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Then & Now – Our interesting Virgin Islands

 

 

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 J.E. William George's shopThe 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.

Then & Now – A tribute to Ms. Eldra

 

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.

Then & Now – History remembered

“Bristol 30th of 9th Month 1782

Dear George

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.

Sam.l Nottingham,

Mary Nottingham”

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.

Then & Now – Emancipation

 

On Thursday, July 26, 2012 the territory of the Virgin Islands began preparation for its  annual celebration of emancipation, which occurred on August 1, 1834 – the proclamation was read in the Anglican and Methodist Churches in Virgin Gorda and Tortola. Vernon Pickering, wrote in Early History of the British Virgin Islands that “emancipation was approved in 1833 but did not become effective law until August 1, 1834.” (p.153) There have been several written and oral accounts of where the proclamation was read but this was recently cleared up by Mrs. Eileen Parsons (Educator and cultural historian) who recalled Dr. Pearl Varlack’s visit to England to research and clarify this event – although the “Sunday Morning Well,” located in upper main street, Road Town, Tortola was the popular place for Sunday worshipers, coming into town to Church from the countryside, to stop and freshen up and change their foot-wear before going to Church,  it was not the place where the proclamation was read. And for many years the Churches alternated in organizing the annual celebration.

In 150 Years of Achievement 1834 – 1984, Mr. Willard Wheatley, Minister for Health Education and Welfare (Deceased) and Chief Minister from 1971 to 1979, wrote: “We have come a long way certainly but we can boast about nothing unless we look back and take stock of where we came from. We know a great deal about our history. We know where we came from. We know too, how we were brought here. We have nothing to be ashamed of. There are those who should be ashamed–not our race. On the 1st August 1834, the British Bible Foreign Society in England gave a gift (a copy of the New Testament and Book of Psalms combined in one) to every person who was emancipated and who was able to read.”

The territory of the Virgin Islands has a long, interesting and often misrepresented history but one thing is for certain, the people of this territory are proud of their heritage and free thanks to the Emancipation proclamation of 1834 – they cannot turn back the hands of time but they can determine how they go forward and what legacy they leave behind for future generations.

THEN & NOW – “Slavery, Smallholding and Tourism…”

 

…..Social Transformation in the British Virgin Islands” written by Michael E. O’Neal, PhD – “a Senior Research Fellow at Island Resources Foundation, with offices in Washington, D.C., and the Caribbean.”

I have chosen to take excerpts from Dr. O’Neal’s book so that readers can get, if not the full impact, close to it, the gist of what I am trying to convey without adding or taking away from it. Here in the Virgin Islands, on the eastern end of Tortola there is an area referred to as “Nottingham” and while many of us use the name daily we were never quite sure where it came from or how it came about – the following excerpt from Dr. O’Neal’s book will help to shed some light on that.

“In June 1776, Samuel and Mary Nottingham, who were at the time residing in Long Island, New York, effected a deed of manumission as regards slaves on their Tortola plantation called Longlook…….., also deeding to them in perpetuity their fifty-acre estate. p27.  Besides their liberty and the land, Mr. Nottingham’s negroes were left a legacy of £316.15s sterling by his sister, and which was paid to them by DR. DAWSON of Tortola. Not a fourth part of the property left to them, and some negroes also manumitted by Mr. Perceval, and Mrs. Vanterpool, and Mrs.Frett, remain in their hands.” p28

In looking at the Plantation Era, Dr. O’Neal wrote “the early 1780s in particular was a pivotal period in the history of the Virgin Islands plantation society. During this period, a transition took place from a society of small yeoman farmers and their slaves engaged in the cultivation of tobacco, cotton and provisions, to one based on the production of sugar (and, incidentally, of rum) by relatively large estates. The outcome of this process was the decline and virtual disappearance of the small cotton planter as a result of real estate consolidation precipitated by the expansionist pressures of the larger sugar planters.”p12

At the time of the abolition of slavery in 1834, sugar and cotton were the two main staples of the economy with sugar being the number one seller, however, after the abolition of slavery and several unfortunate hurricanes many of the sugar plantations were destroyed and not rebuilt  – drought added to this problem and as a result the economy drastically declined. The Sugar Duties Act was passed in 1846 by the UK, which did not help the planters or the territory.  Many problems occurred during this period, which reduced the territory to a smallholding and subsistence economy…..

It was not until the mid twentieth century that the economy saw a change…Dr. O’Neal wrote “During the 1950s ….the United States Virgin Islands experienced a dramatic increase in tourism…This windfall phenomenon prompted the British Virgin Islands Government to express the hope that ‘some of the influx may eventually spill over’ into the British Virgin Islands.”

Slavery, Smallholding and Tourism, Social Transformations in the British Virgin Islands is a must read for all who wish to get a better understanding of the transformation and development of the Virgin Islands

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Another Senior Moment

Tonight on CBN CH51 another episode of the Brewers Bay Seniors will be aired – the seniors continue their look back at life growing up in the Virgin Islands – the difficulty of childhood, in an impoverished time, but the love and family togetherness made it a very special time in their lives, perhaps rich in the things that really mattered. Please visit with us…

Historical Information

In the early years of the sugar industries (1900s) people went from the Virgin Islands to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to find work – “some of  these seasonal workers settled in the host countries permanently, but most returned home at the end of each ‘sugar season.’”  The families here in the Virgin Islands waited patiently to be reunited with their loved ones – many of the schooners went from San Pedro de Macoris to  Road Town, Tortola, in the Virgin Islands without incident until July, 1926.

The vessel “Fancy Me” was a schooner, which was owned by two brothers, James and Alexander Smith, from Carrott Bay, in the Virgin Islands, “was returning from the port of San Pedro de Macoris on 25th July 1926, with a number of workers from Anegada and Tortola attempting to get back to the Virgin Islands in time for the August 1st Emancipation celebration – unfortunately, this was not to be. After one day at sea, the Fancy Me was caught in a storm and was wrecked on a rock known as El Caballo Blanco or ‘The White Horse” – As there was only one lifeboat, which the crew used leaving the 89 passengers to fend for themselves, 59 men perished as a result.”

The wreck of the “Fancy Me” is recorded in Virgin Islands history as it was one of the worst sea tragedies of its time affecting Virgin Islanders.

(150 Years of Achievement 1834-1984

Then & Now Senior Moments part 2

The seniors quiz night at the Sir Rupert Briercliffe Hall continues this week. These senior citizens show that they are still alert with functioning long term memories – it was truly a blessed occasion as we listened to memories from days past – I think it is safe to say that we drank it up and hungered for more – “Memory is a way of holding onto the thing you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose. The Wonder Years.” Jessica McMahan –  May the heavenly Father continue to bless all our seniors as they do what they can to help us understand the past and gain respect for our culture.

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