The Caribs, who supplanted the Arawaks on Dominica, called the island Waitikubuli (“tall is her body”). Columbus sighted it on 3 November 1493, a Sunday (hence the modern name), but the Spanish took no interest in the island.
It was not until 1805 that possession was finally settled. Until then it had been fought over by the French, British and Caribs. In 1660, the two European powers agreed to leave Dominica to the Caribs, but the arrangement lasted very few years; in 1686, the island was declared neutral, again with little success. As France and England renewed hostilities, the Caribs were divided between the opposed forces and suffered the heaviest losses in consequence. In 1763, Dominica was ceded to Britain, and between then and 1805, it remained British. Nevertheless, its position between the French colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and the strong French presence over the years, ensured that despite English institutions and language the French influence was never eliminated.
During the 19th century, Dominica was largely neglected and underdevelopment provoked social unrest. Henry Hesketh Bell, the colonial administrator from 1899 to 1905, made great improvements to infrastructure and the economy, but by the late 1930s the British Government’s Moyne Commission discovered a return to a high level of poverty on the island. Assistance to the island was increased with some emphasis put on road building to open up the interior. This, together with agricultural expansion, house building and use of the abundant hydro resources for power, contributed to development in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1939, Dominica was transferred from the Leeward to the Windward Islands Federation; it gained separate status and a new constitution in 1960, and full internal autonomy in 1967. The Commonwealth of Dominica became an independent republic within the Commonwealth in 1978. The Dominica Labour Party dominated island politics after 1961, ushering in all the constitutional changes. Following independence, however, internal divisions and public dissatisfaction with the administration led to its defeat by the Dominica Freedom Party in the 1980 elections. The DFP Prime Minister, Miss (now Dame) Mary Eugenia Charles, adopted a pro-business, pro-United States line to lessen the island’s dependence on limited crops and markets. She was re-elected in 1985 and again in 1990, having survived an earlier attempted invasion by supporters of former DLP premier, Patrick John. (For a thorough history of the island, see The Dominica Story, by Lennox Honychurch, The Dominica Institute, 1984, revised and republished 1995, ISBN 0-333-62776-8.)
In the general election of 1990 the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) retained its majority by a single seat, winning 11 of the 21 seats. The official opposition was the recently-formed (1988) United Workers Party (UWP) led by Edison James with six seats, while the former official opposition party, the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) won four seats. A by-election in 1993 increased the UWP’s representation to seven seats while the DLP lost one.
In 1995 Dame Eugenia retired at age 76, having led her party since 1968, and the DFP campaigned for the June general elections under the leadership of Brian Alleyne, External Affairs minister in her government. However, the contest was won by the UWP, with 11 seats, while the DFP and the DLP won five each. Mr Edison James was sworn in as Prime Minister. Mr Alleyne and Mr Rosie Douglas, leader of the DLP, were to share the position of Leader of the Opposition, taking the post a year at a time. In 1996, Mr Alleyne resigned and was replaced as leader of the DFP by Charles Savarin, who was elected unopposed.
General elections were held in January 2000, at which the DLP won 42.9%, the UWP 43.4% and the DFP 13.6% of the vote, while the turnout was 60.2% of the electorate. The DLP and DFP formed a coalition and on 3 February Rosie Douglas was sworn in as Prime Minister. One of the new government’s first decisions was to shelve plans for a new airport and related hotel development in the northeast, a project which the DFP and DLP had criticized when in opposition on the grounds of cost and inappropriate location.