Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2016.
Historical notes from a London archive detail a vivid picture of how a people’s rebellion to prevent taxes by the British Colonial Government manifested itself in a poor village on the rugged windward coast of Dominica.
On April 13th, 1893, La Plaine was the scene of the land tax riots when heavily armed British marines and Dominican-based policemen from Antigua landed at Plaisance Bay in Laronde from the Torpedo cruiser warship HMS Mohawk and attempted to evict persons who had not paid their taxes. As peasants from one of the poorest districts, they started an emotional protest to prevent the exorbitant, unfair and illegal land tax. At that time Dominica was part of the Leeward group of island colonies.
The Colonial Governor, Sir W. Hayes Smith, decided to make an example of community leader Mr. Pierre Colaire in an attempt to quell the rising tide of dissent all over Dominica regarding the new tax. The Governor deployed twenty five (25) Royal marines and nine (9) policemen under the Command of Edward Henry Bayley of the British Royal Navy to Case O’ Gowrie.
Commander Bayley and his men evicted Colaire and his large family from their small wooden house in Case O’ Gowrie at the edge of Quanarie estate (the current site of the Agricultural station) where the rolling hills meet Morne Governear. They boarded and nailed shut the windows and doors of Colaire’s small house. After the troops retreated back to their barracks in Roseau, Colaire reentered his house ignoring the real threat of arrest and imprisonment. When word of Colaire’s defiant action reached the colonial authorities in the capital, Smith sent Bayley back to La Plaine to arrest Colaire.
Upon entering the village, Bayley went first to the local French priest, ‘Pere’ Coutrier, at the Catholic Presbytery to inquire about the whereabouts of Colaire. The priest knew of Colaire’s whereabouts but did not volunteer any information. Meanwhile, the appearance of a modern day warship in the bay, where fishing boats were docked, caused quite an unwelcome and unsettling stir in the community. They felt that almost certainly meant that they were under attack.
The villagers blew conch shells to summon other villagers and soon a large crowd gathered at the presbytery. It was rumored that Colaire was among them. The historical notes detail the complaints the priest spelled out to Commander Bayley in sympathy with the peasants about the unfair and exorbitant land taxes which were levied on them but Bailey would have none of it. His strict orders and mission were to find and arrest Colaire and make an example of him.
My grandfather Mr. Burton Allan who was the Village’s Oral Historian told me that his father, Mr. Serrant Allan was a member of ‘Pere’ Coutrier unsuccessful ‘negotiating team’ that met with Bayley. After all, peasants from a poor, backward, rural outpost had challenged the British Crown and the vast and powerful British Empire. How could that have happened? Indeed, how could this act of defiance by peasant subjects to the imperialistic notion of “Rule Britannia” be tolerated?
Commander Bayley and his contingent then marched onto Case O’ Gowrie, crossing the Sari-Sari River amidst a growing and angry crowd. Reports indicated that the mob included villagers from the surrounding communities of Boetica, Delicies, Morne Juane and Riviere Cyrique who came to join in solidarity with Colaire and La Plaine folks. Tensions were mounting on both sides as the large crowd which was increasing in confidence jeered and taunted the troops as they marched to Colaire’s house.
Upon their arrival at Case O’ Gowrie, Colaire was a few steps ahead of Bayley and he slipped away into hiding under the thick canopy of the mountains and jungle. Unable and frustrated at not being able to nab his man, Bayley commenced with the eviction of Mrs. Colaire and her children from their home once again.
At this point, all hell broke loose in the La Plaine highlands. Colaire’s friend, Mr. St. Ville, a peasant from Boetica, stepped in front of the advancing troop line with a ‘pichet’ (pointed stick) swinging to prevent the eviction. The crowd joined in and started pelting stones at the force. As expected, the marines opened fire and when the smoke cleared, four (4) La Plaine peasants lay dead and several were injured on both sides including Bayley.
The remaining villagers escaped and melted into the surrounding hills and nearby forests. The troops left with Mr. St. Ville under arrest. History does not record St. Ville’s ultimate fate but one can only speculate whether his final resting place is on the ocean floor of the southern Atlantic.
Later that year, the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies dispatched Sir Robert Hamilton to Dominica from London to conduct a full and independent inquiry into the circumstances and conditions that occurred at La Plaine and also into the present system of administration in the West Indies. The official results of the inquiry which were published in 1894 resulted in the changing of the manner in which the Colonial government imposed and collected taxes in the colonies. It also resulted in the punishment of some of the officers involved. British Crown colony rule and governance was seriously affected and ridiculed.
Governor Smith won the tragic day in the La Plaine highlands but our forefathers won the ‘war’ and restored their dignity and hope however painful and tragic it was. But today we stand on the giant shoulders of Mr. Pierre Colaire and our determined bare-footed and shirtless peasant forbearers who were humiliated and ‘cut-down’ while defending their impoverished but proud community with honor, dignity and purpose.
They have left us and the generations that have followed with a very rich legacy of pride and a strong sense of destiny, duty and identity.