FOR at least a century the question of federation in the British West Indies has been seriously discussed, but in spite of the advantages, which have always been obvious to farsighted West Indians, there were many difficulties in the way, some of them geographical and others caused by the insular prejudices of the inhabitants and their differing interests. These human difficulties are now being overcome by common sense and good will even though the handicaps imposed by geography remain.

One of the last and most serious of the stumbling blocks on the road to federation has been the question of migration between the different territories. The people of Trinidad, for example, fear a mass movement to their island from those which are less prosperous and have a denser population. Similar fears exist in mainland British Guiana and British Honduras, which have not yet agreed to join in the proposed Federation. So far as the islands are concerned, however, an agreement on this subject was reached at a Conference held in Trinidad in March 1955, and it is hoped that the remaining stages in the establishment of the Federation will be completed by the end of next year. Mr. Albert Gomes, Minister of Labor, Industry and Commerce in the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, has said that this agreement removed "the last obstacles to federation," and added that "we are all looking forward to being a new Dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations in the near future."


The British West Indies (exclusive of the Bahamas, the inhabitants of which, in defiance of geographical fact, deny that they are West Indians) consist of three separate colonies: Jamaica,[i] Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados; and two groups, the Windward and the Leeward Islands. The former group includes Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent, while the Leeward Islands consist of Antigua, Montserrat, St. Christopher (St. Kitts) with Nevis and Anguilla, and the British section of the Virgin Islands.[ii] There are in addition two mainland colonies, British Guiana and British Honduras, which have always been closely associated with the West Indies.

Jamaica is some 990 miles from Trinidad and 1,050 miles from Barbados. From Trinidad to the Virgin Islands the distance is about 510 miles. The area of Jamaica is 4,411 square miles and that of Trinidad 1,864 square miles. All the other island colonies together have an area of only 1,531 square miles. The total area is therefore 7,806 square miles or a little less than the area of the state of New Jersey. The area of British Guiana is 83,000 square miles and of British Honduras 8,866 square miles.

The population of the two mainland territories is sparse--474,000 in British Guiana and 72,000 in British Honduras; but in the islands, on the contrary, it is very dense, the total being some 2,811,000, of which 1,490,000 are in Jamaica, 688,000 in Trinidad and 221,000 in Barbados. In Barbados, with an area of 166 square miles, the density of population is about 1,330 to the square mile. In the island of Montserrat, the smallest of the units in favor of federation, the inhabitants number only about 15,000.

In the West Indies as a whole there is an overwhelming majority in the population of people of African blood, the descendants of slaves brought there soon after the beginnings of European colonization. East Indians and Chinese were brought in during the nineteenth century as indentured laborers after the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1834. The comparatively small white population is descended mostly from settlers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are also about 18,000 Amerindian aborigines in British Guiana and 10,000 in British Honduras.

It is only in Trinidad and British Guiana that people of Indian descent form important minorities. In Trinidad the East Indians are 36 percent of the population, while in British Guiana they number 215,000, which is nearly half of the total population. It is among the East Indians in Trinidad that the greatest resistance to federation has been found. They fear that their strong numerical position, with the political advantages which result from it, would be lost if they were included in a federation where the majority of the inhabitants would not be of Asian descent. There was much opposition by Indian members in the legislature of Trinidad when the Federation resolution was debated. Though British Guiana has hitherto refused to join the proposed Federation, a recent vote of the nominated Legislative Council shows some revival of interest in the prospect and a wish to pursue it further.

Despite the varied racial origins of the inhabitants there is no legal or political discrimination, and even social barriers based upon color are surprisingly few. Feelings of bitterness between groups are based in reality more on class than on color--and class in the West Indies by no means corresponds with color. Color consciousness still exists but it is often greater between those of mixed descent and those of pure African blood than it is between "white" and "black." Colored persons play an ever-increasing part (in some cases the preponderant part) not only in politics but also in the Civil Service and the business and professional life of the colonies.

Although, as stated above, there are Amerindians in the mainland territories, there are practically no indigenous inhabitants left in the islands, less than 200 pure-blooded Caribs surviving in Dominica. The Caribs had exterminated the aboriginal Arawaks in the smaller islands before the arrival of the Spaniards in the West Indies in 1492 and were themselves killed or deported by the British in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while the Spaniards had exterminated the Arawaks of Jamaica before that island was conquered by the British in 1655.

The history of the West Indies until the beginning of the nineteenth century is, indeed, one of warfare and bloodshed. The dramatic discovery of the islands by Columbus and his Spanish followers was marred by massacres and abominable cruelties to the indigenous inhabitants. The exploits of French, Dutch and British adventurers, who attacked the Spanish settlements and captured the richly loaded galleons, and the reckless gallantry of the buccaneers, should not be allowed to obscure the fact that many of these men were little better than pirates and that some of them murdered their prisoners in cold blood. The romance of the struggles of the early settlers against nature and savage enemies, and the development of the wealthy "sugar colonies," should be seen against the tragic background of Negro slavery.


Columbus first came to the West Indies in 1492 and Spanish rule was quickly established in the larger islands and on the mainland of Central and South America. The smaller islands to the east and south of Puerto Rico were not occupied, partly because of the absence of gold and silver and partly because of the warlike nature of the Caribs, who were less easy to subdue than the gentle Arawaks of the Greater Antilles. The Spanish monopoly in the New World was uncompromising, foreigners and foreign trade being excluded by law and where possible by force. The trade with Spain, however, was insufficient for the growing colonial communities and the demand for African slaves was insistent. To meet this demand interlopers from France, the Netherlands and England flocked to Caribbean waters and, in spite of official protests, sold slaves and merchandise to the Spanish colonies. Sir John Hawkins was the first Englishman to take African slaves to the West Indies (in 1563) and he was followed by many others, including Sir Francis Drake.

The Spanish Government did what it could to check this illicit traffic but officials were corrupt or inefficient and in some cases were compelled by a show of force to allow the interlopers to trade with the local inhabitants. Friction gradually increased and in spite of the fact that there was peace in Europe there was "no peace beyond the line" (i.e. in the Caribbean). Spaniard and Englishman fought there whenever they met and Drake terrorized the Spanish settlements by his daring raids. When open war broke out between England and Spain in 1585, Drake sailed from England "to impeach the King of Spain in his Indies" as later, in 1587, he was to "singe the King of Spain's beard" at Cadiz. Santo Domingo (the present Ciudad Trujillo) and Cartagena were taken and looted, and much damage was done to Spanish prestige in the Caribbean.

In spite of these and other blows Spanish control of the Caribbean territories was not seriously shaken and no other European nation established colonies in the West Indies until after the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was only in 1624 that Sir Thomas Warner planted the first successful English colony at St. Christopher (St. Kitts). Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat were colonized by British settlers from St. Kitts within a few years and these, with the Virgin Islands which were colonized later, now comprise the Leeward Islands group. Barbados was colonized in 1627 and has the distinction, unique in the West Indies, of never having been captured by a foreign foe.

In 1655 a British expedition which had failed ingloriously in an attack on Santo Domingo passed on to Jamaica and easily overcame the weak Spanish resistance in that island. The slaves of the defeated Spaniards, however, took refuge in the interior of Jamaica and they and their descendants, known as the Maroons, were often in arms against the British and caused much trouble in later years.

Apart from one raid on St. Kitts and Nevis in 1629, the Spaniards did not attack the young British colonies. Jamaica in particular owed this immunity largely to the activities of the buccaneers based on that island. These reckless adventurers harried Spanish settlements and captured their ships, keeping the Spaniards mainly on the defensive. At a later date, regular British forces in time of war attacked the Spanish colonies and cities, but yellow fever and other diseases decimated the crews of naval vessels and the young unseasoned troops from England. This fact, coupled with inefficient leadership, was responsible for the repulse of a strong force which attacked Cartagena in 1741; included in this force was a Virginian regiment with which Lawrence Washington served.[iii] A more successful expedition was that of 1762 which captured Havana, but even on this occasion the deaths from disease were more numerous than the casualties caused by the fighting.

As Spanish power in the Caribbean gradually declined, a struggle began between France and Great Britain for the control of the sugar-producing islands which at that time were regarded as more valuable than the mainland colonies of North America.[iv] In the intermittent wars between the two nations most of the islands changed hands from time to time; but, after the defeat of Napoleon, Great Britain held, in addition to Jamaica and the original colonies of settlement, the islands of Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Vincent (the present Windward Islands) and Tobago (now joined with Trinidad as a single colony). Trinidad was captured from the Spaniards in 1797. British Guiana was ceded by the Netherlands in 1814. British Honduras had long been occupied by British settlers who, disregarding the almost nominal Spanish sovereignty, cut logwood and mahogany in the forests. In 1798 a Spanish attack on the settlers was decisively defeated; thereafter no attempt was made to enforce Spanish control and, with the collapse of Spanish rule in Central America, the de facto occupation by the British led to the establishment of British Honduras as a colony.

In the colonies of settlement and in Jamaica (and later in most of the conquered territories) the white inhabitants were from the beginning allowed a form of self-government in local affairs, the "proprietor" or the Governor being authorized to make laws "with the consent, assent, and approbation of the free inhabitants."[v] The constitutions granted were somewhat similar to those of the New England colonies, being based on the British constitution as it then existed (i.e. under Stuart sovereigns). The Governor represented the King; there was a nominated Council in the place of the House of Lords, and there was an elected Assembly with most of the powers of the House of Commons. The slaves, of course, were not represented and the Assemblies were controlled almost entirely, after the first few years, by the planters and the richer merchants. The Governors endeavored to carry out the policy of the British Government, which included the enforcement of the unpopular mercantile laws of the period forbidding trade with foreigners, but were continually thwarted by the intransigent members of the Assemblies, whose principal aims were to keep effective control over their slaves (who greatly outnumbered the white population) and to avoid taxation. The Home Government had frequently to disallow inhuman laws passed by the local legislatures imposing savage penalties on slaves who attempted to escape or rebelled against their masters. The Assemblies for their part repeatedly refused to pass laws to provide for the necessary revenue and often there was a complete deadlock.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century the economic decline of the West Indies began. Other territories had begun to compete in the production of sugar and the position of the planters was threatened by the crusade in Great Britain for the abolition of slavery. In 1807, after a long struggle in which the vested West Indian interests resisted all proposals for reform, the British Parliament enacted legislation which made the slave trade illegal and prohibited the importation of slaves into British colonies. With the end of the Napoleonic wars the campaign for the total abolition of slavery was intensified but again the West Indian interests resisted the change and the local legislatures refused to coöperate. At last in 1833 the British Parliament passed "An Act for the abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies" and voted a sum of £20,000,000, a huge amount for those days, to compensate the slave-owners. The slaves were emancipated on August 1, 1834, and after four years as "apprentices" became completely free in 1838.

For a time the planters and merchants, who for so long had controlled the Assemblies, continued to hold their own politically. The freed Negroes were not represented in the legislatures and a handful of the inhabitants continued to legislate largely in their own interests and with little regard for the welfare of their former slaves. In 1843 there was only one colored member of the Barbados House of Assembly, and in St. Vincent in 1854 there were no more than 193 registered voters. In Jamaica in 1863, out of a total population of some 450,000 persons, only 1,482 electors actually voted. Serious disorders among the Negroes in Jamaica in 1865 were the immediate cause of a general reform of the constitutions in all the islands except Barbados, where the ancient constitution was not changed. The elected Assemblies were abolished and the legislature of each colony then consisted of a Legislative Council, the members of which were appointed by the Crown on the nomination of the Governor.

This was the so-called Crown Colony system, which placed the responsibility for the rule of dependent territories squarely on the British Government, acting through governors appointed by the Crown on that Government's advice. As was pointed out in a dispatch from the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1868, the powers of legislation had in the past been He added that if the British Government was to be responsible for the proper administration of the colonies it must, in the last resort, have the necessary power to pass such legislation as it deemed essential, and this could be secured only in a legislature where a majority of the members could be relied upon to support the Government.

The Crown Colony system has been derided as nothing more than a veiled autocracy, all power resting in the hands of the governor, and the Legislative Council being merely a convenient tool. The members of the Council, not being elected, were held to be unrepresentative of public opinion and only complacent contributors to a façade of democracy. This is scarcely a complete picture of a system which worked effectively during a difficult transitional period. It was no less representative than the old constitutional systems which it replaced, and the nominated members of the Councils were certainly as honest and public-spirited as most of the members of the former Assemblies. The trappings and procedures of democratic legislatures were preserved in these Councils and the present generation of West Indian politicians owes to them its knowledge of parliamentary technique and the decencies of debate.

For the colored inhabitants, who formed a very high proportion of the total population, Crown Colony rule was a great improvement on what had gone before, and a Socialist writer has said that "only with the establishment of Crown Colony government did the Negroes begin to taste the proper fruits of emancipation."[vi]

Gradually, as education spread and the colored population proved its competence, the Crown Colony system was adapted to meet the changing conditions. At first a few members elected on a narrow franchise were included in the Legislative Councils, although for a time there was always a majority of official and nominated members. Later, the numbers of officials and nominated members were reduced until in the Councils there were majorities of elected members. Meanwhile the franchise was slowly widened. Today there is universal adult suffrage throughout the British West Indian territories (with the exception of British Guiana, where the constitution has been suspended) and nearly all the members of the legislatures are elected.

In 1944 the "ministerial system" was introduced in Jamaica, each of the elected members of the Executive Council (elected to that Council, which is similar to a Cabinet, by the members of the legislature) being made responsible to the legislature for the work of a group of government departments. The principal Minister, who is the leader of the political party which controls the legislature, has the title of Chief Minister.[vii] A similar ministerial system now exists in Barbados[viii] and there is a ministerial system in Trinidad where the Ministers have powers similar to those of Barbados and Jamaica, but so far no provision has been made for a Chief Minister. A modified ministerial system is being introduced into the smaller islands, and in British Honduras there is now a "membership system" which, in effect, is a halfway house to it. In British Guiana the same kind of constitution was introduced in 1953 but was suspended within a few months as the party in power after the elections was under the control of a Communist clique which showed no concern for the welfare of the colony and threatened its progress as an orderly state.[ix]

In Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, and to a lesser degree in all the other territories except British Guiana, there is today almost complete self-government in local affairs on a truly democratic basis. While further political advance to the ultimate goal may be possible separately, at any rate for the larger colonies, there can be little doubt that the best road to complete political and economic independence lies through federation. If the British West Indian colonies gained their independence individually they would still be of small account in international affairs but united in a British Caribbean Federation their position would be more assured.


The movement towards federation has been slow but its success now seems to be within sight. The British Government has encouraged the movement and has actively helped it, but has wisely left the final decision to the colonists themselves. The modern movement may be said to have begun with the Conference on the Closer Association of the British West Indian Colonies held at Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1947. This Conference set up a committee to devise a federal scheme which was published in 1950. The scheme was discussed in the various colonial legislatures and accepted in principle by all except those of British Guiana, British Honduras and the Virgin Islands; it is to be hoped that these territories will later decide to join. A further Conference was held in London in 1953 at which the original federal scheme was slightly amended and agreement was reached on points of detail. The last remaining question of importance-- that of free migration between the territories, already referred to--was settled by a conference in Trinidad in March 1955.

While other territories may subsequently join, the original Member Units of "The British Caribbean Federation" will be Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Christopher-Nevis and Anguilla, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Trinidad and Tobago. The Senate of the Federation will consist of 19 members appointed by the Governor-General, one for Montserrat and two each for the other nine units. The House of Representatives will consist of 45 elected members, 17 to represent Jamaica, ten for Trinidad, five for Barbados, one for Montserrat, and two for each of the other six units. Except in the case of defense and other reserved matters, the Governor-General will be required to act on the advice of a Council of State which will consist of the Prime Minister of the Federation, three officials appointed by the Governor-General, seven members of the legislature nominated by the Prime Minister, and three members of the Senate appointed by the Governor-General-in-Council.

The British Government has promised financial assistance to the Federation during its early years. A contribution will be made towards the cost of establishing a federal headquarters (the site of which has not yet been fixed), and during the first ten years grants will be made to cover the annual deficits of any unit which may be unable to pay its way from its own revenues or reserves. Grants will continue to be made to the Federation for development and welfare projects as formerly to the individual colonies. The British Government will be responsible for the defense of the Federation and for its external relations, but otherwise the Federation will be self-governing for nearly all practical purposes. The subjects with which the Federal legislature alone can deal will be set out in an "Exclusive List" while both the Federal legislature and the legislatures of the units concerned will be empowered to legislate on matters set out in a "Concurrent List." Power to make laws of local application on matters not included in either list will rest with the respective unit legislatures.

The British West Indian territories are among the oldest possessions of the Crown, their peoples are English speaking, traditionally loyal, and mainly Christian, though the large populations of Indian origin in Trinidad and British Guiana are mostly Hindus. The regional organization under the Comptroller for Development and Welfare in the West Indies, set up in 1940, has brought the colonies together by the fostering of common schemes, and there are other intercolonial organizations, in particular the Regional Economic Committee, which have had the same result. Students from all the colonies attend the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica. There is a West Indian Trade Commissioner in London and a West Indian Court of Appeal. Last, but not least, a West Indian consciousness has been built up by a common devotion to the very English game of cricket, with West Indian teams playing "Test Matches" against English and Australian sides.

Literacy, if far from universal, is widespread. British law is long established and generally respected. Representative institutions are of very long standing. It has been the declared aim of British policy to quicken the progress of all colonial peoples towards the goal of self-government. Mr. Adlai Stevenson has reminded us that British imperialism has been accompanied by the British democratic tradition and has, as one of its many achievements, the successful preparation of colonial peoples for democratic self-government.[x] Of no area is this more true than of the West Indies.

Against these advantages, which offer much hope for the success of federation, must be set serious handicaps arising mainly from the nature of West Indian economies, the serious overpopulation of the islands, their scattered geography and their small size. The economies of all the islands are mainly agricultural and depend on export crops of which sugar is the chief. Oil in Trinidad and bauxite in Jamaica are the only minerals of commercial significance in the islands. A growing and important industry is tourism, so far mainly confined to Jamaica and Barbados but with possibilities elsewhere. Over everything, however, hangs the threatening cloud of an ever-expanding population.

There is nevertheless some ground for reasonable optimism. Socially, the various communities have achieved a modus vivendi which may bear fruit in a happy multi-racial society. Politically, the territories have already made good progress and are still advancing on the road to self-government. Economically, United Kingdom policy is directed towards helping the region to develop its economic potentialities to the full. The Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, which at present extends until 1962, guarantees the producers of the most important crop a reasonably remunerative price up to a certain level of production. The future of other West Indian industries, such as citrus and bananas, is less certain owing to increased competition in overseas markets (one of the most important of which is the United Kingdom) from countries where the industries for various reasons are in a favorable position as compared with those of the West Indies. The British Government has undertaken to safeguard these industries and to introduce measures to that end during the current year. In this connection the waiver which was granted by the members of GATT at their last session in Geneva can be of direct help to West Indian exporters to United Kingdom markets, provided that other member governments are ready to support particular measures proposed by the British Government.

The future, however, is ultimately in the hands of the West Indians themselves. A leading West Indian politician has said: "Federation by itself will not bring prosperity, but federation will enlarge the possibilities of winning that prosperity which we West Indians alone can, and certainly must, create for ourselves." In this enterprise they will have the good wishes of the world.

[i] With its dependencies, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

[ii] The United States section of the Virgin Islands is geographically part of this group.

[iii] Lawrence Washington greatly admired Admiral Vernon, the British Naval commander at Cartagena, and named Mount Vernon after him. Lawrence's health was undermined by the hardships of the campaign and in 1751 he visited Barbados in the hope that the change would be beneficial. He was accompanied by his half-brother, George Washington, who contracted smallpox in Barbados. After Lawrence's death in 1752 the Mount Vernon property passed to George Washington.

[iv] In the period 1715-17 the imports into Great Britain from Barbados alone were valued at £364,557, as against a value of £382,576 for the imports from all the North American mainland colonies. As lately as 1763 it was argued that Martinique and Guadeloupe, captured like Canada from the French, were more valuable than the "frozen wastes" of Canada.

[v] Letters Patent to the Earl of Carlisle, dated July 2, 1627, granting him proprietary rights over the "Caribees Islands."

virtually exercised by Assemblies elected by a very limited number of the colonists and the only control over their legislation was the negative control by the veto of the Crown. . . . The population at large, consisting of uneducated Negroes, neither had nor could have any political powers; they were incapable of contributing to the formation of any intelligent public opinion; and the consequence was that the Assemblies performed their office of legislation under no real or effective responsibility.

[vi] Leonard Barnes, "The Duty of Empire." London: Gollancz, 1935, p. 124.

[vii] The Chief Minister from 1944 to 1954 was Mr. W. A. Bustamente. His party was defeated in the recent elections and he has been succeeded as Chief Minister by Mr. N. W. Manley.

[viii] The principal Minister in Barbados, Mr. Grantley H. Adams, has the title of Premier.

[ix] The leaders of this clique were Dr. and Mrs. Jagan. He is of Indian descent and was born in British Guiana. She was born in Chicago and is of Czechoslovak descent.

[x] "Call to Greatness." New York: Harper, 1954, p. 21.

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  • SIR ALAN BURNS, United Kingdom Representative on the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations; formerly Governor of British Honduras and the Gold Coast; author of "History of the British West Indies"
  • More By Alan Burns