Sunday, May 17, 2009

The real victory of Private T. Willie

By Campbell Webster

At one minute to midnight on July 31, 1834, there were 14,175 slaves in the Caribbean Island of Dominica. One minute later, on August 1, they were free, a result of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Their British white owners had predictably predicted the worst, proclaiming that drunkenness, disorder and violence against the slaves' former masters would ensue. It did not happen. It was a victory worth celebrating with joy, and so most freed slaves went to Mass in thanksgiving. (Perhaps the British projected their own rituals of victory onto the soon-to-be former slaves.)

Over 70 years later, a grandson of one of those slaves, Private T. Willie, gave his life in pursuit of another victory: that of the enslavers of his grandparents. For Private T. Willie died on the grim battlefields of World War I Europe, one of 24 Dominicans who were killed in the service of the United Kingdom. Private T. Willie's name is last on a small brass plaque in Roseau, near an historic, and prominent symbol of British colonialism: a large stone Anglican church that dominates Dominica's capital and port city of Roseau.

As with Prince Edward Island's early European history, Dominica's 17th and 18th centuries were all about exchanging victories between the English and the French. But prior to those battles, the Spanish had been uncharacteristically defeated by an indigenous population, the Kalinagos, who racked up victory after victory against the notorious conquistadors.

No matter where they tried to land, the Spaniards were repeatedly showered with poisoned arrows, and finally gave up. The Kalinago victories have persisted in various forms to this day, with their culture, and small population somewhat intact on the eastern shore of Dominica. Their survival itself is a major victory, as they are the only remaining indigenous tribe in the Caribbean. (Although their struggles remain, most recently to dispel their racist depiction as cannibals in the Hollywood blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.)

On Tuesday of this week, a victory of another kind greeted Dominica: in the form of the enormous cruise ship, the Carnival Victory. As it unloaded in front of Private T. Willie's inscribed name, some of the local population regarded this as their own victory, a victory of commerce. Indeed, the thirst for cruise ship revenue is strikingly similar to Prince Edward Island's, including Dominican government policy which promises to spread the cruise ship arrivals between Roseau and its second-largest city, Portsmouth.

Where the similarity with Prince Edward Island ends is in how intrusive the cruise passengers seem as they roam Roseau, many rushing by the merchants and the occasional panhandlers, speeding their way to the numerous duty-free liquor stores.

As the Carnival Victory prepared to depart at dusk under an explosive pre-hurricane season rain storm, the weather recalled the earlier showers of poison arrows. A lone harbour attendant stood perched atop a tiny concrete island in the harbour, watching the enormous white Carnival Victory power away; its duty-free rum safely inside the ship (and many of its passengers), none of whom looked very nice to eat.

The final victory, though, may yet fall to the Dominicans. Of any nation, theirs has one of the highest per capita number of people living to be 100 years old (and certainly it seems most of them will outlive the passengers of the Carnival Victory.) Dominica's ultimate freedom and victory may not be so much about Private T. Willie's sacrifice, as it is about just surviving. And for a long time.

Campbell Webster is a writer and producer of entertainment events. He can be reached at [email protected]
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