, the island's Chief Medical Officer. He had been a signatory to both a petition to the island's Governor, based in Antigua, as well as a telegram to the London-based Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, condemning the combined police/marine offensive against the rioters. Now, before the Commission, he suggested that the privileges enjoyed by the Kalinago should be maintained and safeguarded by law. H.D. Shillingford, proprietor of neighboring Hatten Garden Estate, also supported the Kalinago cause. He expressed the view that our first inhabitants deserved protection from government.
Not surprisingly, the Commissioners were not moved. They found, first of all, that "(there has) never been any acknowledgement or recognition of an independent Carib state". And, to emphasize the point, it was stated that no grant of lands had ever been made to the native peoples, but that the "Reserve" had "merely been set apart for their occupation". Their Report stated, further, that there had never been an official definition of who a "Carib" was. Nor had any rules been laid down "as to the persons or classes of persons entitled to the usufruct", that is to say, "produce" of the Reserve". It denied that the Kalinago people had at any time been granted immunity from taxation, except in terms of boat tax. In respect of that tax it was pointed out that the exemption was made "not by Ordinance or Regulation" but, instead, "simply by administrative action." That is to say, "government officers were instructed not to levy it". And, as to the jurisdiction of the island's courts over the Kalinago community, the Commissioners observed the following: "No special status exists save that in questions of dispute as to land occupation, the Chief or Headman has a certain shadowy jurisdiction, but he has no authority to enforce his decrees." They went on to discuss, as "unfounded and untenable", a suggestion that the Territory's inhabitants ever occupied a position comparable to that of "a small Indian native state, subject only to the suzerainty of the Crown and not amenable to the ordinary jurisdiction of any local Court."
Most importantly, the Commissioners were not convinced that there was much in the Kalinago way of life to distinguish the community from the rest of the island's population. They wrote as follows: "The Caribs have no traces of primitive customs or traditions, no folk-lore, dances, songs or music, no costume or ornament to distinguish them from the other inhabitants of Dominica, no carvings or relics, and no Carib language. In a word, the Carib race had disappeared. The substantial desire to conserve the racial individuality of this people can therefore command little sympathy: Their blood is no longer pure, and it would be better for them to mingle with the rest of the population."
Based on that logic, four principal recommendations were made. The first was that Government appoint an Officer to superintend the affairs of the community. His specific charge were to guard the territory against "invasion" by "unauthorized persons"; to safeguard the application of tribal rule" in respect of intermarriage of "Caribs" with other islanders; and "generally to develop prosperity and improve the standard of life in the Reserve". It was recommended also that the Officer so appointed should "listen" to advice given by the Chief or Headman, as the case may be. But any advice to be listened to required government approval. Notably, the functions of the Chief/Headman in that regard would be "purely advisory". A further recommendation was based on the philosophy that "isolation" was not in the "true interests" of the Kalinago community and, by extension, that "the more they take part in the common life of Dominica the better for them". Hence, it was proposed that no fiscal immunities, other than boat tax, and no special privileges, be granted.
The Commissioners considered it imperative to "bring (the Kalinago) into closer contact with their neighbours and to give them as circumstances permit advantages to be offered by government and financed by government resources". The stated advantages included the introduction of vocational training at the Salybia School during school hours; the training of "selected pupils," preferably girls, at the Agricultural Department in Roseau in "agricultural knowledge suitable for the Reserve;" and the dissemination of information by the Agricultural Department on how Kalinago farmers might be better able to increase their yields.
That is how the Carib question was resolved. The descendants of the island's first settlers, by staging a riot, had confronted the State in defence of what they perceived to be their ancient right to sovereignty within the island's geopolitical space. Brought before the court, they had won. But the State, dressed in Commissioners' clothes, would have the last word. The message was clear: Historically, there had never been any grant of "sovereign rights" to our first settlers. That was how it would remain. The Kalinago people were first and foremost residents of the island. And they would be treated accordingly.
Copyright © William Para Rivière, 2013