Charles, Eugenia (1919—)

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Charles, Eugenia (1919—)

Prime minister of the island nation of Dominica, and first female head of state in the Caribbean, who took a major leadership role in regional and international affairs. Name variations: Dame Eugenia Charles. Pronunciation: You-JEEN-yuh Charles. Born Mary Eugenia Charles in Roseau, Dominica, in 1919; daughter of wealthy planter and political figure J.B. Charles; attended Catholic school in Grenada and went on to study law at the University of Toronto and in England; never married; no children.

Born into a successful, well-to-do family, grew up in an environment of relative privilege; sent to the best schools in the British Caribbean and to the University of Toronto (late 1940s), where she earned a bachelor's degree; qualified as a barrister in Britain (1947); returned to Dominica to open a law practice (1949); entered politics (1968) and then only to protest the passage of a controversial sedition law by the Edward Oliver LeBlanc government; became the chief focus of loyal opposition, creating the Dominica Freedom Party along the way; during years in the opposition, saw her influence on the island's politics grow (1968–78); in the wake of violence between various partisan factions, her DFP organization came out on top (1979); elected prime minister (1980), a position she held for 15 years (1980–1995); under her leadership, Dominica's government became the most conservative in the region, firmly committed to free enterprise and attracting foreign, particularly American, investment to the island; her greatest moment in terms of international exposure came during the U.S. intervention on the island of Grenada—an effort that she vociferously defended as chair of the newly established Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (1983).

For those visitors to the Caribbean islands who are accustomed to white sandy beaches crowded with tourists, the lonely, verdant appearance of the island of Dominica will cause some degree of surprise. Not a single white sandy beach is to be seen. Instead, the visitor will encounter a mountainous 298-square mile island ribboned by no less than 365 rivers that cascade through the landscape in uncounted waterfalls. The beauty presented by this picture seems to suggest an otherworldly, rather than a tropical identity. The problems of the island—the lack of roads and reliable electricity, and the pervasive poverty of the inhabitants—are not, however, in any sense otherworldly but instead have called out for remedies in the here and now. From 1980 to 1995, the person most willing to answer this call was the island's prime minister, Eugenia Charles.

Miss Charles, as she is universally known on Dominica, was born in 1919. At that time, save for the Falkland Islands of the South Atlantic, the island was perhaps the most isolated of British possessions; it was, for instance, one of the last bastions of the Red Carib Indians, a tiny but historically important group that had died out everywhere else but continued to live in squalor on a remote reservation on Dominica. Eugenia's childhood bore little resemblance to these human relics of a bygone time. Instead, she lived a life of relative privilege, with all of the few luxuries the island had to offer.

Her remote ancestors had come to the Caribbean from Africa as slaves more than a hundred years earlier. Through manumission and ultimate emancipation in the 1840s, they came to enter the considerable population of those freed from bondage who worked in agriculture. But with a difference. Whereas some exslaves tended to be improvident, Eugenia's forefathers were recognized for their industriousness and common sense. Her father, in particular, was generally regarded as a phenomenon on the island. Having started with only modest wealth, J.B. Charles worked as a mason for the colonial government for many decades. At the same time, he began to buy parcels of land, first only some peripheral properties along the hillsides, and ultimately some of the choicest pieces of land on Dominica. He became a millionaire land speculator and planter, one of the richest men on the island. He added to his elementary school education with periodic visits to New York, where he sold his limes, and to London, where he sold his cocoa. But his first love was always his family. To his daughter, who was the youngest of three children, the elder Charles passed on the attributes that had given him so much success: shrewdness, charm, and most important, a penchant for hard work.

That young Eugenia should so resemble her father was in some ways unusual. In the home, her mother was clearly the dominant force. In fact, females were normally more influential on the island than males. The reason was historical. Dominican society had long been noteworthy for its high incidence of illegitimacy; and with so many men working overseas or on plantations on adjacent islands, a sort of matriarchy developed, with some strong and experienced women controlling the marketplace and the church. From her own mother and from these other strong women in public life, Eugenia drew some important inspiration—easily as much as from her better-known father. The market women would later come to look upon her as one of their own.

During the 1920s, Charles benefitted from her father's extensive library, her lessons from tutors, and her many walks around the island. Her parents encouraged her to excel in letters and in the sciences. She also took an early fancy to gardening. But perhaps she gained most from listening to the discussions and arguments in the marketplace, where clients and saleswomen debated the value of different items and judged what price was possible and what was not. The art of the possible became her metier.

Eugenia received her primary schooling and most of her secondary schooling at home in the Dominican capital Roseau. In her late teens, however, her parents sent her to a Roman Catholic convent in Saint John's, Grenada, there to complete her secondary education. This was the first time that she had been away for any length of time from Dominica, but she adapted to the rigors of convent learning nonetheless.

World War II brought many changes to the Caribbean basin. Wartime demands for raw materials transformed the economies of many islands. Technicians and investors primarily from the United States came into the region in great numbers. They spent lavishly, sometimes with government money and sometimes with their own, providing the early basis for what would one day be a massive tourist industry in the Caribbean. But it was the exploitation of raw materials that ultimately encouraged Eugenia Charles to enter public life—for the men and women who worked in the mines, in agriculture, and in transport formed labor unions and self-help

groups during the war and these unions in the end became political associations.

Charles spent the war years in Grenada and at home on Dominica. In 1946, she attended the University of Toronto, where, amidst the unaccustomed snows, she received a bachelor's degree before moving on to London to study to be a barrister. At this time, she evinced an interest in staying in England to work on urban social problems, especially juvenile delinquency. Though she herself had no children—and, infact, would never marry—she always maintained a deep affection for children and a special sensitivity to their particular problems.

In the end, however, she decided against a career in juvenile law and social work. As she remarked in an interview many years later, the crucial moment came in London in 1949: "My parents came to see me, and they looked as if they needed someone to be home. So I went home." She never looked back. Instead, she settled into island life and throughout the 1950s gained some modest success as a lawyer specializing in business law. While she handled the legal affairs of her father's various concerns and those of his associates, she largely ignored politics. Then events overtook her.

The 1950s was a problematic time for Britain's Caribbean colonies. The same labor unions that had come together with colonial authorities to forward the struggle against Nazism now broke with those same authorities. Most labor leaders were decidedly leftist, with Cominform connections and militant agendas (indeed, Cheddi Jagan, who would soon be elected prime minister of British Guiana, was an active communist; so was Aimé Cesaire, the anti-imperialist poet of the nearby French island of Martinique). In their encounters with the colonial governments of their respective islands, these leaders stressed a heightened sense of class struggle, with direct confrontation as their chief tool. Interestingly, independence was not at this time one of their main goals, though the same cannot be said of their desire for political power.

Charles viewed the growth of militant unionism in the Caribbean with some trepidation. She felt deeply skeptical about the socialist programs the unionists advocated and resented their hatred of the rich. She felt that the elites and the poor together could forge a more prosperous future. She had seen how a commonsense approach to economic hardship could work wonders. Her own father had created a self-help organization on Dominica in the 1930s. This "Penny Bank" association provided small financial incentives to poor people who showed frugality during the worst times of the Depression. "It taught people thrift before the credit union people [came on the scene]; people could save a penny," she noted.

Charles feared that in the end the labor leaders would offer their followers nothing but demagoguery. Words instead of results. Even independence, then a decidedly distant objective, could be used to dupe the masses into thinking that their very precarious future would in fact be golden. She knew better. Dominica had some advantages, but the island could not hope to compete even regionally without a long period of preparation and hard work. Redistribution meant little under such circumstances, and independence—if anything—meant even less. Therefore, against the general trend in the Caribbean basin at that time, Charles began to speak out against the left, arguing initially that independence was undesirable, and that Dominica's future would be best assured by a continued close relation with Britain and, if possible, with a still closer relation with the United States.

In the beginning, these opinions appeared only in letters to the editor in island dailies. Charles, who had a thriving legal practice, which represented some important planters on the island, had little time for political activism. Slowly, however, the political side of her character manifested itself more and more. She began to organize town meetings where she was generally heckled as "a lackey of the bourgeoisie." But she continued to speak out and gradually earned the grudging respect of many of her opponents. Some of these individuals, such as the writer Phyllis Allfrey , would later join her in a political association when they became disillusioned with socialist politics.

Charles became president of the Dominica Employer's Federation in the mid-1960s, a position that provided an excellent platform for her to champion the view of business interests on the island. She became actively involved in politics in 1968, when the government of the autocratic Premier E.O. LeBlanc passed a Seditious and Undesirable Publication Act. Charles, who stood to be censured under this new legislation, publicly attacked it and its author. The conservative Dominica Freedom Party (DFP), which she founded and over which she still presides, grew out of this protest. The legislation failed to become law, and she was now in politics for good.

In 1970, her party won two seats in the island legislature. She herself was defeated but served nonetheless in the House of Assembly as an appointed member. She was finally elected in 1975 and remained leader of the opposition for five years. During this time, LeBlanc was replaced by the eccentric Patrick John, whose plans for the island included purging Dominica's "pseudo-intellectuals," promoting terrorist attacks on Rastafarians (few of which ever came to Dominica), negotiating with South African agents to launder money and arms exports through the island, even suggesting to the United States that the U.S. Navy open a submarine base there. But the only immediate plan he made for the island that came to fruition was to bring independence to Dominica in November 1978. Charles strongly opposed this move, arguing that the island was not ready and that John was setting Dominica up to prostitute itself to the highest bidder. After all, she noted, the British had not been so bad: "It wasn't them who brought class hatred among us—it was our own people."

In the wake of independence, the John government was convulsed by demonstrations and a general strike. Though Charles did not instigate these actions, she strongly supported them through the Committee for National Salvation, a coalition group that included both leftists and conservatives. John tried to fight back, first through a prohibition on strikes and finally through physical attacks on the demonstrators. His ultimate use of violence brought chaos within the Parliament. Charles' old opponents in the Labor Party then abandoned John and formed new opposition parties loosely aligned with the conservatives.

John was ousted from office in mid-1979. Within a few months, Charles led her DFP to a landslide victory in an all-island election. From 1980 to June 1995, she held the office of prime minister. As head of government, she led a democratic regime that was widely regarded as the most conservative in the Caribbean, firmly committed to private enterprise and to attracting foreign investment, unswervingly pro-West, and especially pro-United States in foreign policy. She ultimately became president of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States and from that vantagepoint, the strongest regional proponent of American intervention on the nearby island of Grenada in 1983. Her timely support earned her the undying friendship of President Ronald Reagan, who reserved a special place for Dominica in his Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Her father, who died at age 107 in 1982, got only a glimmer of the fame that Charles would ultimately enjoy, but he was inordinately proud of the progress his island home was making under her leadership. Though she had many detractors, her administration was widely viewed as moderately progressive, while she was seen as a consummate pragmatist. "They called me an old woman. I reminded [my opponents] that I had more stamina and energy than they had at 35." By all accounts, that energy and that force of personality remained undiminished for a great many years.


Richards, Peter. "Leading the Way: An Interview with Eugenia Charles," in Americas. Vol. 37, no. 5. September–October 1985, pp. 28–30.

Thomas, Jo. "Quietly she Makes History as a Caribbean Leader," in The New York Times. December 1, 1980.

Walter, Greg. "President Reagan Finds a Fast Friend in Eugenia Charles, Dominica's Plucky PM," in People Weekly. November 14, 1983.

suggested reading:

Smith, Linden. "The Political Situation in Dominica," in Bulletin of Eastern Caribbean Affairs. Vol. 5, no. 3. July–August 1979.

Thomas Whigham , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Charles, Eugenia (1919—)

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