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Each time I interview one of our seniors or just in everyday conversation, the name Sir Alan Cobham continues to pop-up in the conversation so I have decided to take a look at how he influenced change in the Virgin Islands.
Joseph Reynold O’Neal (JR), whom I have written about before, wrote in “Life Notes” that Sir Alan Cobham, an Englishman and WW1 pilot with the Royal Air Force, arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1952 “brimming with ideas for the islands’ development.” (p.72) At that time there was no airport in the Virgin Islands so Sir Alan Cobham came up with the idea of how one could be developed and made a proposal to the Government, which was accepted – according to JR, “Sir Alan went to Beef Island and hacked about the underbrush figuring out the alignment and so on.” (p72) Sir Alan made a huge impact on the development of the territory – he bought a shipyard in Road Town (the capital) and “set it up with a rail for hauling boats, he established the Land Rover and Sea Gull Outboard Motors dealership (taking JR on as his local partner and transferring his portion over to his son Geoffrey) and later started a ferry service with the Youth of Tortola” (p73) a passenger boat which ferried people between St. Thomas in the USVI and Tortola in the Virgin Islands, captained by Peter Haycraft whom I have also written about prior. The Land Rover business was called J.R. O’Neal G. A. Cobham, Ltd., and was later sold to Leando Nibbs of Nibbs Auto Sales and Parts.
During his life in the Virgin Islands, Sir Alan acquired a wealth of land throughout the territory including the “eastern part of Peter Island” from JR. This land on Peter Island was later sold to Peder Smedvig shipowners from Norway who developed the Peter Island Resort, which later changed hands to the Amway Corporation and several more changes subsequently.
As a note of interest, Sir Alan also bought Necker Island, one of the islands in the Virgin Islands archipelago, and which was later sold to Sir Richard Branson.
On September 21, 2012, we met Mr. Salvadore Callwood, a very dynamic and energetic elderly gentleman, at his home in Carrot Bay – this was after my visit with Mrs. Melcena Smith. And yesterday, Friday, October 5, 2012, we visited with Mrs. Jenny Wheatley (Teacher Jenny as she is called) at her home in East End. Each of these visits presented us with a glimpse into the historical past of these Virgin Islands – from childhood to adulthood and into the senior years.
Mr. Callwood recalled how his parents moved to the Virgin Islands from the Dominican Republic, his early childhood years and how he left as a teenager to live and work in the United States Virgin Islands but was pleased to return to the Virgin Islands when the, now deceased, Chief Minister of the Territory, who was his good friend, suggested that he should return home as there was work for him to do – he did and went to work at the Long Bay Hotel and Resort- Mr. Callwood is long retired but has many fond memories of the early years of his life.
Our meeting with Teacher Jenny was two-fold – in the first part, she showed us how to make local “tart” – a pastry that can be filled with stewed coconut, pineapple, guava or whatever you want to fill it with, and is a great sweet treat any time of the year but especially at Christmas time – a must taste when visiting the islands. The second half was spent chatting with this lovely lady about her early years growing up in the Virgin Islands and reminiscing on some of the local sayings – Teacher Jenny is also retired but has remained very active within the community – in addition to the many things she does she finds the time to contribute to the “Millennium Committee” which was instituted by the past Premier, The Honourable Ralph T. O’Neal.
“‘The Millennium Committee took up the baton with an initial goal to compile a list of buildings and sites that might be in danger of being destroyed if their historical value was not properly researched and identified. Xandra Adamson, another Millennium Committee member and longtime resident of the BVI, who is originally from Trinidad, explained, “We knew our long list would not be effective unless we focused on just a few buildings to start with. We let the Chief Minister select from the list his top four buildings of importance and that is how we came up with the ones designated for historical plaques.
The four buildings chosen for their historical significance are all located on Main Street, the site of many traditional West Indian homes now converted to businesses. St George’s Church Hall (owned by the Anglican church), Her Majesty’s Prison and the J.E. William George’s Compound are all on the west side of the street. The locally known “Fireproof” building owned by the J.R. O’Neal family (across from the Methodist Church) is located on the east side. Each has a unique history for the significant events or purposes that it served.
Jennie Wheatley, the third core member of the Millennium Committee, is another local historian with a wealth of knowledge. Her credits include starting the Virgin Islands Studies program at the H. Lavity Stoutt College, inspiring many of the territory’s youth to take an interest in their history and culture. She remembers the George’s Compound well. “There were other places you could pick up a few items in the early days, but this was the place to go to get it all – from birth to death. They stocked clothes, groceries, tools, even lumber to build a coffin.”‘ (www.bviwelcome.com)
Note: “Her Majesty’s Prison” to which the article refers is the old Prison on Main Street in the capital of Road Town, on the island of Tortola – the largest island in the Archipelago.
This week I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing two other elderly persons within our community – Mrs.. Melcena Smith of Little Apple Bay and Mr. Salvador Callwood of Carrott Bay – both on the island of Tortola. – Mr. Callwood will be featured under separate cover.
Ms. Melcena, as she is affectionately called, is a beautiful lady with an exceptional memory for details – while she is missing exact dates it was a delight to sit with her and listen to tales of years past – she still lives in the same village where she was raised as a child, not in the same home – she recalled how small those houses were and even showed a picture of the house, which is proudly displayed on the wall of her modern house that her oldest son, Bernard, built for her. Despite being the only child to her parents (one other sibling died at a very early age) Ms. Melcena and her husband, now deceased, had twelve (12) children – all of whom are still alive – one daughter still resides at home with her.
This was quite an emotional interview for me as Ms. Melcena was the “god-daughter” of my paternal grandmother, whom I did not know – I didn’t even know where my grandparents lived or really anything about them as they both died before I was born and no-one ever told me anything about them – but here I learned that my eldest sister, now also deceased, was named for that grandmother – Annie Thomas (nee Vanterpool) and she and her husband who was from St. Kitts lived “just down the road” from where Ms. Melcena lives, in the same village and that she was from Great Thatch Island, which is one of the islands in the Archipelago which make up the Virgin Islands (UK).
Although her children had built her a modern home on the beach front – beautiful! This wonderful lady has retained a collection of utensils and other accoutrements from her earlier years including an oven built from a tin (similar in design to a large saltine cracker tin – rectangular in shape, with a lid made also from tin, wired on and on the inside there was a layer of wires to form a central shelf – this was used for baking bread or any form of baking when the brick oven was not in use – she even retained three large pieces of charcoal as evidence of what was used for heating the oven (charcoal burns without smoking) – some was on the bottom and some on the top.
(Below is the closest picture I could find of such a contraption – this one does not have the central shelf but its gives the concept)
Look for Camp stoves and Ovens under the index
It is with a great sense of sadness and loss that I write about and pay tribute to one of the greatest ladies of the Virgin Islands who was laid to rest today – Mrs. Eldra Violet Smith, August 3, 1919 – September 6, 2012. One of her Pastors wrote that she was “calm, soft-spoken, wise and spiritually mature.” As I listened to all the tributes from her family and well wishers, I went back to a time when I was much younger, spending time with my sister who lived just up the hill from her husband’s bakery in Road Town, I would run down the hill to buy hot butter-bread with cheese – she always had a nice smile and lots of patience….I must now confess that I did not know, until today, that I shared a part of her name.
It was on August 3, that she made her 94th birthday and I wanted so much to speak with her about her life growing up in the Virgin Islands – that was not to be – from all that was said today, she was truly a blessing to the community in which she grew up, lived and raised her family – may her soul rest in peace.
“Bristol 30th of 9th Month 1782
Thy letter of the 8th of last 6 Mo: we received which was well pleasing to us to hear of the present good disposition of thy-self and the rest of our late servants, whose welfare and happiness both, here and hereafter, we have much at Heart; but we are sorry to hear of the removal of Poor John Venture and Harry, tho’ not without hopes of their partaking of that mercy which is extended to all without respect of persons, wheither White or Black: so George, remember what we Write to thee we write to all of you who once called us Master and Mistress, but now you are all free, as far as it is in our power to make you so; Because none are Free indeed except they are Free in Christ; therefore, we admonish you, not as your Master and Mistress, but as your Friends and benefactors, beseeching you to be caucious of your conduct and sircumspect in your behavior to all, that none may accuse you of abusing that Freedom which we in the course of Divine Providence, have been permitted to give you: Remembering also that as Free Men and Women, ye stand accountable for every part of your conduct, and must answer for the same in your own Persons, If you do amiss, in which case the Laws where you are have provided a punishment according to the Nature of the offence, but do well and ye shall have praise of the same. And that you maybe enable to live honestly among Men we have given you our Eastend Plantation in Fathog-Bay with every thing thereunto belonging, which we will endeavor to have secured to you by all lawful ways and Means; that none may deprive you nor your offspring of it, but that you may Freely Cultivate and Improve it to your own benefit and advantage and thereby be provided with a sufficient subsistence to live comfortably together in all Friendlyness and cordiality assisting each other, that those more advanced in Years may advise the younger and these submitting to the Council of the elder so that good order and harmony may be preserved among you which will assuredly draw down the blessing of the most High: But if you have not wherewithal (money) to cultivate and Improve the plantation yourselves, we advise you to Hire Yourselves for a season to whom you please as also the Plantation if you think it necessary, till you acquire a sufficiency to go on yourselves but in every step you take of this kind allways remember the good of the whole: And as soon as you can make a beginning on the plantation yourselves with Cotton and Provisions we would by all means have you to do it that you may not be scattered and too much divided by endeavor to dwell together and be content with Food and Raiment and a blessing will certainly attend you under the influence of such a disposition. Tell Dorcas Vanterpool we are much obliged to her for her friendly care and attendance of poor John Venture and Harry during their sickness we shall be pleased to hear how you go on by any opportunity, and that you cautiously maintain a good report among the Neighbours, live in love among yourselves, and the peace of him who passeth all understanding will assuredly be with you and yours, which we earnestly desire and pray for being your sincere friends and wellwishers.
The Nottinghams were, at this time, living permanently in Bristol England since 1778. This letter was written to their “Negro George” As they were very interested in the welfare of their freed slaves. (EARLY HISTORY OF THE BRITISH VIRIGN ISLANDS FROM COLUMBUS TO EMANCIPATION BY VERNON PICKERING – P.125-127)
Today, August 9, 2012, the Festival of Culture and Praise Committee will be having a Celebration Ceremony Commemorating this confirmation letter (Dated Sept 30th, 1782) which freed the slaves of the Nothingham Plantation. “This letter confirmed that Samueal and Mary Nothingham gave the slaves of Nothingham Estate Long Look – this freedom was given on June 30th 1776, by a conveyance, which not only manumitted their slaves but gave them the estate in Long Look to be shared as tenants in common.” (V.Pickering P.126) Today, the Nottingham estate is no longer a property held in common as initially intended by the Nottinghams, but has now been sub-divided and made available to decedents of the Nottinghams slaves.
In “150 Years of Achievement 1834 to 1984” Charles H. Wheatley, the then Chief Education Officer, wrote “perhaps if 1984 is to be really meaningful to us we should address the question of our destiny as a ‘nation” – so where are we since then, how far have we come and what have we learned from the past. We learned that these Virgin Islands were a presidency of the Leeward Islands from 1872 up until 1956 with education being administered from Antigua until 1940 (p.17) – one of my earlier posts with Mr. Elton Georges showed the progression of the legislative process over the years and up to the present – now we are self governing with a Premier and a Ministerial Government elected by the people with a Governor as a representative of the Queen responsible for defense.
This week my interview is with Mr. William (Kenney) Industrious who is 102 years old – has never worn eyeglasses, is able to get around on his own and has little help in his home, although he now complains about stomachache. He reminisces about his past and spoke of people having to walk from all over the island of Tortola to the capital Road Town to see the only doctor who dealt with all medical needs, whatever it was – this reminded me of one of the stories in 150 Years of Achievement.., which read “once upon a time there was one doctor in the B.V.I. We should say only a quarter of a doctor, because the doctor also served as Commissioner or (head of the Government), Magistrate, and Treasurer.” (p.55) I guess this is the same doctor that Mr. Kenney spoke about, which was absolutely incredible! Midwives were essential at that time as they cared for mothers during childbirth – these women had no formal training but were mothers themselves with knowledge of bush medicine – Mr. Kenney told of his being born at home in a very small house that was home to his parents and siblings.
Mr. Kenney told of how his family and the community ate what they grew as ground provision, live stock- fresh eggs, fresh bread, fresh meat and poultry, and fresh fish, as there was no means of keeping food other than salting for another day. To purchase basic things such as flour, sugar etc families had to walk miles over rocky and hilly terrain into the capital of Road Town to the only dry goods store (Mr. Georges) that was around at that time – others opened later on, but that was the first one. Despite the hardship of those earlier years, he reflected on how good life was at that time – they had family, friends and a caring community!!
Tropical Storm Isaac just passed by to the South of the Virgin Islands on Thursday last (August, 23, 2012) and although the Virgin Islands did not experience hurricane force winds we still experienced winds gusting at 50mph and quite a bit of rain.
Each time we get ready for a storm it conjures up memories of past hurricanes, which some Virgin Islanders have written about such as the one of 1924. “The great hurricane of 1924 did a lot of damage throughout the BVI, and Road Town and Baughers Bay were especially hard hit. Many people were killed, particularly in Baughers Bay, and one person was killed in Road Town. The Cottage Hospital, built by Major Peebles was destroyed, and Government House and many other Government buildings were badly damaged. The Methodist Church was destroyed…” (Memoirs of H. R. Penn, A Personal Account of the History and Politics of the British Virgin Islands in the Twentieth Century. p.16) Now-a-days, the Royal Navy visits to help in the time of natural disaster – RFA ARGUS was here for a brief visit and left the territory on August 22, 2012 for the island of Anguilla – I was fortunate to have gone on board for the press conference on the 21st and to learn that they would be around during these stormy days in the event of any natural disaster.
This week, I interviewed Mrs. Ellen Skelton – a very beautiful and charming elderly lady. It was a very emotional interview for me as Ms. Ellen reminded me so much of my mother (deceased) – it turned out that Ms. Ellen is a close relative and went to school with my mom and they were good friends – I cannot believe that we now live so close and I am only now meeting her – I guess, everything in its own time.
The interview will be written about later but it was informative and gave much insight into the village in the Virgin Islands where I was born and grew up for the earlier part of my life – I truly give God thanks for this wonderful encounter. No matter how long we live, I am convinced that there will always be things to learn and surprises in store, some pleasant – like this one, and some not so pleasant, but we must be open to receive and embrace those, which are blessings.
Our Virgin Islands have seen many changes over the years; families have moved from place to place and sadly many of our elders have passed on without us having an opportunity to capture their experiences for us and others to learn from – it is now imperative for us to do so!! My parents have passed on and so have my grandparents, both maternal and paternal and I cannot recall anything from any of them about our historical background, but I am on a quest to find some – meeting Ms. Ellen and spending some time, albeit short, with her was like finding a treasure trove.
In July we spent some time in Virgin Gorda interviewing a few of the people who live there about the past and present (Then and Now), it was a series of very informative interviews, however, we hope to do a few more interviews on that sister island.
Virgin Gorda is the third largest of the Virgin Islands, although Anegada the second largest contains vast salt ponds and with a much lower population than Virgin Gorda. Two of the ladies that were interviewed, Ms. Rose Gardener and Ms. Grace Waters reflected on the days of growing up in Virgin Gorda fondly – even though times were hard their sentiments were that it was rich with family values and community spirit – children had respect for their elders and everyone supported each other in every sense of the word – something that is not so prevalent now-a-days. These ladies spoke frankly about their earlier years, from parents, families, community customs, pregnancy, medical services, first jobs, feeding a family to giving girls a bath in an outdoor tub every Saturday so that she could be inspected for signs of purity. This interview can be seen on local TV Ch51 at 8PM Sunday and Wednesday evening and 8AM Saturday morning.
A BIT ABOUT THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
The Virgin Islands was a presidency of the Leeward Islands from 1872 until 1956 and the Governor resided in Antigua from where governance and education was administered until 1940. Rev. John Haddock was one of the first teachers in Virgin Gorda. A Mr.Semper from St. Kitts is credited with building the first school in the Valley, Virgin Gorda and Mr. Simon, an Antiguan was the first headmaster of that school (Anglican) – During the 1920’s and 1930’s just about all of the headmasters came from one of the Leeward Islands and not much attempt was made to train anyone local (p.13). (150 Years of Achievement, 1834 – 1984)