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Dominica’s Imperial Road and the struggle to complete construction

by Thomson Fontaine
August 19, 2012 10:52 A.M

joseph chamberlain
Joseph Chamberlain British Secretary of State for the colonies, 1895 Photo by Elliott & Fry. From: H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria, 1902

Belles, Dominica (TDN) -- The year is 1895 and the newly elected British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain rises to address the British parliament with a major speech outlining his ideological position regarding the West Indian colonies.

Chamberlain was horrified by the treatment the colonies were receiving from Britain and was determined that the period of neglect would end. He was determined to make Dominica the test case for his new imperial policy:

He told the Parliament: “The case of Dominica is altogether an exceptional one. It is, I believe, one of the very richest islands in the possession of the Crown in the West Indies in the natural productiveness of the soil; at the same time it is an island in which practically nothing has been done, and to this day the very best Crown land in the island, amounting to about 100,000 acres, is absolutely unproductive because there are no means of communication.”

Years earlier in 1887 Lafcadio Hearn, a travel writer had visited both Dominica and Martinique writing in glowing terms of the French supremacy to the English in road building. About the roads in Martinique he wrote “the excellent national roads—limestone highways, solid, broad, faultlessly graded—that wind from town to town, from hamlet to hamlet, over mountains, over ravines; ascending by zigzags to heights of twenty-five hundred feet; traversing the primeval forests of the interior; now skirting the dizziest precipices, now descending into the lowest valleys.”

According to Hearn, there were 303 miles of these roads in Martinique, 3 miles in Dominica. There were beginning to be murmurs that Dominica would fare a lot better by going back to being a French colony.

Indeed another travel writer James Anthony Froude commented “Dominica would surrender herself tomorrow with a light heart to France, to America to any country which would accept the charge of her destinies. Why should she care anymore for England, which has so little care for her? Beauties conscious of their charms do not like to be thrown aside.

Chamberlain however succeeded in pushing through his grand plans and after heated debate in the British Parliament it was agreed that grants would be made available to Dominica in exchange for Crown Colony rule. The decision to become a Crown Colony however, was by no way an easy one for the local assembly.

Dominica’s Assembly had become the first in the West Indies to have a majority of ‘coloured’ representatives following the abolition of slavery and its members fought long and hard to avoid Crown Colony rule.

Indeed many in the Legislature had their sights set on annexation with the United States or at the very least reverting to French rule given the extent of the neglect by the British.

On July 13, 1898 when the legislation came before the local Legislature for approval, anti-crown colony proponents added an amendment declaring that the government was trying to deprive the inhabitants of their just rights and liberties and proposing that the British government barter Dominica to the United States or some other countries.

However, despite the best efforts of William Davies (owner of Bath Estate), Alex Ramsey Lockhart, DO Riviere, Jabez Bellot and Henry Hamilton, the amendment was defeated and Crown Colony rule was accepted by a vote of eight to six.

Soon after the vote, Chamberlain, on the advice of his son, handpicked a young and ambitious Heskeith Bell to become Dominica’s new Administrator. Bell arrived in Dominica a few months later and immediately began work on what would become known as the Imperial Road.

Such was the fuss made about the new road that a young Jean Rhys growing up in Roseau during that time would later write in Smile Please” We had at that time a very energetic administrator called Mr. Heskeith. That was part of his name anyway. . . . He improved the roads out of all knowledge and triumphantly carried through his better idea of an Imperial Road across the island so that the Caribbean and South Atlantic sides were no longer cut off one from the other.”

Rhys left Dominica in 1904 so she was blissfully unaware that the Imperial Road, far from accomplishing its noble goals had come to a painful end that year around Baisinville (present day Belles) when the money ran out.

In 1904 Bell wrote “from Roseau, the chief town and principal seaport on the leeward coast, the “Imperial Road” runs for seventeen miles to a point in the very centre of the island, known as Bassinville. For the first five or six miles of its course, it is practicable for wheeled traffic, while the remainder is what may be termed a first class bridle-road, having such a gradient as to be ultimately fit for wheeled traffic.”

While Bell blamed lack of funds for the road’s completion, a commission set up in 1918 to investigate the state of roads in Dominica determined that the original problem with the Imperial Road had been that it had taken an illogical route given its purpose of opening up the interior lands known as the Layou Flats.

The Commission faulted Bell for building the road through Middleham (above present day Rogere) for the sole purpose of linking up to the estate of Gordon Fowler a retired coffee planter from Ceylon. In its view the obvious route had to be through the Layou Valley about 600 - 800 feet in elevation rather than the chosen route of over 1840 feet before descending into the Layou flats.

By now the story of Dominica’s Imperial Road was well known and visitors to Dominica were anxious to get a glimpse of the road. Successive administrations would work on extending the road beyond Belles all the way to the Atlantic Coast around Marigot, but that would take at least two more decades.

In 1933 Peter Fleming a famed travel writer better known for his travels through Brazil wrote about the unfinished five miles of the Imperial Road referring to it as ‘a nice little walk.’

Just five years later another travel writer Alex Waugh on his visit to Dominica came determined to walk the unfinished portion of the road. He would later detail his experience in Typical Dominica which was published in 1949.

“It took me two and three-quarter hours to do five miles. It was raining all the time. I lost count of the rivers that I waded through and slithered over. Down the sides of the valleys, where it is planned eventually to bridge the footpath, it is so narrow, so overgrown, and with so deep a drop on the other side, that you have to consider each step with the greatest caution or your foot will land on the green roof of a ravine.

“The road is sliding,” the guide kept saying, and he spoke the truth. Every so often the road had been blocked by landslides….. But I would not for the sake of it make that journey twice.”

Waugh also expressed his skepticism about the road ever been finished: “I had heard so much talk about that road. I had heard so many people say, “Of course it will be all right once the road is finished.” But if that road is completed in my lifetime, I shall be astonished.”

Jean Rhys in her only visit to Dominica in 1936 after her departure was so intrigued by the Imperial Road and what it represented to Dominican society that she made an attempt to walk the unfinished portion and later fictionalized the account in the Imperial Road and to a lesser extent made reference to it in Temps Perdi.and her classic novelWide Sargasso Sea.

Rhys also felt compelled to write to Waugh following the publication of Typical Dominica about her own experience walking the Imperial Road.

The road started in 1900 was eventually completed in 1938 spanning approximately 25 miles. While the road failed to attract a sustained influx of British planters, today it is the fastest route between the country’s main airport and the city of Roseau.

More than 70 years later, the Imperial Road is once again the center of controversy. The DLP government with assistance from the European Union contracted the resurfacing and widening of the road from Marigot to Pond Case to a French contractor.

Now months behind its scheduled completion, there appears to be no end in sight leaving many to wonder whether history will repeat itself and how long it will take for the reconstructive works to be completed.


Peter Hulme’s Islands and Roads: Hesketh Bell, Jean Rhys, and Dominica's Imperial Road was utilized in researching and writing this article.
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