Sighted on 3 November 1493 during Christopher Columbus's second voyage to the "New World," Dominica was named for the day: dies Dominica, "the Lord's Day" or "Sunday" in Latin. Carib Indians from South America had inhabited the island for almost six hundred years and other Amerindians had been there for as long as three thousand years, but their name for the island, Waitukubuli, meaning "Tall is her body," was not recorded for another two centuries. The island's indigenous Arawak people were expelled or exterminated by Caribs in the 14th century. Spanish ships frequently landed on Dominica during the 16th century, but fierce resistance by the Caribs discouraged Spain's efforts at settlement. but France and England fought each other and the Caribs for control throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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. After the federation dissolved, Dominica became an associated state of the United Kingdom in 1967 and formally took responsibility for its internal affairs.
Dominica has a Westminster-style parliamentary government and there are three principal political parties: the Dominica Freedom Party (DFP), the Dominica Labour Party (DLP), and the United Workers Party (UWP). 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 Dominica Freedom Party (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 Dominica Labour Party (DLP) each won five. Edison James, leader of the UWP, was invited by President Crispin Sorhaindo to form a government.
In October 1998 Vernon Shaw was elected president by the House of Assembly for a five-year term.
The economy continued to dominate the political agenda. The government’s top priority in the run-up to the 2000 elections had been to secure financial backing for its new airport project – the key to expansion of the tourism industry, which was set to become crucial as, inevitably, the international banana market became more competitive.
In the January 2000 general election, the DLP (ten seats) narrowly defeated the UWP (nine seats). The DLP formed a coalition with the DFP (two seats) and Roosevelt (Rosie) Douglas became prime minister. Following his sudden death in October 2000, he was succeeded by communications and works minister Pierre Charles.
In October 2003 Dr Nicholas Liverpool was elected president by the House of Assembly for a five-year term. In January 2004 Charles died suddenly and Roosevelt Skerrit was sworn in as Prime Minister.
In May 2005, the Skerrit-led DLP maintained power winning 12 of the 21 parliamentary seats. The UWP won 8 while the remaining seat was won by an independent candidate. For the first time since 1970, the DFP did not obtain parliamentary representation. The DLP majority was further increased when the lone independent representative and one UWP representative switched allegiance, giving the DLP a 14 to 7 margin in parliament.
The DLP won 18 of the 21 seats in the 2009 election, with the other three going to the main opposition UWP. The DFP failed to win any seat. A challenge that resulted in two of the opposition-held seats being declared vacant, led to by-elections in July 2010; however the seats were retained by the UWP, thus maintaining the balance of power.
On 8 December 2014, the DLP was re-elected to a fourth consecutive term in office winning 15 of 21 seats. The UWP won the remaining 5 seats.