Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The political traditions of the Commonwealth Caribbean islands reflect the diverse ways in which they were brought into the British Empire and administered, as well as the dominant political views in London at the time of their incorporation. Some of these traditions can still be observed in the operation of contemporary politics in the region. Three patterns emerged: one for colonies settled or acquired before the eighteenth century; another for colonies taken during the Seven Years War (1756-63) and ceded by France in 1784; and a third for colonies conquered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The first group--Barbados, the Bahamas, the Leeward Islands, and Jamaica--developed during the early attempts to found colonies. Like the mainland North American colonies (and Bermuda), these territories had representative assemblies based on the bicameral system of the mother country. Each colony had a governor who represented the monarch, an appointed upper house, and an elected lower house. The electoral franchise, however, was extremely restricted, being vested in a few wealthy male property holders. Power was divided between the governor, who executed the laws, and the assembly, which made them. However, the assembly retained the right to pass all money bills--including the pay for the governor-- and so used this right to obstruct legislation or simply control new officials.

These older colonies also had an effective system of local government based on parish vestries. The vestries were elected annually by the freeholders and met frequently to levy local revenues for the maintenance of the poor, the support of the clergy, the construction of roads, and other local business, such as the licensing of teachers.

Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, Tobago, and St. Lucia were brought into the British Empire between 1763 and 1814. Grenada and the Grenadines were captured during the Seven Years War and ceded by France at the end of the war. St. Vincent came as part of the settlement of 1783 between France and Britain. Tobago, Dominica, and St. Lucia, won during the Napoleonic Wars, were ceded in 1803, 1805, and 1814, respectively. They were referred to as "ceded islands" and also had assemblies, which sometimes functioned like those in the older territories. However, the small size of the free landholding population in these islands vitiated the functions of these assemblies and precluded development of a viable system of local government such as had developed in Jamaica and Barbados. The British administered these islands in two units: the British Leeward Islands (St. Kitts, Nevis, Barbuda, Anguilla, Antigua, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, and also Dominica from 1871 to 1940) and the British Windward Islands (St. Lucia, St. Vincent, the Grenadines, and Grenada as well as Dominica between 1940 and 1956).

When Trinidad and St. Lucia were brought into the empire in 1797 and 1814, respectively, the British government, cognizant of the difficulty that it had had with the various local planters' assemblies, vested the royal governors with virtually autocratic powers. This system of direct British rule through appointed officials rather than elected representatives was known as "crown colony" government. At the same time, the British retained the previous Spanish, French, and Dutch forms of government, gradually altering them through time. No sustained attempt was made to foster local government in these newer colonies, although the leading cities--Port of Spain and Castries--had municipal councils. Perhaps as a result, a strong grass-roots democracy failed to develop early in the latter territories.

Colonial acquisition and administration were not neatly and easily accomplished. St. Lucia, having changed possession fourteen times, was administered as a British crown colony between 1814 and 1871, when it joined the Leeward Islands group. Tobago changed imperial masters more than a dozen times before finally being acquired by Britain in 1802--a position ratified by the French in 1814. It experienced many forms of administration before being confirmed as a ward of Trinidad in 1889. The Bahamas, irregularly colonized by the British beginning in 1629, had a representative assembly in 1728, but settled into a dull routine as a minor crown colony until the granting of complete internal self-government in January 1964. The British Virgin Islands, annexed in 1672, entered the sugar revolution with the rest of the region, but declined economically during the nineteenth century. Between 1871 and 1956, they formed part of the British Leeward Islands administration, and, having opted not to join the West Indies Federation, became crown colonies (see the West Indies Federation, 1958-62, this ch., and Postwar Federation Attempts, ch. 7). The Cayman Islands, erratically settled by the British, until 1848 were administered by the Bahamas. After a short period of legislative government (1848- 63), they reverted to the administration of Jamaica until 1962, when they became a crown colony.

Emancipation of the slaves placed great strains on the representation system. Designed originally for colonies of British settlers, the assemblies no longer represented the majority of citizens but merely a small minority of the oligarchy. Sometimes these oligarchies were too small to provide the necessary administrative apparatus, which explains the shifting nature of colonial government in some of the smaller islands, and the constant quest of the British government to reduce government costs. The power of the purse, once astutely wielded by the planter class, declined along with the value of the export economy, denying to the assemblies their former intimidating power over governors. The British government had always been uneasy about the colonial representative assemblies, especially given the increasing number of non-Europeans in the population. In Jamaica, just before the collapse of the system in 1865, the assembly had 49 members representing 28 constituencies elected by 1,457 voters. Only 1,903 registered voters existed in a population of 400,000--nearly half of whom were adult males.

The Morant Bay Rebellion of October 1865 brought about the end of the old representative assemblies. The "rebellion" was really a protest of rural black peasants in the southeastern parish of St. Thomas. The conflict had unmistakable racial and religious overtones, pitting George William Gordon and Paul Bogle, who were black Baptists, against the custos (the senior vestryman), a German immigrant named Baron Maximilian von Ketelholdt; the rector of the established church, the Reverend S.H. Cooke; and the governor of the island, Edward John Frye, a hostile incompetent with limited intelligence but long service in minor colonial posts. The original demonstrators were protesting what they believed to be unjust arrests at the courthouse in Morant Bay when, failing to obey an order to disperse, they were fired on by the militia, and seven protesters were killed. The crowd then rioted, burning the courthouse and killing fourteen vestrymen, one of whom was black. Bogle and Gordon, arrested in Kingston, were tried by court-martial in Morant Bay and hanged. (In 1965 the Jamaican government--an independent and representative entity--declared the two to be its first "national heroes.") Altogether, Governor Eyre ordered nearly 500 peasants executed, 600 brutally flogged, and 1,000 houses burned by the troops and the Maroons, descendants of former runaway slaves with whom the government had a legal treaty. In December the Jamaica Assembly abolished itself, making way for crown colony government. The act was the final gesture of the old planter oligarchy, symbolizing that it did not wish to share political power in a democratic way with the new groups.

Crown colony rule was soon established in other colonies. In the constitutional reorganization of the later nineteenth century, only Barbados managed to retain its representative assembly. Jamaica and the Windward Islands joined Trinidad as colonies fully administered by the crown while the Leeward Islands experimented with a federal system. With periodic adjustments, crown colony government endured until the middle of the twentieth century. Despite its paternalistic rhetoric, and many practical reforms in the social, educational, and economic arena, it retarded political development in the West Indies by consistently denying the legitimacy of political organizations while elevating the opinions of selected individuals. By so doing, it narrowed rather than broadened the social base of political power.

The limited political opportunities offered by service in the various municipal councils and parish vestries emphasized the inadequacies of the system of appointed councils in which social considerations overrode merit as the primary basis for selection. Appointed members had no political constituency--the basis on which they were chosen--and therefore no responsibility to the majority of people. Because there were no elected assemblies to represent the islands' interests, opposition to the crown colony system of government came more often from the local level alone.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress