Hugo Zetterberg on Anne Eller’s The French Revolution and the Laplaine Riot: Petitioning and direct action in Dominica

On 9 March 2021, the CSMCH organised a seminar dedicated to a discussion of a chapter in a forthcoming book by Anne Eller (Yale University). Comments were offered by Dr Christienna Fryar (Goldsmith’s, University of London) and Professor Diana Paton (University of Edinburgh). Entitled “The French Revolution and the Laplaine Riot: Petitioning and direct action in Dominica”, Professor Eller’s pre-circulated paper used official archives and newspapers to recreate a story of resistance and protest against powerful planters and a colonial administration that taxed heavily while offering no public services and meted out severe punishments for non-payment.

Taking a microhistory approach, the paper began with the story of the Collard family, whose house was to be seized for non-payment in 1893 but, due to the support of the family’s neighbours, the authorities were unable to proceed without reinforcements, which led to clashes between the protesting villagers and the representatives of the colonial state – and eventually the state murder of four individuals. The paper then continued to outline the dire situation that faced Dominica’s mainly French-speaking peasants following the abolition of slavery when the island’s declining planter economy was unable to compete with nearby British and French colonial territories. This served as the background to a detailed account of petitioning that preceded and succeeded the riots at the beginning of the chapter.

At the seminar, Professor Eller outlined her motivations behind the book and the chapter, which included the recent US occupation of Iraq but was also driven by a desire to show how formally disenfranchised people in a colonial society tried to access the policy-making process and make their voices heard. Dominica in particular is an understudied territory as US scholarship of the region tends to focus on Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Dr Fryar commended Professor Eller for her scholarly attention to the topic, noting that the timeframe in particular makes the study stand out since many works on the region’s British colonies end with the abolition of slavery. Another interesting aspect is the inclusion of inter-Caribbean links (by showing migration and informal trade patterns between Dominica and neighbouring islands and territories) which is uncommon as there has been little interaction between scholarship on Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean islands. One of Dr Fryar’s questions concerned the source material – namely the extent to which using sources unsympathetic to the peasants influenced or limited the study. Professor Eller responded that critical fabulation could be a possible remedy to fill certain gaps.

Professor Paton echoed Dr Fryar’s sentiment and noted that the vignette story which featured state murder and protest against unjust taxation is the type of story that is often forgotten in the British Empire context – especially by those who wish to paint the Empire as progressive and emancipatory. Professor Paton also focused on the source material in her questions but also asked about the significant out-migration of men (notably to French Guyana and its mining industry) and the impact it had on Dominica’s women.

The Q&A session saw a number of questions being asked, including about Dominica’s geography in general and its topography in particular. While being inhospitable and unsuitable for agriculture, the existence of Dominica’s mountainous inland offered refuge for Dominicans who did not wish to work in the planter economy – until the British colonial state began to extract and increase taxes.