Throughout its history the fertile island of Dominica has attracted settlers and colonisers and has been the subject of the military, and often bloody, squabbles of European powers. At the time of Columbus’s visit on a Sunday (dies dominica) in November 1493, the island was a stronghold of the Caribs from South America who were driving out the Arawaks. In 1627 the English took theoretical possession without settling, but by 1632 the island had become a de facto French colony; it remained so until 1759 when the English captured it. In 1660 the English and French agreed to leave the Caribs in undisturbed possession, but in fact French settlers went on arriving, bringing enslaved Africans with them. Dominica changed hands between the two European powers, passing back to France (1778) and again to England (1783). The French attempted to invade in 1795 and 1805 before eventually withdrawing, leaving Britain in possession.
In 1833 the island was linked to Antigua and the other Leeward Islands under a Governor-General at Antigua, but subsequently became part of the Federation of the Leeward Islands Colony (1871–1939) before becoming a unit of the Windward Islands group (1940–60). Dominica joined the West Indies Federation at its foundation in 1958 and remained a member until differences among larger members led to its dissolution in 1962.
Within Dominica, the formation of the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) from the People’s National Movement and other groups in the early 1960s spurred local demand for greater autonomy in internal affairs. Edward LeBlanc became Chief Minister in 1961. Under his leadership, in 1967 Dominica became one of the West Indies Associated States, with full internal self-government, while the UK remained responsible for foreign policy and defence. At LeBlanc’s retirement in 1974, Patrick John succeeded as DLP leader and Premier. After winning a large majority at the 1975 elections, John pursued the course agreed by the Associated States to seek independence separately.
On 3 November 1978, Dominica achieved independence as a republic within the Commonwealth, and took the name of Commonwealth of Dominica. John became its first Prime Minister, and Frederick Degazon the non-executive President.
In 1979 the DLP government collapsed and Oliver Seraphine of the Committee for National Salvation (CNS) was invited to form an interim government and prepare the way for elections within six months. The elections in July 1980 were won by the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP) led by Eugenia Charles (who became the first woman Prime Minister in the region), winning 17 of the 21 seats. Patrick John, who had led the country to independence, and Seraphine lost their seats.
There were two coup attempts early in the 1980s allegedly organised by factions of the Defence Force sympathetic to the John regime. In 1985, John was himself convicted of involvement in one such attempt, and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment; the following year the former commander of the Defence Force was hanged for murdering a police officer during a coup attempt.
Eugenia Charles led the DFP to victory in the 1990 general election, but, in June 1995, shortly after her retirement from politics, the DFP lost its majority. The United Workers Party (UWP) emerged as election victor with 11 seats; the DFP and the DLP each won five. Edison James, leader of the UWP, was invited by the President to form a government.