( An extract form Dread, Rastafari and Ethiopia)
The objectives of Chapter one are: (a) to set the historical perspective and general tone for the subject matter of this study: DREAD, RASTAFARI AND ETHIOPIA The definitive historical report of the beginning and the rise of the RastafarI movement in the Commonwealth of Dominica; and (b) to establish the similarities between the maroons fighting against the Slave Trade and colonialism in the 17th century and the Rastafari movement of today.
A study of the Rastafarians of Dominica would not be complete without a basic introduction to the history of the island. Dominica, a former British colony, was one of the prized possessions of the British Crown renowned for its natural beauty and resources, and whose characteristics of resistance and ingenuity gave birth to of the Dread movement which arose in the early seventies in Dominica which saw the black activist and Rastafarian thinker, Desmond Trotter, now known as Ras Kabinda Haber Sellassie, thrust in the limelight.
My focus is primarily to illustrate this through citing historical records regarding the colony of Dominica as seen through the writings of plantation owners, colonial travellers and abolitionist activists of 17th to early 19th century, recounting firstly, a description of the island as seen by early European settlers, and describing the horrors of the plantation society. Hence the Rastafarian’s outrage and incessant calls for repatriation and reparations to slaves descendents.
A foray into the realms of Dominica’s history is a dark and unsavoury experience. One learns of the island’s past through the land marks made in the sands of time by her settlers: first the original Caribs, then the slave trading Europeans, and finally the enslaved Africans.
My first exposure and experiences of Dominica occurred back in May of 1972. I arrived in Dominica with my father, Victor Williams, my siblings, sisters Debbie and Liz and my brother, Frank with the hope of resettling in this beautiful homeland of my father’s. Being born in England, my only references to a tropical country were the stereotypes of Africa beamed on television. Nothing could have prepared me though, for the cultural shock that was to confront me: re the questions of self-discovery, coupled with the ignition of a passion for things cultural, and pertinent to my race which set the pace for my ’overstandin ’of Rastafari.
Dominica, is a lush green, mountainous island of about 298 square miles, 29 miles long and 16 miles wide, situated in the middle of the Caribbean arc of islands. Situated at 15°25N and 61°20W between the French departments of Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the South. It is one of the many volcanic islands in the region and boosts at present a population of some 80,000 persons. About 90 percent are of African descent. Dominica is also the home of about 3,000 Carib Indians who live on a reservation on the East of the island.
According to Lennox Honychurch, #The first in habitants of Dominica were the Ciboney or stone people who travelled by canoe up the west Indian islands from the Orinoco River on the coast of South America about 5,000 years before Christ moving northward in search of new sources of food. They were followed by the Caribs, who also originated in south America and arrived less than an hundred years before the Spanish arrived across the Atlantic. The Caribs who fought fiercely against the European intruders in the early 15 century who arrived with the intent of claiming Dominica and other West Indian islands of the so-called new world for their European sovereigns.
Dominica’s reputation as an unspoilt nature reserve is legendary as these authors from over two centuries ago can attest.
#It contains many high mountains, in some of which are burning volcanoes that frequently discharge vast quantities of sulphur. The valleys are fertile, and the island well watered. There are more than thirty fine rivers in it. Coffee is the principal produce of the island. The
natives are of a clear- copper colour: they have long sleek, black hair: their persons are short, stout and well made, but they disguise their faces by flattening their foreheads in infancy. They live chiefly by fishing in the rivers and the sea, or by fowling in the woods. In both these pursuits, they use their bows and arrows with wonderful dexterity. They display wonderful ingenuity in making curious wrought panniers or baskets of silk-grass or the leaves of barks of trees. (William Movar 1805)
Again we quote another awe-struck author writing back in 1856:
#Dominica stands picturesquely between Guadeloupe and Martinique. It is subject to violent rains which are sometimes of continuance, and do much damage to the country. At such times the rivers overflow, and not only sweep away fields of sugar cane, but sometimes whole streets of the town. Shortly after the English took possession of the island, it was visited by a convulsion of nature which rent the earth asunder in several places, and created a large and singular cavern in a mountain called Demaulins.
The negroes speak of this extraordinary fissure with fear and mystery, and regard very attempt to fathom it as presumptions and irreverent, asserting, that evil in some shape or other has ever taken those who have ventured in such experiment. If a stone be thrown into it, you neither hear I strike the earth, nor splash into the sea. So that the imaginative negro tells you it continues forever falling: and the enormous trees, the intense solitude, and the shadows of the evening gather around the rent in the hillside, all seem to have lured superstition to claim that nook of the land for her won.
#Most of the mountains of Dominica are of a volcanic nature, and mineral springs are frequently to be met with amongst them, whose waters are considered very beneficial as tonics, and in some places hot enough to boil an egg.
The ferns on this island are remarkable, not only for their size and beauty, but for their delicate construction. In some parts of the country the assume almost the appearance of a tree, and are fresh and green as the less aspiring, but lovely ferns that spread their soft carpet over our English valleys.
In consequence perhaps, of the moisture of the climate, Fire-flies abound in Dominica. As soon as twilight gives up her short reign at night, they come forth in thousands, spreading themselves over the land, till it seems as if the stars had fallen from heaven…
Waitikubuli-Dominica might not be blessed with an abundance of white-sanded beaches, but her fast-flowing, bubbly rivers and streams are one of her enviable features. From the powerful, meandering river that flows right through the capital of Roseau, to one for every day of the year. Natives boast that there are over 365 rivers here. As a matter of fact, no town, village or hamlet is more than walking distance from at least one tributary or stream.
The sunny clime is also ideal for sustaining lushes fruits and provisions to nourish the population and visitors to the island. Waitikubuli-Dominica is famous for its citrus , mangoes, foster grapefruits and other ground provisions: dasheen, tannia, pumpkins.
Her towering mountains, which once were the refuge of the Caribs and; later the ‘negres marons’, are the habitat of numerous species of birds of which the Sisserrou parrot is the national bird. The proud parrot with its puffed-up chest adorns the country’s national flag and coat of arms. Waitikubuli-Dominicans are justly proud of their country. They are the mostly of African by descent. According to Lennox Honychurch, our ancestors were born in the Caribbean.# The slaves he said were transferred from the more prosperous islands, like Barbados and Jamaica where the sugar plantations were more prosperous.
The official name is Commonwealth of Dominica, much to chagrin of citizens of Dominica Republic with whom the island is frequently confused. A thorny issue that could have been easily resolved had the fathers of Dominica’s independence saw it fit to change the island’s name during the negotiations with the mother country at the granting of Independence from Great Britain on November 3rd, 1978.
Dominica to day is dependent on its agriculture industry, primarily bananas,# Although the government is actively promoting Dominica as an ‘ecotourism destination’ to boost its tourism product, and attract more visitors to enjoy its pristine jungles, flora and fauna and culture. As well too, the island is seeking to attract foreign exchange through getting a foothold in the offshore financial sector# and the production of geothermal energy sources.
According recent estimates, the population of Dominica comprises of 24 percent of persons in the 0-14 year bracket. 65.8 percent of the population is in the 16-64 year old group, while those who are 65 years and older make up 10.2 percent. By race or ethnicity the following percentages hold: black 86.8%, mixed 8.9%, Carib Amerindian 2.9%, white 0.8%, other 0.7% (2001 census)
Dominica since November 3, 1978 become a republic within the British commonwealth, has a adopted the parliamentary democracy mode of government.
Religion# has always been an important feature of Dominican life. The Roman Catholic Church accounting for 61.4 percent of the population. Seventh Day Adventist 6%, Pentecostal 5.6%, Baptist 4.1%, Methodist 3.7%, Church of God 1.2%, Jehovah’s Witnesses 1.2%, other Christian 7.7%, Rastafarian 1.3%, other or unspecified 1.6%, none 6.1% (2001 census)
Dominica is aid to have to have been sighted by the Spanish explorer, Christopher Columbus#on his second voyage, on Sunday November 3rd, 1493 he did not anchor here as the island was said to appear to foreboding. Dominica was one of the last islands in the Caribbean to be colonialized, as such, the practice of slavery was short here.
In 1732, according to the editors of the Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies,(1788) there were estimated to be about 938 Caribs: 349 Frenchmen who lived on he coast where the Caribs the island, there were 600 white people and 2,000 negroes. A testimony by Mr Atwood, speaking of the experience the Dominican slaves quoted in 1792, in The Monthly review, or, Literary journal, Volume 7 edited By Ralph Griffiths, G. E. Griffiths, Atwood writes:
The negroes slaves in Dominica are in general, comfortably situated, and well treated, especially on the plantations, where, if they are industrious, they have the means of living very different from the deplorable state, which some people in England have been at pains to represent, as the case in general of slaves in the British islands. They have there as much land as they choose to cultivate for their own use, are capable of raising great quantities of all manner of ground provisions, gardens stuff and other things which they actually the markets every Sunday, and some of them to a considerable amount.
They likewise bred hogs. Rabbits, fowls, and other small stock for themselves; and many of them, who are careful in raising such provisions, acquire a very comfortable living, exclusive of what is allowed them by their owners. They have moreover, many opportunities on the plantation to procure other things to sell, or make use of themselves, which are not to be had in many other islands, as plenty of fish in the rivers, crapaux, wild yams and other articles in the woods; by which those who are industrious in their leisure hours make tolerable sums of money.
Artwood in his description of the conditions of the Dominican slaves goes on to describe what he terms the slaves customs:
The slaves then, in all the British West India settlements, are by no means treated in that harsh, cruel and barbaric manner, which some have scribed to impress the minds o, and to impose on the judgement of this nation. For, on the contrary, the treatment they receive from their owners, is, as nearly can be, that of a parent to a child.
Every family has a comfortable house to reside in, which is built at the expense of their masters; who also furnish them with such clothes as necessary for them, with a doctor, medicines, and all things need when sick, and have nothing to expect from them in return but good behaviour, and a necessary degree of labour for the service of his plantation. He moreover, gives them a weekly allowance of provisions consisting of biscuit, Indian corn, beans, salt-fish, mackerel or herrings; with together with what they are able, if they are industrious, to supply themselves from their own gardens, and the produce of their own flocks, they are able to live in a manner, which by no means unenviable, and preferable to thousands of people in Great Britain, with all the accompaniments of their fancied liberties.
The labour of the negroes on the plantation is by no meansburdensome or difficult: the digging of cane holes, and cutting down canes, being their chief benefits, at which either of each a labouring whit man, even there, will do nearly double the work of one negro in a day. Exclusive of there, the labour of the slaves is mostly confined to carrying dung in small baskets, planting and weeding canes. The making of sugar, rum and other articles, is the employment of such slaves, only as has been taught those businesses; and for which they have good encouragement to be industrious, by extra provisions of cloth and other things given them while employed.
The field negroes, when digging cane holes, have usually in the afternoon, half a pint of rum and water, sweetened with molasses, given to each of them, which is a great refreshment in that labour, and causes them to work with great cheerfulness. It is pleasing to see them at this work, they being all together in a row, like a regiment of soldiers,, and all heir hoes moving together: The women singing some ludicrous song of their own composing, which are answered in the same manner by the men, and each given to out do the other. This has a great effect of softening their labour, and is much promoted by given them rum and water, which they have sometimes in their other work, especially after been in the rain.
Artwood, mentions in his observations that the Dominican slaves were allowed on day a week, or on to tend their holdings exclusive of the leisure hours on the plantations which were from 12 to 2.pm and on satudays.
The entire publication: ARTWOOD’S HISTORY OF THE ISLAND OF DOMINICA, can be read online.# However, what is not highlighted in Atwood’s report, is that cruelty to slaves was common, nay the norm, in the West Indies, and Dominica was no exception.# The speeches of Sir Samuel Romilly in the House of commons, Volume 2 By Sir Samuel Romilly (pages 383 -404)
“In Dominica, there is a species of punishment called the ‘PUBLIC CHAIN’ to which a master may send his slaves for any period he chooses, men, boys and even girls of the most tender age have, been subject to this mode of torture…Numbers of them, frequently as much as a hundred, are attached to the same chain, just at a sufficient distance from one another just so as to walk and work; and this state, without regard to sex, age or strength, they are driven together into the plantations with cattle whips and other instruments of castigation. And yet, the right of the crown to extend mercy to these wretched creatures is denied.”
Romilly explained, that in England the king can mitigate all punishments, except those which are founded by an impeachment of the House of Commons, but lamented that in Dominica this prerogative was limited to the power of the masters. Highlighting again, the atrocities meted out African slaves, that by today’s standard would be considered, inhuman punishment, Romilly cites a case of one plantation owner, Mr Hutchinson in Nevis.
“Huggins went to the plantation, and finding two young lads who were accused of receiving a pair of stolen stockings, he ordered them, on his own authority, and without the interference of a magistrate, to be severely flogged. They were stated to be very young, and not to have suffered any punishment before. Huggins ordered them to receive 100 lashes each, tough the uttermost legal punishment, had they been convicted of the offence , would only have been 39 lashes. There were present at the infliction of this punishment two female slaves. One who was the sister–the other a near relation of one of the boys….The poor girls unable to restrain their feelings, shed tears, and for this heinous crime…Huggins ordered them to receive , the one 20 and he other 25 lashes which were inflicted on them with a cart whip.”
For this outrage, according to Romilly, Huggins was prosecuted by the attorney general;
#“But although the facts were clearly established, though the defendant did not even venture to dispute them, he was acquitted….Such is the prejudice which exists with regard to any interference between the master and slave.”
Yet despite the brutality of the slave owners, rebellion of the slaves to their predicament took many forms. Including faking illness, suicide and running way from the plantations. In Dominica on August 1834, the slaves were freed under the Emancipation act, and the country continued to be run by European planters. The Roman catholic church also played a dominate part on the island and built a number of schools and churches.
Dominica was to change hands between the British and the French many times, and indeed was declared neutral by a treaty signed in 1686 between them that the island be the domain of the Caribs#
For the next 100 years Dominica belonged exclusively to the Caribs. But the lure of rich agricultural lands and other resources continued to attract European pirates and other rival groups. By the 18 century, the French had begun to re-establish a settlement here.
SLAVERY IN DOMINICA
According to Susan Campbell Phd,# no less than 100,000 African were imported into the island between 1764 and 1837.
“Dominica was an atypical Caribbean colony in that it was never a major sugar-producer. A happy result of this was that, during the decades following Emancipation in 1838, many Afro-Dominicans achieved peasant status. This would seem to suggest that the island never received large numbers of people from Africa. The reality was very different as between French cession of Dominica to the British under the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War and the 1808 abolition of the slave trade as conducted by Britain and its allies, at least 100,000 Africans were brought to Dominica”
Honychurch writes that few slaves were brought directly from Africa to Dominica before 1760, “ the prosperous sugar islands of Barbados, Antigua, St. Kitts, Guadeloupe and Martinique were more attractive to the slave merchants.” Slaves he said were usually transhipped from these larger trading centres and “many who came to the island were already born in the west Indies.” Honychurch, like Atwood choose to gloss over the harsher realities of being a slave in Dominica. He mentions that basic clothes and provisions were allowed for the slaves and mentions that although Dominica had a black plutocracy, “ made no difference in the treatment of the Slaves”
It was the runaway slaves who were to help ameliorate the slaves and force the Europeans to reconsider the slave trade altogether. According to Honychurch,# “by 1785, a string of Maroon camps had developed in the centre of the island. Each led by a chief.” He goes on to name the thirteen main chiefs. “in the southern camps there were Congo Ray, Balla, Zombie, Jupiter, Juba, Cicero and Hall. Above Grand Fond was the camp of Mabouya and in the higher reaches of the Layou valley there was Jacko, Goree Greg and Sandy. Above Colihaut was Pharcell. According to Honychurch these camps or settlements were also inhabited by children and women with names such as Charlotte, calypso, Angelic, Marie-Rose, Tranquille and Victorie. The Maroons knew their habitat well, and since there were no roads, the rugged terrain provided much refuge for the maroons as it had done for the Caribs before them. The maroons would plunder the estates at night and carry away cattle and provisions setting plantation houses on fire and even killing slave drivers and their families. As the Caribs before, the rugged mountains of Dominica’s interior provided excellent hiding places for many maroon families, who even planted crops to sustain themselves.
Bernard A. Martin writing in the December 2008 edition of the Caribbean Quarterly# noted, “Dominica Maroons were rated second in organisation, discipline, strength and unity of purpose to their counterparts in Jamaica .It was Maroon policy to always make use of the element of surprise in their attacks. They would suddenly come down from their fastnesses to the plantations, burn, loot and kill any white people they encountered and then retreat behind their almost impregnable hideouts. Such raids were sometimes reprisals for punishment meted out to then colleagues whom plantation owners had recaptured and re- enslaved.”
Marshall cites an instance when the maroons staged a devastating revenge attack on a plantation that it forced the authorities to seek to negotiate a peace deal with the maroon leaders: “For instance, upon the receipt of information that one of their band had been recaptured and disciplined by the Governor, who owned a sugar estate, a party of 100 fully armed proceeded to this estate at 7 p.m. the following night. They burnt all the buildings to the ground and threw four whites and others killed into the flames. It was said that they treated the “principal black” on the estate in the same manner and wounded his family, wife and children. They then returned to their homes carrying considerable booty.”
The final push by the maroons to cripple the slave society in Dominica was between 1812 and 1815 in what Honychurch describes as the ‘The Last Maroon War.’ However, the Maroons were defeated, their leaders were caught and executed, others punished and returned to their masters When slavery was finally abolished on August 1st, 1834, there were 14,175 slaves in Dominica. The slave owners were compensated for their loss of slaves according to their age, while the slaves received nothing.
#The British government passed the Abolition Act in 1807 which effectively outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The tireless lobbying of such advocates as William Wilberforce, coupled with the struggle of the Maroons for the end of slavery finally were heeded. Although the act was approved in 1807, it wasn’t until August 1st, 1834 that the law would take effect. Author, Norman Adams, (Jah Blue), in his 2002 publication summed up the predicament of the former slaves this way:
“ #What difference did emancipation make in the life of the former slaves? They had no land and no provision was made for them. They had no legal property of their own: the small hut and garden they had on the master’s plantation was not their own anymore. It was in the planters’ interest to provide health and medical welfare for the slaves but nw, no such consideration was relevant any more.”
“ The newly emancipated slaves found themselves in the precarious situation of being forced off the plantations, or having to continue to work on the estates as labourers under a system of apprenticeship-field labourers for six year, and skilled workers for four years. However, the hopes of the Apprenticeship system was short-lived, and August 1st, 1838, the system was scrapped entirely. This meant that emancipated slaves no longer were forces to work for their former masters. This led to the former slaves taking possession of crown lands. According to Honychurch, many of the slaves “banded together in groups to work their plots of land and used the profits of their sales to buy their certificates of manumission.”