History of Dominica

Throughout history Dominica has been home to many governments

Photo credit: © Simone Van Den Berg | Dreamstime.com

The History of Dominica

Compared to many Caribbean islands, Dominica has an unusually peaceful history. Its small size and lack of gold to attract Europeans meant it was not a top priority for colonizers. But once the island was colonized, the battles for control were as fierce as those for any other island.

Indigenous Tribes

Though Arawak tribes once inhabited Dominica, the Carib Indians either killed them or drove them away. By the time Columbus arrived in 1493 the Caribs were firmly in control of the island. Though many Spanish ships sailed to this island, the Caribs continuously kept any would-be settlers at bay.

The Arawak tribe that originally settled the island was known as the Orinoco, but the Kalinago tribe of Caribs took control of the island. The Caribs gave Dominica the name "Wai'tukubuli," meaning "Tall is her body."


One of the most interesting things about the eventual European takeover of Dominica is that, unlike on many other islands, the native Caribs still live on the island today. However, struggles with the British did wipe out large numbers of the tribe. In 2003, Dominica celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the Carib Reserve.

European Conquest

The Earl of Carlisle claimed this tiny island almost two centuries after Columbus named it Dominica. This 1627 claim was theoretical only, and the island remained untouched. Prior to this claim, Captain John Smith and his ship stopped in at Portsmouth in 1607 on their way to establish Jamestown, the first North American colony. The British briefly moved to settle Portsmouth, but disease kept the settlement from taking hold.

Just a few years after the Earl's claim on Dominica, France claimed the island as well. Though the two powers squabbled over the land, a 1660 treaty left the island once again in the hands of the Caribs. However, this didn't stop French settlers from nearby French possessions from claiming land on the island and bringing slaves to work it.

The French reestablished control of the island in the 1720s. The British recaptured the island in 1759, and the 1763 Treaty of Paris officially ceded Dominica from French control to British hands. The French made two other efforts to reclaim Dominica, one which resulted in the burning of the city Roseau to the ground. The Treaty of Versailles once again granted the British control in 1783 and, despite French efforts, the island was peacefully left in British hands in the early 1800s.

Developing Government

Dominica has a long history with many different governing bodies. The government of many of the British West Indies was shared throughout much of their histories. The first was the Government of Grenada, established in 1763, which included the islands of Grenada, the Grenadines, St. Vincent, Tobago, and Dominica. In 1768, however, Dominica established a separate Legislative Assembly that continued to function even when the island was once again under French control.

While the island was under French jurisdiction, many freed slaves, known as Maroons, began to revolt. It took more than 30 years to establish some equality between the races. In 1831, while under British rule, equal social and political rights were given to all free islanders. It would be three more years before slavery was abolished, at which point Dominica was already under the control of the Leeward Islands Administrative Union.

Led by George Falconer, a political party known as the Mulatto Ascendancy took control of local affairs on Dominica in 1838 by attaining a political majority in the House of Assembly. This was a first in a British Caribbean colony. In 1865 Dominica became a crown colony and the government was set up accordingly. Through the years Dominica has been governed by the Leeward Island Constitutional Federation and the Windward Islands Administrative Union, as well as the Federation of West Indian Colonies.

Dominica received its independence in November 1978. There is now a unicameral legislature with 21 elected seats and 9 appointed seats, as well as a Prime Minister. Elections are generally held every 5 years. The first Prime Minister was Patrick John. Eugenia Charles, the first female Prime Minister in the Caribbean, was elected in 1980. Patrick John was put on trial for 1981 coup attempts, including one which involved North American members of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

Eugenia Charles remained Prime Minister until the elections in 1995, when the United Workers Party and Edison James captured a majority with 11 seats; two other parties equally split the remaining 10 seats. However, power has changed hands more than expected in recent years. Pierre Charles became Prime Minister in the 2000 election, but died in office in 2004. Roosevelt Skerrit took his place, and won the election for Prime Minister in 2005.

Despite the many changes in power on Dominica, its history is a relatively peaceful one, which has helped to make the island what it is today. Some historic economic hardships have also led to a great deal of development in recent years.



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