Dr. William Riviere Historian

The spark which lit the 1930 Salybia riot was the improper and excessive use of armed force by Corporal Sweeney and his men in conducting their search for contraband goods. But its root cause was a widespread perception among the Kalinago community that the action by the police was merely the most callous of a growing number of attempts by the colonial administration to infringe upon their "sovereign right" to live as a privileged ethnic community within the island's geopolitical space. This perception may be identified in representations made to the authorities in London and locally in the pre-riot years.

A petition to the British Monarch, dated 28th June 1928, was typical. The signatories lamented the demotion of their Chief, Thomas Jolly John, to the status of Headman, and further regretted the indignity of his having been placed on probation for some time. Their dissatisfaction with Administrator Elliot, the architect of the "demotion" was pointed. Of him the petition stated: "His Honour the Administrator is not in our favour and he is by all means trying his very best to reclaim our sovereign right. He wish to put us just like civilian ... In fact, he wish to put new rules over us, which is altogether different from those which we did recover from Administrator Bell in the year 1902." The petitioners went on to complain of Administration Elliot's rejection of the many appeals made by Headman

Jolly John to be paid a decent stipend. They concluded thus: "... we humbly pray His Most Gracious Majesty with our utmost fidelity, veneration and respect to grant us our Reserve ever more and to allow us to follow our ancient rules as in the time of Ti Francoise, our Ancient Chief. We profoundly and humbly beg His Most Gracious Majesty to appoint Thomas John for our Chief and to increase his fee and authority."

In the following year, further representations were made to Acting Administrator Major Peables. Secretary of State Amery had sent out a dispatch in response to the 1928 Petition. And Administrator Elliot had taken leave of absence. Peables had paid a visit to the Territory accompanied by Father Barreau, a Roman Catholic priest whose diocese included the Territory; Father Barreau served to translate Patois into English. The Administrator met with a crowd of between 300 and 400 residents under the Headman, Jolly John. Foremost among their concerns was information conveyed by a Mr. Riviere, a Government officer attached to the district, that plans were afoot to open up the Territory to the island's residents. Having expressed strong objections to this, residents made a renewed plea to have the title of "Chief" restored, to provide the incumbent with a salary and increased authority, to erect a "small hall" for use by the Chief "as an office" and supply him with tools for road repairs. Another complaint was that Administrator Elliot had on his last visit taken away the plan of the Territory left in their safekeeping by former Administrator Mahaffy. Offence was also taken to the settlement of three "strangers" from Pointe Michel in the Territory and their refusal to obey the Headman's order to leave.

The Kalinagos again raised the issue of their "sovereign right" during verbal exchanges in the early moments of the September 1930 riot. They believed such rights to include exemption from all types of government taxation, including customs duties. By this, what was treated as smuggling on the part of others was regarded as a legitimate activity on their part. And Administrator Bowring on a visit to the Territory in 1932 found the community to have "possessed a degree of independence of the government". He noticed "a decided attempt" to inculcate in them that "they should look up to their Chief and that the government came second". This attitude, he thought, was "probably instigated from outside the Reserve".

As to the timing of the concession of sovereign rights to the Kalinago, there were two schools of thought. One school held that these rights had been conferred on the Kalinago people in some Agreement or other entered into between them and their English conquerors on the occasion of the establishment of the "Reserve" about the middle of the 18th century. It was stated further that Ti Francoise, then Chief, was not provided with a copy of the Agreement. As a result of this, their "rights, duties and prerogatives were therefore largely a matter left to the whims of local officials". Another school of thought traced the "privileges" accorded to the Kalinagos to Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 to 1901. In fact, the source of the Agreement alluded to has not been confirmed. Nor has the document ever been located.

It is a historical fact that the warring nations of England and France, because of the enormous difficulty they experienced subduing our early inhabitants, had agreed by the Treaty of Aix La Chapelle in 1748 to treat the island as "neutral" territory as between them, and leave the inhabitants in sole occupation. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the Kalinago was a signatory to that treaty. It is also true that by the Treaty of Paris fifteen (15) years later, which ended full-scale war between the English and the French, it was agreed that the island would remain in full right to England. But once more there was no specific reference to the island's native inhabitants. At the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 the island experienced a temporary change of hands, when it passed for some time to France and, then, to England. And by the Parish Treaty of 1814 the island was restored to Britain for the last time. But, in none of the treaties or agreements for the transfer of the island from one European nation to the other was there any specific mention made of the Kalinago question.

There is evidence that a report on the native inhabitants compiled by Administrator Heskeith Bell in 1902 referred to the exemption of the Kalinago people from direct taxation, such as house and road tax. Further, Secretary of State, Lord Passfield, suggested by confidential telegram to Governor Johnstone, dated 27 October 1930, that "an ancient ruling" might have exempted them from payment of customs duties. But there is no record of official documents purporting to make these exemptions. In these circumstances, and in the eyes of local officials and the Colonial Power, the Kalinago claim to sovereign "rights, duties and privileges" did not seem to have rested on solid legal ground.

Copyright © William Para Rivière, 2013