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Then & Now – Remembering Sir Alan

 

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.

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 – Interview with Mr. William Industrious

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!!

Then & Now – Pleasant Encounter

 

 

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.

Then & Now in Virgin Gorda

 

 

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)

Then & Now with Eugenia O’Neal

 

After reading FROM THE FIELD TO THE LEGISLATURE: A History of Women in the Virgin Islands  By Eugenia O’Neal, I had a sense and a better understanding of women in the Virgin Islands and their struggles to make an impact in the future of their lives and that of their beloved Virgin Islands – “during slavery, planters manipulated gender ideology to argue that black women were more like men and not at all like the women of Europe.” (Introduction) No doubt, “slaveowners in the West Indies were familiar with the gender tradition of agriculture in West Africa. They understood at once that black women could be thrown into the deep end of the labour regime, and be productive. This explains in large measure their refusal to shelter these women from the most arduous physical task, as well as the suggestion that productivity differentials did not exist between the sexes.” (Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society by Hilary McD Beckles, Pg9) In my interview with Ms. O’Neal she spoke of her annoyance when she hears people referring to Virgin Islanders as lazy and unwilling to work – a sentiment I endorse.

Women toiled the soil, took care of their families, and yet found time to contribute to the well-being of their communities – because “even when they have entered into the paid labour force, women have neither structurally nor ideologically been allowed to leave the family” (Citizenship & Identity by Engin F. Isin & Patricia K. Wood).  And when women could not find work at home in the Virgin Islands , “many were able to enter and find work in the USVI” (p92) And in the “Moyne Commission report it was noted that the inhabitants….show a most praiseworthy and attractive spirit of enterprise, independence and resource.” (p93) – it is even more so today – I guess a trait from the ancestors.

Virgin Island women have struggled, and yes, FROM THE FIELD TO THE LEGISLATURE, and though they are not yet free from struggling they understand and appreciate the harshness of plantation life that their ancestors endured and they have reached a place of understanding that as black women they must now work to overcome the socio-economic and political stereotype of competing masculinities and continue to develop their role in society and not be slighted by race or sex.

NOTE from UNDERSTANDING SLAVERY INITIATIVE  ‘The transatlantic slave trade was responsible for the forced migration of between 12 – 15 million people from Africa to the Western Hemisphere from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century. The trafficking of Africans by the major European countries during this period is sometimes referred to by African scholars as the Maafa (‘great disaster’ in Swahili). It’s now considered a crime against humanity. The slave trade not only led to the violent transportation overseas of millions of Africans but also to the deaths of many millions more. Nobody knows the total number of people who died during slave raiding and wars in Africa, during transportation and imprisonment, or in horrendous conditions during the so-called Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to the Americas.”

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 – “Good Old Days”

“On Monday morning, bright and early
Not tired, vexed or even surly,
One rose to tread the path “over the hill”
Without a whimper, but with a will,
To arrive in time for school
For this was the best and safest rule.”
(Taken from: 150 Years of Achievement 1834-1984, By: Pearl Smith)

Then & Now – VI early years revisited

Peter and Penny Haycraft came to the Virgin Islands in December 1959 from London,  after Peter answered an Ad in the UK Daily Telegraph, to be the skipper of the Youth of Tortola, “the first modern passenger boat that went between Tortola and St. Thomas.”  Peter recounted how he had a choice of going to Port Sudan or coming to Tortola and he took the latter and has been here ever since.

This was at a time when the Virgin Islands were still in its growing phase – and Penny tells how they first lived at Treasure Isle hotel, which was then owned by Charles and Betty Roy), they then stayed for a short time in Kingstown where she would “light a lantern and take to the dock so that Peter could see to come to port.” The Haycrafts later moved into a four-room house in Lower Estate, which was built and owned by Mose Malone, with a bathroom (a novelty in those early days) – Penny took one of the rooms and converted it into the “first private fee paying school in the territory for children ages 6-8 years.” Although they lived in Road Town (the capital) this was at a time when there was no electricity any where on any of the islands owned by Her Majesty’s Government. Their three children were born at the Peebles Hospital, one just ten months after arriving in the territory.

Years later, Peter not wanting to be a “bus driver” (thats what ferrying a boat back and forth to St. Thomas in the USVI felt like) became an entrepreneur when he opened his first business, Road Town Wholesale, in 1961 – his other business Rite Way Supermarket was not opened until 1968 and was located slightly down from the where it is at present on Flemming Street. The wholesale store occupied one room  behind Little Denmark (at that time the sea ran through what is now called Wickhams Cay, which was a small island in the harbour – It later moved to main street on the other side of the road to what is now the sporting goods store next to what is now McKellys. Before Rite Way there were two small local grocers on main street – Carlton DeCastro and J. W. Georges where Peter got his St. Bruno tobacco, which he still uses, and which was being imported from England by Mr. Georges.

In those days all shipments coming to the island first had to get here via St. Thomas, USVI and often cargo services could not be relied upon so Peter imported his first vessel, which had been registered in Ireland, inorder to bring his own goods to Tortola on a timely basis – He was able to arrange with S. R. Mendes in Antigua for Booker Lines and Atlantic Lines to deliver directly to Tortola and for this he brought in a series of lighters (barges) onto which the cargo could be placed and pulled to shore by his vessel “The Kilross,” which commenced Island Shipping and Trading.

The Haycrafts, who still live in Road Town, reminisced about a quieter time when children could walk about unsupervised and without fear of them being run-over by traffic and when there was more of a community spirit. They are much older now and have acquired much success through hard work, can live anywhere they choose but still prefer the Virgin Islands – they leave a couple of times each year to visit with two of their children and grandchildren who live abroad.

Then & Now – Legislative Proces

The first Assembly or House of Representatives in the Virgin Islands, which had been asked for since 1747, became a reality by proclamation on November 30th 1773, and the Assembly met for the first time on January 27, 1774 and had eleven (11) members who represented the planters and freeholders. (Early History of the British Virgin Islands, From Columbus to Emancipation, p.75-76: By Vernon W. Pickering)

Despite that representation, the abolition of slavery in 1834 and the collapse of the planation economy saw the Virgin Islands dwindling in population making it difficult to form the rudiments of a government and as a result they were ruled from Antigua – needless to say, the subsequent process to self government was a lengthy and complex one.

The following information is taken from my interview with Mr. Elton Georges, CMG, OBE.

1943 Secondary Education was introduced in the Virgin Islands; 1956 the Federation of the Leeward Islands was broken up and became individual colonies – head of State was changed from Commissioner to Administrator who still reported to a Governor based in Antigua; 1959-60 the Administrator reported directly to London and the Virgin Islands became a Colony with direct link to Her Majesty;  1967 Ministerial Government came into being with Administrative Secretaries who were later changed to Permanent Secretaries – the Speaker was introduced and  presided over the Council rather than the Administrator and the Speaker was elected from outside the Council (2000 Constitutional change provided that the Speaker could be elected from the elected members of the house but they continued to elect from outside); 1971 – Administrator was changed to a Governor partly driven by our close proximity to the USVI and PR; 1976 the definition of a belonger was put in the Constitution and the voting process changed – to qualify to vote you now had to be a belonger. It also increased the number of seats in Council from 7 to 9; 1994 before the 1995 election Britain increased the number of seats by amendment to include 4 at large – the entire country was equal to one constituency for these at large members – this was opposed by the then government, however this is how the council is constituted today.

From 1967 until 2007 the head of Government was designated Chief Minister at which time amendments to the Constitution changed the designation to Premier. Five Virgin Islanders held the position of Chief Minister and to date two have held the position of Premier.

Chief Ministers:  1967 – 1971 Hon. H.Lavity Stoutt; 1971 – 1979 Hon. Willard Wheatley; 1979 – 1983 Hon. H. Lavity Stoutt; 1983 – 1986 Cyril B. Romney; 1986 -1995 H. Lavity Stoutt; 1995- 2003 Hon. Ralph T. O’Neal and 2003 – 2007 Dr. The Hon. D. Orlando Smith.

Premiers: 2007 -2011 Hon. Ralph T. O’Neal and 2011 to date Dr. The Hon. D. Orlando Smith.

 

 

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