Dr. Lennox Honychurch
The Great Depression of the 1930s impacted every area of the globe and it was a time of great upheaval and turbulence. My new novel, Sonnets in Waking Moments highlighted the Canadian and American experience. It has always been my intention to do a feature chronicling the effects of the Depression on my native Dominica. I’m forever grateful to Dr. Lennox Honychurch, Dominica’s premier historian, for allowing me to use the information he documented of the period. Mr. Honychurch is a fountain of information, on our nation and its colorful history. His website features an inexhaustible supply of interesting and educational articles, about Dominica and the Caribbean region. This first blog will focus on Dominican society, during the 1930s and beyond. It’s important to highlight the families and peoples that shaped the history of our island state. History helps us to remember and understand our place in the past. Michael Crichton has said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
Political unrest and transformation characterized, much of the 1930s in the Caribbean. The sugar estates and factories were hardest hit. Worker strikes on Trinidad, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Jamaica and British Guiana, dominated the years of 1934 and 1938. In 1937, skirmishes in Trinidad’s oil belt, saw blood being shed, and on Barbados fourteen rioters were killed. Dominica, largely a peasant based society, lacked factories and the colony was speared such disturbances.
Although full emancipation from slavery was established in 1838. Dominican society was still evolving over the past one hundred years. The rigid stratification of the previous century was in existence when the Depression hit. Compared to the old sugar islands of St. Kitts, Antigua and Barbados, Dominica’s society was considered to be quite liberal. However, the slump in the economy, as well as the isolation of the planters outside of Roseau, did not allow for a cohesive social elite, which characterized the other islands.
The Banana Market, Roseau
By this time, the remnants of the White Plantocracy had all but given up on trying to run their estates. Most of their land had been let as ‘gardens’ to tenants or had reverted back to their original bush state (local vernacular for undeveloped land). Descendants of the old families held unto their estates, as no one had any money to buy them up. Some notable families and their estates included Judge Pemberton with Point Mulatre, Lockhart with Geneva, Janet Johnson with Rosalie, Castle Bruce, Shawford and Montpelier. In the North, Ashpital held Melville Hall, while Stebbings held Londonderry and Woodford Hill, at the time, Blenheim and Picard were still British- owned. Elsewhere on the island, the merchant planters of the ‘mulatto gros bourg’ held sway: The largest, land-holding clans in this group, included the Bellots, Rolle, Garraway, Shillingford, Riviere, Fadelle, Giraud, Potter and Green families. Scattered among all of these were a handful of European ‘romantics’. Jean Rhys, who would later become Dominica’s celebrated novelist, said about the adventuresome bunch, “they came for the moon on the Caribbees.” Among the romantics were Peter Dewhurst, Stephen, Hawies, Holly Knapp, Paul Ninas and the Napiers.
The advent of the Second World War breathed new life into the economy and so some large estates changed hands. Dominica’s early migrant workers came back to the island with their earnings, which they invested in properties. Robert Douglass and Frobel Laville, returned with money, earned from working in the oil refineries of Aruba and Curacao. Douglas bought Hampstead, and Laville bought Governor, Londonderry and Hatton garden. Dr. Armour, a Trinidadian medical practitioner purchased Hodges and Blenheim.
In the City of Roseau, the small white elite was headed by the British Administrator and included officials such as the Crown Attorney, heads of departments, and professionals in the medical service. The whites generally belonged to the Dominica Club while the ‘colored’ elite belonged to the Union Club. At the gates of Government House, a guest book lay open in a hut. People wishing to be invited to the Administrator’s ‘At Home’ social event, would sign their names in this book.
Dominica’s diverse population included the Lebanese and Syrians. In a class of their own, they were interconnected through business in all strata’s of society. Originally from the Middle East, they migrated to the Caribbean and Dominica during the 1890s and were joined by others as the century progressed. Initially peddlers, they traversed the island villages bringing goods to isolated communities, and for many villagers it was a first. Over time, the merchants built up a trusted network, among the peasantry and working class. Their early success was due in part to their business acumen, sense of thrift, and social self-sufficiency, which allowed them to set up the first small stores. Dominica, experienced marked prosperity with the boom in the banana industry during the 1950s. For the Syrian and Lebanese’s merchants, their initial investment was money well spent, as their ventures flourished.
Family members branched out into more diversified businesses, some which are still on the island today. They included, motor car sales and services, manufacturing, construction, and hotels. More families arrived, and followed in the footsteps of their earlier successors. Succeeding the Karam and Dib clans, were the Astaphans, Nassief, Raffoul, Azar, and Brohim families, each impacting and making significant contributions to Dominican society and way of life over many generations. Their descendants have continued on, establishing them as permanent fixtures, a unique component of the fabric of Dominica, and its peoples.