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Edward Le Blanc
Edward Le Blanc,
Mabel "Cissie" Caudieron
and the creation of
Creole Nationalism
in Dominica
by
Lennox Honychurch

Mabel Cissie Caudieron

The main concept of Creole nationalism as promoted from the 1950s by Dr.Eric Williams in Trinidad and Tobago was to bring together the diverse ethnic, social and economic groups in the nation state and create a unifying ideal that was encapsulated by the term "Creole". It indicated all those groups and things which emerged from the Caribbean experience. In Jamaica it was incorporated in the national motto, "Out of Many, One People". The path opened by Eric Williams, inspired leaders up and down the Eastern Caribbean; national awards, best village competitions, the publication of national histories, the research and renewal of folkloric art forms in dance, song, music, dress and culinary skills became part of a national cultural agenda. What the historian Hobsbawm would call "the invention of tradition".

But where else was there for Caribbean people to turn to in the mid 20th century for inspiration, other than the folk. Where in the exploitative past could people turn to for figures of admiration and role models. As Gordon Lewis states in his book "Main Currents in Caribbean Thought", "The record was too bleak…Consequently the growth of any national character mythology came to settle upon the Caribbean common man as its representative type…In such various ways the protagonist of the spirit of Caribbean cultural nationalism came to be the man and woman of the Caribbean street" or in the Dominican case, the man and woman of the farm and the village. It was in this spirit that we look at the life's work of our two subjects: The inspiration which they gained from the life of the people of Dominica and the island upon which this heritage had unfolded. They form interesting contrasts and yet in many cases their ideas and their actions overlap not more so than in the 1960s when Edward Oliver Le Blanc was chief Minister and Premier of Dominica and Mabel "Cissie" Caudeiron was at the peak of her creativity, in what was also tragically the last years of her life. Both were cultural activists, one with the political power to implement, the other with the powers of persuasion and inspiration in a society balanced between its past and its first steps into a very different future. Tonight I speak about both in their roles as cultural activists, Creole nationalists, using folk traditions as a tool for nation building. Although I will touch on the political and leadership role of Edward Le Blanc, I shall be concentrating on his cultural agenda.

But I begin with Mabel Cissie Caudeiron, for her activities in this field date back to the 1920s some thirty years before a young man from Vieille Case called Edward Oliver Le Blanc emerged upon the Dominican political stage.


Portrait of
Mabel 'Cissy' Caudeiron
by Earl Ettienne, 2002.


Caudeiron, Mabel, Alice, "Cissie" Folklorist and teacher (1909-1968). Mabel Alice "Cissie" Caudeiron was born in Roseau on 20 December 1909.

As a child, "Cissie" Boyd was always involved in plays and concerts and photographs still exist of her performing in while a pupil at the Convent High School. When she left school in the late 1920s she launched into her passion inspite of the limitations of the society at the time.

As H.L. Christian recalls in his book "Gate Crashing to the Unknown": "In Roseau, the elites literally frowned on creole. They did not want their children to learn to speak creole. Even some who were resident in the rural areas where creole was widespread, also adopted this Roseau approach. To them the speaking of creole represented a backward step in the advancement of education of their children." But few realized that it was possible and indeed advantageous to be able to speak both good English and good Creole. Luckily for Cissie Caudeiron and her brothers, their father was one of the rare cases who took this view and this progressive attitude lay the foundation for Cissie's later exploits in folk culture.

But Cissie faced opposition from the start, as Mr.Christian recalls:

"What happened was that Sisi Boyd sometime around 1930 ventured to put on a drama in creole. She wrote this play in creole. One of the players…told me that when they finished the performance, instead of getting applause, all they received were loud boos from the Roseau audience. A ding dong battle ensued in the papers saying that Sisi Boyd was trying to lower the cultural standard of the country by putting on this drama in creole. It was a [white Antiguan], Mrs. Doreen Greyson, the wife of the then principle of the Dominica Grammar School, who came to Sisi's defence. I remember clearly the article she wrote.

She argued that if people are ashamed of their culture, their cultural expressions, they are adrift. This was an expression of a lack of pride in where they came from, and she argued that such a people cannot make any meaningful contribution to their cultural future."

Mr. Christian also noted that Professor Sammy, who trained the first group of welfare officers in the 1940s also made this point. And Christian also notes that the officers of the Welfare department were also influential in maintaining an interest in the folk culture.

Caudeiron composed many Creole songs highly influenced by the beguines of Martinique and the traditional folk songs and chante-mas of Dominica. A time at Arima in Trinidad also contributed to her knowledge of the wider Caribbean forms of folk culture. She was away from Dominica for many years following her marriage in 1938 to Jean-Albert Caudeiron, a French engineer. They moved to Venezuela, where she raised her family, returning to Dominica in 1957 with renewed energy and determination to continue her earlier work for the greater recognition of Dominican folk heritage and traditional culture. She opened a small school of her own and was a teacher at the Wesley High School. Supported by the Chief Minister, Edward Le Blanc, she helped to organise the first National Day celebrations of 1965. She founded the Kairi Artistic Troupe, the first group of its kind to be formed in Dominica, which represented the island abroad at the Commonwealth Arts festival in Britain in the summer of 1965. Locally she researched and wrote articles on the heritage of music, dances and traditional dress.

In her reminiscences of the days before dancehalls Cissie Caudeiron observed that with all their class conciousness " love of all things Creole was deep in the hearts of those Dominicans of gone by days…" She recalled the danes and the music and musicians who performed, noting that at that time and among her own social group, "the 'chante mas' took on a more respectable name, 'the passeo', and these lively tunes filled the time between the square dances." But she argued, with the coming of the dance halls and the gramophone, the old dances "were doomed, because they are best performed among groups of people who know each other and can be considered friends."

In the light of this she urged that their survival could only be guaranteed if as she wrote, "groups are formed to encourage their continuity. This" she said, "is the duty of all true Dominicans and not only a few school boys and girls who perform to large crowds on National Day each year.

"You are not obliged to perform to a crowd of thousands of spectators but you can learn the old dances with a group of friends and dance for your own pleasure, at your own homes."

She called also for the need for young people to take up the playing of traditional instruments particularly the accordion "so that our heritage will not fade away". She said that "the 'shack-shack' or the 'jing-ping' band is an essential part of our musical background and without it our local square dances are like food without salt. For this reason," she concluded, "I beg each and every one of you, to help, in whatever way you can, to keep our music and dances alive."

Cissie Cauderion was as adamant about the traditional dress as she was about the dances and music. At the end of an article she wrote about traditional dress she stated:

"None would seriously expect that modern girls and women would revert to a dress which began dying out as far back as the 1930s and to use it at work in offices, factories, schools, stores and shops. This would be impractical to say the least. But, I am sure that many will agree with me in saying that our native dress can hold its own anywhere in the world when worn with pride and distinction. Therefore it should be the duty of every Dominican girl and woman to own her own outfit, and to use it herself on such national holidays as 3rd November, 1st Monday in August and during carnival Season

Let us give our native dress the place it so richly deserves and let us thank these women of days gone by for the gift they left to us of that beautiful, picturesque and elegant "Robe Creole""
She died while in the process of carrying on that legacy, collapsing on 20 February 1968 during a practice in preparation for that year's upcoming Carnival.

She was a Creole nationalist similar to others elsewhere in the Caribbean at the time who raised the national perception of folk culture to the forefront of national consciousness.

Le Blanc, Edward Oliver: (1923 - ) Premier, Chief Minister, Agricultural Officer and Poet. Born at Vieille Case, 3 October 1923. He was educated at the Vieille Case government school and took a course in agriculture at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, Trinidad in 1944. He later studied on his own for the London Matriculation Certificate obtained in 1948.

Worked in the civil service as Agricultural Instructor 1945-1953. Then was employed by the Dominica Banana Growers Association (DBGA) as agent in the northern district.

Served during this time as nominated and then elected member of the Vieille Case Village Council. In his spare time he wrote poetry, some of which was published in the US. In 1957 he joined Dominica Labour Party (DLP), which had been founded two years earlier by Phyllis Allfrey and E.C Loblack. Le Blanc contested the general elections of that year and won the Portsmouth seat in the Legislative council. The following year he resigned his seat to contest the Federal Elections, and along with Phyllis Allfrey, represented Dominica in the Federal Parliament of the West Indies. Dedicated to her

Why waste your breath on this enchanted isle
To teach your kind what mankind ought to know -
Where harshness reaps a kind and friendly smile
While love deceit and hatred sow?

Enchanted! Yes! With nature's carpet spread,
With foliage and flowers dyed with dew,
But where the poor must live in fear and dread
Under a rich unsympathetic few.

Can you succeed where others would have failed,
And break the tyrants' rod, the poor to save?
If so I shall proclaim (as I have hailed)
Your message, though it makes the tyrants rave.

And when the curtain falls and all is done,
The pathway cleared and all obstructions flung,
We'll see the goal illuminated by the sun
And hand in hand will keep the fortress strong.

In 1960 he resigned from the Federal Parliament to contest the local Dominica general elections of 1961. He led the (DLP) to its first victory, winning the Roseau South constituency, becoming Chief Minister and Minister of Finance. In the aftermath of the collapse of the WI Federation in May 1962 he participated in all of the conferences in London attempting to save a federation of "the little eight" islands which were left after Jamaica and Trinidad went independent. Finally, when all else failed, he attended the 1966 Lancaster House Conference to make Dominica a self-governing Associated State in March 1967. He became the island's first Premier.

In his foreword to the "Dies Dominica" booklet of 1967, which was published to observe the attainment of internal self-government under Associated Statehood with Britain, Le Blanc outlined the theory of national commitment that he wanted to mould within the hearts of every Dominican:

"The pace of progress and the general advancement of our people must now be dictated solely by the extent to which we apply ourselves to the tasks which lie ahead, and the determination and energy with which we meet the future.

But how can we develop that love of country, that patriotism, the essential prerequisites? Love is the fruit of knowledge, and one's love of one's homeland is the product of one's understanding and appreciation of one's roots, background and culture.

It is with this in mind that "Dies Dominica" goes out to all the sons and daughters of this State, both here and overseas, that may again discover through its pages, the essence of being Dominicans, and thereby create a greater kinship among us all and weld us more firmly together as a people."

From the following year political pressure increased with the formation of The Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) out of remnants of old DUPP as a result of unpopular legislation passed by the DLP. In spite of this, Le Blanc's widespread popularity in the countryside rode triumphant.

He was associated with the great social, economic and infrastructural changes that swept Dominica during the 1960's. The regional banana boom, Colonial Development & Welfare (CDW) funded projects planned long before, and the tide of change sweeping the Caribbean had much to with this, but locally, Le Blanc was associated with leading all these achievements.

His championing of the cause of "the little man" against the strangle hold of the old elite and the raising to the prominence of local talent in all fields, and folk culture in particular, made him the hero of the hour. But in 1970 his leadership was challenged by members of his own Cabinet who ousted him from the DLP. Running with his supporters under the banner of the Le Blanc Labour Party he comfortably won the 1970 general elections.

Five years later in 1972, well after the euphoria of the mid 1960s had worn off and the country was beginning to be torn apart by politicial division, Le Blanc stuck to his original ideals regardless of the rumble of dissent rising around him. Nowhere in his foreword to the fifth anniversary edition of "Dies Dominica" does he refer to the strong reaction of the media, both here and across the region to the passing of the controversial Seditious and Undesirable Publication Act of 1968, the formation and rise of the Dominica Freedom Party which followed, the relentless attacks by its leader Mary Eugenia Charles upon him, the unsuccessful palace coup by three prominent members of his own Cabinet during the 1970 election campaign or the wrecking of the House of Assembly on Victoria Street by demonstrators on 16th of December 1971, and the growing outspokenness of the leadership of the Civil Service Association that was to blow up into widespread strike action the following year, 1973.

He brushed aside the rumbling around him, merely expressing the hope that "...we should emerge into a brighter dawn of a new economic and political day", and commenting that "Whether or not we have, five years later, progressed satisfactorily and expeditiously in that regard, is not the subject of this exercise." And he went on to repeat yet again the belief in his Creole Nationalist policies:

"Suffice it to state, however, that we recognized then and we still do so now, that one essential prerequisite to the attainment of that aforementioned ideal, was the development among our people of love of their country and the understanding and appreciation of their roots, background and culture. Our National Day Celebrations have been designed for that very purpose."

But even the National Day Celebrations was not without its critics. And it was not only in Dominica either. The general feeling in the region in the 1960s was, as David Lowenthal observed in his book "West Indian Societies" (Lowenthal 1972:279), that "celebrations of local culture tend to be cursory genuflections towards an otherwise neglected past" As early as 1968 the local opposition newspaper, The Dominica Herald, was critical of the annual event:

"Those whose duty it is to be familiar with our folk ways are totally in the dark as to the customs and culture of our forefathers. Commentators at our National Day Fete did not know anything historical, cultural or technical about either the Quadrille or the Belaire. Nor is there much effort to build on these folkways. Instead we keep repeating the past every year for two days with nothing new added from our own background."

That was written 34 years ago and some would say that there is still a certain validity in the criticism, particularly in relation to the need to build on what remains. But Le Blanc's vision for using culture as a means towards a stronger national kinship and a united sense of direction was not limited to the performing arts using the folk culture as a source of inspiration.

At a time when Dominica had no single book from which its citizens could read about their past, Le Blanc conceived the idea of putting together a publication in which several academic papers by leading authorities, including the leading Dominican historian in exile, Joseph Borome, on various aspects of Dominica's history from the indigenous people to constitutional change at the dawn of the 20th century that could be made available to its citizens for the first time. The concept was in the manner once again, of Dr.Eric Williams' production of a national history for the people of Trinidad and Tobago as part of his nationalist agenda. Le Blanc's compilation was achieved in 1972 with the issuing of "Aspects of Dominican History". Once again he made his ideals of Creole Nationalism clear in the foreword to the book:

"[This is] an occasion when we should review our past performances and chart our future objectives, it is important that we are aware of our history…This journal…will be made available 'free of cost' to schools, libraries and institutions of learning at home and abroad in an effort to provide…ready access to our colourful history. This attempt, albeit a modest one, will, I hope, prove a forerunner to others"

And indeed he was right, because a twenty year old youth, fresh out of school by the name of Lennox Honychurch, who drew and designed the cover for the book, was inspired by its contents, and went on to produce a radio series two years later called "The Dominica Story", and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the years which followed that fifth anniversary of the attainment of self government, celebrated in 1972, Le Blanc's world changed radically. The international oil crisis of 1973 caused tremours in the economy, while rising political turbulence in the local arena shook Le Blanc's idealistic confidence in cultural nationalism and the uncritical support of "the Folk" for his brand of social and political transformation. There was a new and more demanding generation, children of the 1950s, who seeing the doors of possibility open, now wanted the world on their doorstep. Indeed, as Le Blanc had prophesied in his poem of 1958, "all is done / the pathway cleared and all obstructions flung". But it did not appear that his people were heeding the last line of his verse: "And hand in hand will keep the fortress strong." For in the 1970s, the fortress began to crumble. By 1973 however, faced with protest demonstrations over another attempt at regional integration, this time with Guyana, and conflicts with the DFP, as well as with the Civil Service Association (CSA) supported by other trade unions, Le Blanc was becoming weary of leadership. In July 1974 he resigned and the position of Premier went to Patrick R. John. On 26 July 1974, having "cleared the pathway" Le Blanc left others to seek "the goal illuminated by the sun". In a parting interview he said:

"Though I accept and welcome change, I myself cannot change too much, that is why people said I was 'Black Power' and this and that…When we returned [to power in 1966] and got the constitution in 1967, I let it be known to my Party that I will remain for only two terms and after that they will have to get another leader. In a democracy at times the sort of pressure you get, people sometimes not being sincere and what not, you tend to react, and when a leader starts reaching that position it is not good for him or the country.'

Le Blanc retired to his home at Vieille Case. At the early age of 53, embittered by what he saw as ingratitude and deceit around him and withdrew completely from public life.

The opinion on Le Blanc is still sharply divided. Did he, by trying to achieve an all inclusive society, where everyone was confident that they had a place, a role to play in national development, bring down standards, lower everything and everyone to the lowest common denominator devoid of a determination for excellence? And did this in turn, create more divisions than it healed? Or was it the reaction to his policies "by the unsympathetic few" that created the rifts that rocked Dominica from the late 1960s? Has this, as some of his critics claim, brought about a Dominica self satisfied with its mini-state nationalism, unable and uninterested in taking up the challenge of engaging in the highly competitive world of globalization where efficiency, excellence and fine tuned competitiveness are the avenues to success?

Or did he, as he clearly expressed in his poetry and in his written statements, quoted in this paper, achieve among Dominicans, the greater awareness, the love of country, the pride, the determination to create the better society that he had hoped for? The debate will continue, but the fact is that whatever the pundits conclude, whatever statistics may say, or political analysts may determine, his name does in fact still live among the mass of the people as a symbol of social change and greater national equity. "Temp Le Blanc, te yon bonne temp" people still say. It was, in the collective memory, a halcyon time of song and dance and creativity and roads and water in pipes and electricity and health care and educational opportunity. We must understand that a people's perception is their reality no matter the facts and in the collective conciousness "the time of Le Blanc" marks for many a time in their family history and in their community history, and their national history, when the earth moved, "the pathway was cleared and all obstructions were flung".

 




 

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