In 1891, more than half a century before it actually came to fruition, the idea for a British West Indian Federation, was being proposed to Parliament in London. Collectivisation of disparate former English slave colonies, stretching from the Bahamas in the north, to British Guiana in South America, under a single or group authority, was being floated around the influential political ears in London. They listened and soundly dismissed the idea as absurdity.
“The government is unwilling to trust the west Indian and other colonies below North America with any greater degree of self-government than they now possess. The pretext for this is that the population is mostly ignorant and unfit for self-control.”
Six years later, in 1897, in the year of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, as Britain was celebrating the success of the Empire, the idea for a West Indies Federation, was revived in earnest once again.
Charles Heneage, a British diplomat turned journalist took up the cause of the West Indies. Heneage launched a newspaper offensive, in order to get the attention of Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary. Chamberlain chaired the 1897 Colonial conference during the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
As Joseph Chamberlain was touting the successes of New Zealand, Canada and other British provinces, Charles Heneage sought to remind England of the struggles of the West Indies.
SLAVERY, OVER ADMINISTRATION , TAXATION AND DECLINE OF AGRICULTURAL INDUSTRY FOR THE WEST INDIES MOVING INTO THE END OF THE 1800s
Britain had been overburdening its West Indian slave colonies with administration costs, profit syphoning and taxation. This had gone largely unnoticed because during the era of slavery, considerable revenues were being generated by these territories. So much money was being made in sugar production, tobacco leaf cultivation and on cotton plantations that these costs were scarcely considered.
The Bahamas, in the last few decades before the end of slavery, became a feeder colony. An overabundance of slaves in the Bahamas, brought opportunities to slave owners watching their plantations slowly die due to the infamously thin, malnourished soil. Thin anaemic soils had plagued the agricultural industry of the Bahamas for two centuries. Slaves from the Bahamas were sent to work in the agriculturally producing British colonies, namely, Jamaica, Barbados and British Guiana. Untold numbers were sold off to be worked out of existence in the harsher, southerly colonies.
After slavery however, the fortunes of many of these southerly West Indian, agriculturally dependent islands, had slowly begun to take a downward turn. As more countries began to mass manufacture items once obtained almost exclusively from the West Indies, like sugar and tobacco, buying all the way from the southern Caribbean became more expensive.
Countries, including, the Britain who once primarily bought from their British Caribbean colonies, began purchasing items like sugar elsewhere.
While the agricultural fortunes of southern British West Indies Islands stalled, The Bahamas which had not been agriculturally dependent, as a form of government revenue, turned towards something different. The Bahamas turned its gaze towards selling some of its many smaller islands and cays to the wealthy; and a new economic venture called tourism.
As the 1890s approached, remittances and underwriting the imposed administration costs and taxation by Britain only seemed to increase as the economic woes of the British West Indies increased.
This became the impetus for considering a West Indies Federation. A Federation would reduce the costs of colonial administration, combine island governments and hopefully bring ideas to increase the prosperity of these colonies by transferring people from over populated islands to less populated islands.
October 31, 1900 – THE WEST INDIAN SUGAR QUESTION.
The troubles of the West Indies in regard to the serious decline in the sugar industry of those islands yesterday formed the subject of chief importance at the monthly meeting of the Leeds chamber of commerce, Mr. E. W. Becket M.P., presiding.
Mr. John Quinlan, a native West Indian black, who was accompanied by Mr. Charles Heneage, explained the general situation, which had arisen owing to the existence of the sugar bounties on the Continent.
They in the West Indies had been completely ruined as the results of the bounties. The value of the sugar imports to this country in 1881 was 11 millions, of which 7 millions was cane sugar and 4 millions beets.
In 1899 imports of sugar amounted to 18 millions, of which are only 2 million and the rest beet. Of the 2 millions of cane sugar, only £900,000 worth was from the British possessions.
The balance came from foreign countries.
The inhabitants of the West Indies had, as a consequence, been exposed to a great deal of suffering and actual starvation and was still so suffering.
Indeed, the distress amongst some 2 million inhabitants was very great.
(The Leeds Mercury, Wednesday, October 31, 1900)
The idea for a British West Indian Federation came long before the 1949 post decolonisation, post World War II era of Britain’s slow divestment of its former slave colonies.
As early as 1891, the idea had been proposed to the British Cabinet. It was rejected on many counts, primary because of the ignorance of the people in the West Indies.
August 8, 1891 – THE SCHEME OF A WEST INDIAN CONFEDERATION – A VILE ARTICLE
LONDON, Aug. 8. —- The only Government offices that show any kind of life are the Colonial and the Admiralty. The Colonial office is giving more attention than usual to West Indian affairs. It is stated on the highest authority in that department that the scheme of a West Indian Confederation which has been urged upon the Government, has been substantially rejected in the Cabinet, and the government policy will not will be not to declare a separate federate, but to unite the West Indies to Canada by closer ties of commerce and of intercourse.
A colonial agent said to the United Press corresponding: “The Government is unwilling to trust the West Indian and other colonies below North America with any greater degree of self-government than they now possess. The pretext for this is that the population is mostly ignorant and unfit for self-control. The real reason is known to be that the people, with the exception of the aristocracy, I deeply contented with British rule.
Belize has been vainly asking for more legislative rights and the limitation of the despotic powers of the Governor.
In British Guiana the Negroes are held in virtual slavery by system of contract labour, and both in Jamaica and the Bahamas the sentiment is growing that loyalty to Great Britain will not furnish the staff of life.
The idea of the present Cabinet is to make the West Indias is dependencies of Canada, where it is believed the bulk of the population is considered to be devoted to British supremacy.”
(St. Louis Despatch, Saturday, August 8, 1891)
1897 – WEST INDIAN FEDERATION PROPOSED AGAIN AFTER 1897 COLONIAL CONFERENCE ON THE OCCASION OF THE DIAMOND JUBILEE OF QUEEN VICTORIA
By 1897, the idea for a British West Indian Federation was being proposed again to influential politicians in London. The most influential politician of 1897 was Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Chamberlain chaired the 1897 Colonial Conference where representations and reports from the global colonies of Britain’s vast empire were presented.
The Colonial Conference of 1897 was a conference between the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the 11 self-governing colonies of the British Empire. The conference was convened in London by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain in 1897 on the occasion of Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria.
Joseph Chamberlain (1897) “The True Conception of Empire”
“It seems to me that there are three distinct stages in our Imperial history. We began to be, and we ultimately became, a great Imperial Power in the eighteenth century, but, during the greater part of that time, the colonies were regarded, not only by us, but by every European Power that possessed them, as possessions valuable in proportion to the pecuniary advantage which they brought to the mother country, which, under that order of ideas, was not truly a mother at all, but appeared rather in the light of a grasping and absentee landlord desiring to take from his tenants the utmost rents he could exact. The colonies were valued and maintained because it was thought that they would be a source of profit—of direct profit—to the mother country.”
Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) was a British politician in the Liberal Party, which promoted laissez-faire policies. Chamberlain was an advocate of the British Empire. He gave this speech on “The True Conception of Empire” to the Royal Colonial Institute in 1897 when he was Colonial Secretary in the British government.
Based on the dire economic and social reports coming out of the West Indies as part of the Royal Commissioners Report, a British diplomat turned journalist Charles Heneage, began bombarding the English papers with the idea of a new federation.
(The Liverpool Mercury, Thursday, September 23, 1897)
1897 – THE WEST INDIAN COMMISSION
TO THE EDITOR OF THE STANDARD
Sir,— Permit me on behalf of the West Indies and the West Indian Press, to state hard dry facts, without any comments in The Standard.
The poverty stricken, ruined West Indian Islands, and also British Guiana, complain, most justly that they are over-government. Let us take the following group of six islands, which comparatively, and geographically speaking, lie fairly near to one another—viz., Barbados, St Lucia, Saint Vincent, Granada, Trinidad and Tobago.
Your readers will estimate best to what extent this is the case by comparing the cost of government of the above mentioned six Islands with the cost of government in New Zealand, comprising two large Islands.
Twenty-one thousand pounds (21,000) are annually expended on Governors, Administrators, and Colonial Secretaries by the six little islands, with an area of two thousand five hundred and seventy square miles and the population of not quite one million human beings.
New Zealand, on the other hand, with a revenue of four and a half millions (4 1/2 million), with a total area of one hundred and four thousand and seventy-one square miles, with a population, including Maoris, of roughly speaking, seven hundred and fifty thousand (750,000) souls, and with a trade worth of 16 million sterling, expend five thousand £5000 on the Governor, against £14,840 paid in the Winward Islands alone (Grenada, the Grenadines, Saint Vincent, St Lucia); whilst in New Zealand the Chief Clerks, with all allowances received £1800, against £5670 expended in the Windward Islands alone.
Your readers should know that Mr Chamberlain can decree the union of five of the above-mentioned islands without even consulting the wishes of their populations.
As regards Barbados, the ascent of the legislature is required, but I understand that the Barbadians are not adverse to Federation. Readers will please refer to page 23, paragraphs 164 to 169, of the Report of the Royal Commissioners.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Royal Colonial Institute, Northumberland Avenue, S.W., October 15.
(The Standard, London, Tuesday 19 October 1897)
WHO WAS CHARLES HENEAGE?
Charles Heneage (1841 – 1901) is accredited to Karlsruhe, capital of the Grand Duchy of Baden, which was a state in the southwest German Empire on the east bank of the Rhine.
In 1876, in Berlin, Germany, Charles Heneage married an American country girl originally from Swanton, Vermont, who was the widow of Prince Felix Salm-Salm. Agnes Leclercq, the widow of Prince Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk of Salm-Salm. Prince Felix was a poor royal who became a mercenary for hire. He fought as a hired fighter in war.
1897 – BAHAMAS-JAMAICA UNDER ONE ADMINISTRATION WITHIN PROPOSED NEW WEST INDIAN FEDERATION
Sir. – The West Indian journals which have just arrived are full of the question of West Indian Federation, which according to the European mail, is viewed with favour in high quarters.
There is rather an important letter signed “Box” published in the Times of Barbados on the date of August 28. The writer, calling attention to my proposal to federate the West Indian Islands, comments as follows: –
“To my mind it might not be practicable to being about a union exactly on the Canadian lines. Our present financial position might render it impracticable. I am of the opinion that the various British West Indies might be grouped as follows with a lieutenant governor appointed to each group:– (a) Jamaica and Bahamas: (b) The Virgin islands, Antigua, Nevis, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Dominica; (c) Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, and the Grenadines: (d) Barbados, St Lucia, Saint Vincent.
A Governor General should preside over the whole union, and each Lieutenant Governor should be subordinate to him. The government of each island should be administered by a Legislative Assembly and an Executive Council, composed of the Governors, the Attorney General, and three members of the Legislative Assembly nominated by the Government.
The Legislative Assembly should be purely elective, and should represent the intelligence and morality of each particular island.
The franchise should be based upon intelligence and morality.
Delegates from each Legislative Assembly should meet regularly every half year in Parliament for the general welfare of the union.”
“The Times” (of Barbados) represents the masses at Barbados, and it is satisfactory to find that more than 150,000 souls out of the population of the Island are in favour of West Indies Federation.
I am, &c.,