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
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
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.
Data as of November 1987