Anguilla: The Shipwrecked 6000

Among the green and hilly islands of the Caribbean Anguilla is like a mistake, a sport. It is seventeen miles long and two miles wide and so flat that when Anguillans give you directions they don’t tell you to turn right or left; they say east or west. It is rocky and arid. There are no palm trees, no big trees. Mangrove is thick above the beaches, which look as they must have done when Columbus came. The forests that then existed have long been cut down; and the Anguillans, charcoal-burners and boatbuilders, are the natural enemies of anything green that looks like growing big.

Sugarcane used to grow in some places, but even in the days of slavery it was never an island of plantations. In 1825, nine years before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, there were about 300 white people and 300 free coloreds, people of mixed race. Between them they kept about 3000 Negroes. The Negroes were a liability. On other Caribbean islands Negroes were let off on Saturdays to work on their own plots. In Anguilla they were turned loose for half the week to forage for themselves.

Today there are only about 12,000 Anguillans. Half of them live or work overseas, in the nearby United States Virgin Islands, in Harlem, and in Slough in Buckinghamshire, known locally as Sloughbucks. But there are houses and plots for most of them to return to; the desolate island has long been parcelled out.

In mid-December last year, when I was there, the island was filling up for Christmas. The Viscount aircraft of LIAT, Leeward Islands Air Transport (“We fly where buccaneers sailed”), had stopped calling ever since Anguilla rebelled in 1967 and broke away from the newly independent three-island British Commonwealth state of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. But the Anguillans (after chasing away an American and his DC-3) had set up three fiercely competitive little airlines of their own, Air Anguilla, Anguilla Airways, Valley Air Services, each with its own livery and its own five-passenger Piper Aztecs regularly doing the five-minute, five-dollar connecting hop from St. Martin.

More than any other Caribbean community, the Anguillans have the sense of home. The land has been theirs immemorially; no humiliation attaches to it. There are no Great Houses, as in St. Kitts; there are not even ruins.

For the Anguillans history begins with the myth of a shipwreck. This was how the white founders came, the ancestors of the now multi-colored clans of Flemings, Hodges, Richardsons, Websters, Gumbs. About the arrival of the Negroes there is some confusion. Many know they were imported as slaves. But one young man was sure they were here before the shipwreck. Another felt they had come a year or two after. He didn’t know how or why. “I forget that part.” The past does not count. The Anguillans have lived for too long like a ship-wrecked community.

They are not well educated. Instead, they have skills, like boatbuilding, and religion, which is a continual excitement. Few Anguillans act without divine guidance. The Anguillan exodus to Sloughbucks that began in 1960 had the sanction of God; and a similar certitude is behind the secession from St. Kitts and the boldness of many recent Anguillan actions.

So close to God, the Anguillans are not fanatical. They have the Negro openness to new faiths. Eight years ago Mr. Webster, the now deposed President, re-thought his position and, at the age of thirty-four, left the Anglicans for the Seventh Day Adventists. He would like to see more and varied missionary activity on the island. “If the Jehovah’s Witnesses or any other denomination convert one or ten souls they are doing a good job and serving the community. Because our basic plan is to keep Anguillans as pious as possible. This keeps out partial and immoral thoughts.”

The island has its own prophet, Judge Gumbs, Brother George Gumbs (Prophet), as he signs his messages to the new local weekly. He is not without honor; he is consulted by high and low. When the spirit moves him he cycles around with a fife and drum, “a short black man with a cap” (an Anguillan description), preaching and sometimes warning. He is said to get a frenzied feeling about a particular place, a field, a stretch of road; a few days later the disaster occurs. In December, three or four days after Mr. Webster said that Anguilla was going to leave the Commonwealth altogether, Judge Gumbs was out, preaching. I didn’t see him, but I was told he had no news; he just asked the people to pray. No news from Judge Gumbs was good news.

Certain other reverences remain, to bind the community: certain families act or take decisions in times of crisis. The reverences follow the antique patterns, whose origins have been forgotten. Color is accidental, and nothing angers the Anguillans more than the propaganda from St. Kitts, 70 miles away, that their rebellion is the rebellion of a slave island, with the blacks loyally following the whites and browns. The reverences are of Anguilla, and the Anguillans describe themselves as Negroes. Mr. Webster, who could be of any race between the Mediterranean and India, describes himself as a Negro. It is true: losing the historical sense, the Anguillans have also lost the racial sense. It isn’t an easy thing to put across, especially to St. Kitts, which is now playing with its own concept of Black Power.

Anguillans have never liked being administratively linked with St. Kitts, and they have hated Robert Bradshaw, the St. Kitts Premier, ever since, angered by their indifference, he said he would turn the island into a desert and make the Anguillans suck salt. They were frightened by the idea of an independent St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla under Bradshaw’s rule; and there was a riot in February, 1967, when, as part of the independence celebrations, St. Kitts sent over some beauty queens to give a show in the Anguilla High School. The police used tear gas, but inefficiently. They gassed the queens and the loyal audience, not the enraged Anguillans outside. Reinforcements from St. Kitts’s 100-man Police Force were flown in next day. Houses were searched; the Anguillan leaders took to the bush.

It was the signal for a general revolt. The Warden’s house was set on fire; the Warden fled. From time to time during the next three months shots were fired at the police station at night. The hotel where the acting Warden was staying was set on fire; he too left. The next day the bank manager was attacked. Two days later several hundred Anguillans rushed the police station. The seventeen policemen offered no fight; they were put on a plane and sent back to St. Kitts. The Anguillans set up their own five-man police force.

Ten days later, fearing outside intervention (Jamaica nearly sent in troops), and guided now by that religious certitude, the Anguillans raided St. Kitts and shot up the police station and Defense Force headquarters. The raid, by twelve men, was openly planned; people went down to the wharf in the afternoon to wave as the 50-foot cutter left for St. Kitts. Five and a half hours later the cutter tied up, quite simply, at the main pier in St. Kitts. Then the Anguillans discovered they hadn’t thought about motorcars. They had intended to kidnap Bradshaw; they had to be content with scaring him.

Some time later there was a report that thirty-five men from St. Kitts had invaded Anguilla. The man who was the Provisional President flew over the reported landing area in an Aztec, dropping duplicated leaflets asking the invaders to surrender. But there were no invaders. The fighting was over. All that followed were words; secession was a fact. Anguilla had become the world’s smallest republic.

Its status was ambiguous. It still considered itself within the Commonwealth. It looked to London for a constitutional settlement, for some sanction of its separation from St. Kitts. London didn’t know what to do. For more than two hundred years, in fact, no one had really wanted Anguilla or had known what to do with it. The place was a mistake.

It had its formalities. When you got off the Piper Aztec you went through Anguillan Immigration and Customs; they were both in one room of the two-roomed airport building. The Immigration man had a khaki uniform, an Anguilla badge, and an Anguilla rubber-stamp. You needed an Anguillan driving license; it cost a dollar; you paid at the Police Station in the long, low Administration Building. The five-man police force was enough; there was little crime. Women quarreled and used four-letter words; the police visited and “warned”; that, in the main, was the routine. There was a jail, and there was one prisoner. He had been there for a year, a St. Kitts man on a charge of murder. There was no magistrate to try him. Mr. Webster was hoping to deport the man as soon as the secession issue was settled.

In the Post Office you bought Anguillan stamps, designed and produced by an English firm and sold by them to overseas collectors for a 15 percent commission. Incoming mails were regular; Anguilla had beaten the St. Kitts postal ban by having two box numbers on the half-French half-Dutch island of St. Martin. In the Treasury, next door to the Post Office; there was a notice about the new 2 percent income tax. Other taxes, on liquor and petrol, had been lowered, to increase consumption and revenue; and it had worked. People told me there were more cars in Anguilla than ever before.

The administration, spare and sufficient, had been inherited with the Administration Building. An elected fifteen-man Council ruled. This structure of government was like sophistication in a community that had for long organized itself around its own reverences. The island ran itself; it worked. After half a day the visitor had to remind himself of size and quaintness. It was there, in the new flag, designed by some Americans: a circle of three orange dolphins on white, a lower stripe of turquoise. And in the fanciful anthem, composed by a local “group”:

…An island where the golden corn is waving in the breeze!
An island full of sunshine and where Nature e’er doth please.

The visitor heard that the beaches were watched every night, in case St. Kitts invaded; that there were secret military exercises every fortnight; that the Anguillans had more than the 4 machine-guns, 55 rifles, 15 shotguns, and 2 boxes of dynamite they had at the time of secession. There was talk of a repeat raid on St. Kitts; there was even a hint of a fighter being called in. St. Kitts was still claiming Anguilla and still advertising it in its tourist brochures (“Island of charm…for the holiday-seeker who wants to get away from it all”). But the Anguillans were secure. They knew that St. Kitts had its own political dissensions, that many people in St. Kitts were on their side, and that the 120-man St. Kitts army had enough to do at home. The Anguillans didn’t talk much about Bradshaw and St. Kitts. They talked more of their own dissensions, their own politics.

Shipwrecked and isolated, the community had held together. With the quick semi-sophistication that had come with independence, the feeling that the island was quaint, famous, and tourist-precious, the old rules and reverences had begun to go. A few months before, on the quaint airstrip, the engine of a Piper Aztec had been smashed up at night with a hammer. Family rivalry was said to be the cause.

There is only one hotel with electricity in Anguilla, the Rendezvous. It is like a rough motel; and the lights go off at nine. It is owned by Jeremiah Gumbs, half-brother of Judge Gumbs, the prophet, and is run by Jeremiah’s sister, who has spent many years in the United States and speaks with an American accent; the atmosphere of Negro America is strong.

I knew about Jeremiah Gumbs. He had been described to me as “the smart Anguillan,” the only one who had made good in the United States and who was a considerable local benefactor. He was Anguilla’s link-man with the bigger world. He had given a number of interviews to American newspapers, had presented Anguilla’s case at the United Nations, and had led an Anguillan delegation to the OAS building (they found it closed).

He was there, assessing and formidable (I had been told in St. Kitts never to laugh at Anguillans), while his sister showed me round.

And here, young man, you can plug in your shaver. Which is more than you did this morning.”

She was very large; she was called Lady B. I recognized her as a “character.” Characters lie on my spirit like lead; and I resolved never to shave while I was at the Rendezvous.

At lunch Jeremiah, sucking fish, began to boom across the dining room, at first as though to himself.

They call it a rebellion.” His accent too was American. “Most peaceful rebellion in the world. Rebellion? It’s a rebellion against years of neglect, that’s all. What’s wrong with being small? Why shouldn’t a small country have dignity? Why shouldn’t a small country have pride? Why shouldn’t—“

I tried to break into his harangue. “Gumbs. It’s an old island name.”

One man,” he said. “One man gave this island a library. One man set up the X-ray unit in the hospital. One man did all this. What did Bradshaw do? Police, plastic bombs, tear gas, things we never saw before. Now he says I am the big villain, the leader of rebels.”

I had heard no such thing.

One man. Joe Louis. Marian Anderson. You get no more than one in a generation. It’s because I care. I remember when I was a child we had four successive droughts in this island of Anguilla. I know what poverty is. I remember days in New York in the Depression when I didn’t have the subway fare and had to walk 100 blocks to school. Days when I didn’t even eat an apple.”

It hadn’t marked him. He was an enormous man. Fifty-five, sharp-nosed, with a moustache and thin greying hair, he was like somebody out of those Negro Westerns of thirty years ago, Two-Gun Man from Harlem, Harlem on the Prairie. It was the way he ate, the way he walked and talked; it was the rock and the dust outside. He was the man opening up a territory.

You come to write something, huh?”

I said, with acute shame, that I had.

You go ahead and write. They come all the time. They sit on the beach and write all day long.” His voice began to sing in the American way: “Just like Nature intended.”

I resolved never to set foot on his beach.

We met that afternoon on the dusty road, he in his high jeep, a territory opener, I in the low exposed mini-jeep I had rented from him.

You making out all right?”

I was choking with dust and had already been lost twice (those Anguillan compass directions), but didn’t tell him; he had sold me a map.

You write and tell them. You tell them about this bunch of rebellious savages.”

For a short time after secession the Anguillans flew the flag of San Francisco, the gift of an editor who belonged to what is known in the island as the San Francisco Group. The Group took a whole-page advertisement in The New York Times in August 1967 for “The Anguilla White Paper,” which they composed.

Anguillans, the White Paper said, were not backward simply because they didn’t have telephones. “Do you know what one Anguillan does when he wants to telephone another Anguillan? He walks up the road and talks to him.” But the absence of telephones was part of the case against St. Kitts; and it isn’t easy to get about the island without a jeep. There are people in West End (where the people are mainly blackish, with occasional blond sports) who have never been to East End (where many of the fair people are).

Anguillans didn’t “even want one Hiltonesque hotel”; it would turn them into “a nation of bus boys, waiters and servants.” They didn’t want more than thirty “guests” at one time; it wouldn’t be polite for a guest to go away without at least lunching with the President. They didn’t want “tourists.”

The White Paper—it offered honorary citizenship for $100—made $25,000 for Anguilla. Some Anguillans felt they had been made ridiculous by the White Paper. But Mr. Webster, who signed it as Chief Executive, told me he stood by it. Jeremiah Gumbs, though, was extending his hotel; other people had put up establishments of their own of varying standards (the tourist future could still be one of rough bars and souvenir-stalls and ice-cream stands, very private enterprise); and Mr. Webster himself said that he would like to see Anguilla as a tourist resort.

It was part of the Anguillan confusion. Too many people had wanted to help, finding in Anguilla an easy cause, a little black comedy. The Anguillans, never seeing the joke, always listened and then grew frightened and self-willed.

One member of the San Francisco Group was Professor Leopold Kohr of the University of Puerto Rico, a sixty-year-old Austrian who went to live in America in 1938. Kohr has long promoted the theory of the happy small society; his book, A Breakdown of Nations, was published in London in 1957 (it is now out of print). In 1958 Kohr addressed the Welsh Nationalist Party that wants Wales to break away from England; he is now on a year’s sabbatical at the University of Swansea. Kohr feels that small communities are “more viable economically than larger powers”; and he thought Anguilla “the ideal testing ground.” Immediately after secession the Anguillan leaders were beating up support in the nearby islands. They met Kohr and the San Francisco Group in Puerto Rico. “My team,” Kohr says, “was accepted within twenty-four hours.”

There appeared to be early proof of economic viability when it was rumored that Aristotle Onassis had offered a million dollars a year for the right to use Anguilla as a flag base. The story is still current in the West Indies and Kohr still appears to believe in it. In St. Kitts and Anguilla, however, it was dismissed as one of Jeremiah Gumbs’s stories. Mr. Webster, as Chief Executive, wrote twice to Onassis but got no reply. The commercial offers that did come from the United States were, in Kohr’s words, from “interests of all shady shades.”

A local man I met at the airport one Saturday—like market-day, then, with the cardboard boxes and baskets and parcels coming off the Aztecs, the women waiting for letters, messages, remittances from their men in the American Virgin Islands—a local man whispered to me about the Mafia and their agents among the local people. (From recent newspaper reports I feel he has been whispering to many other visitors.) I asked Mr. Webster about this. He said, puzzlingly, that this whispering about the Mafia was official Anguillan policy, to keep the Mafia away. He also asked me not to pay too much attention to white “stooges.” At this stage I began to feel I was sinking in antique, inbred Anguillan intrigue.

There were people, though, who, while not wishing to go back to St. Kitts, had become less happy about the future than Mr. Webster or Professor Kohr. They had seen no “development” in a year of ambiguous independence and they feared what would happen if Anguilla officially declared itself outside the Common-wealth. Anguilla, like Rhodesia, would be outlawed. It would attract outlaws.

The new weekly, The Beacon (typewritten and offset, the equipment a gift from a United States firm), had run an editorial warning against a unilateral declaration of independence. It had created some doubt in the island; it had made independence appear a little more difficult.

If we sell away our rights to American businessmen now,” the young electrician-editor said to me in a bar, “we will be the laughing-stock of the Caribbean and the world. Don’t get me wrong,” he added, speaking slowly while I took down his words. “If Britain don’t do nothing, then I feel we should go on our own.”

I go put his balls through the wringer,” a young man said angrily to Mr. Webster at the airstrip, showing The Beacon. Such violence of language was once reserved for Bradshaw of St. Kitts. Mr. Webster, hiding his distress—it was Saturday, his Sabbath—calmed the young man down.

The frightened, the bold, “stooges,” “Mafia”: this was the rough division at which the visitor arrived, feeling his way through intrigue that appeared to follow no race or color line. Responsibility, acquired lusts and fears now balancing the old certitude, had brought dissensions, the breaking up of that sense of isolation and community which was the point of independence.

There was the Canadian with the idea for a radio station, for which for some reason he required stretches of beach. There was Jeremiah Gumbs’s plan for a Bank of Anguilla (he actually started building), which frightened many people. There was Jeremiah Gumbs’s plan for a “center for physical medicine.” “The trouble is, will I get my people to understand it? Or will they object to it like the American Medical Association?” I could never understand what he meant; I heard it said that he wanted to bring down an American who had a magic cure. I remembered Jeremiah’s half-brother, Judge Gumbs.

The Anguillan faith in Jeremiah Gumbs as their guide to big American investment had been shaken by these projects and he had been dropped as an adviser to the Council. When I was in Anguilla I felt he was in disgrace, sulking at the Rendezvous. And his own attitude to Anguilla changed from meal to meal. Sometimes he was a patriot. “St. Kitts will be sorry if they attacked us. When we have finished with them, the British Government will have to feed them on crackers and molasses, I guess.” Sometimes he was despairing about Anguillans. “They don’t know they don’t know.” He could give this a gloss. “The trouble,” he said during one gloomy meal, “is that colonialism has made the Anguillan a shell.”

His changes of mood were linked with the arrival, examination, and dismissal of another American with an idea. This man was looking for a “fran-chise”: a grant of land and, I believe, a twenty-five-year monopoly in the quarrying and block-making business. His examination by the Council and the Council’s lawyer, who had flown in from Trinidad, lasted eight hours; and when he appeared at Jeremiah Gumbs’s table at dinner, a young soft-bellied man in trousers of shocking Sherwood green, he looked bruised. I heard later that toward the end of his examination he was close to tears.

It was a subdued Jeremiah Gumbs who padded about the dining room in his slippers, pouring water, offering bread, like a man still with a duty to his ranch-hands. Afterwards he led me through the wire-netting door to the open verandah. Sand-flies and mosquitoes pounced. He slapped and clapped his big hands, killing and calm.

Who is this lawyer guy? Is he a constitutional lawyer, a company lawyer, a criminal lawyer? Does he know anything about economics? You tell Webster. He’s got to have a development plan. Otherwise he’s going to frighten off a lot of people. And they are not that many. They are not that many.”

In the morning the sad American left, green check jacket matching his trousers.

Jeremiah Gumbs still suffered. “He was gonna invest plenty. He wasn’t gonna make money for four years. Then you’ll let someone else in? These people don’t understand economics. If Webster could worry he’d be worried. He was gonna build that road, open up that whole area. Put value on people’s property. Houses going up alongside the road. But these people don’t understand. Look at me. I put this place up. I advertised Anguilla. Now other people have put down their little places. The tourist comes to the airport, the taxi-drivers rush him, take him this place, that place. I advertised.” His voice began to sing. “It’s not a way to live. I don’t know. I feel there’s another way to live.”

I said I felt he had done enough for Anguilla.

He said he wouldn’t rest until he had done a lot more. “I love this country. I love the people. I know what poverty is like. I know what drought is like. I care. I remember when I was a boy….”

On my bill there was a charge for an Anguillan flag. I told Lady B. I hadn’t had one.

You want one, young man?” She waved it at me when she gave it, and did a gigantic little mimicry of a drum-majorette. “Anguilla, here I come.”

I put it in my pocket, the flag of the territory that Jeremiah Gumbs didn’t look like opening up.

Independence, as a smooth administration: that worked. Independence as the preserver of an old community: that made sense. Independence as “development” and quick tourist money: that, as the San Francisco Group romantically sensed, defeats itself. Anguilla was going to disappoint more of its supporters. Independence had only just come; and Anguilla already required pacification.

Pacification came, heavy-handed and absurd—but only to the outsider looking for comedy or a manageable cause. The Anguilla problem remains: the problem of a tiny colony set adrift, part of the jetsam of an empire, a near-primitive people suddenly returned to a free state, their renewed or continuing exploitation.

When I left Anguilla, Jeremiah Gumbs was giving instructions to the workmen (and a very slow, contemplative, sand-sifting workwoman) who were running up the barrack-like extension to the hotel. The other day, quite by chance, I saw him in a dark suit, his ring on the small finger of his large left hand, in the Delegates’ Lounge of the United Nations. Four English journalists were taking down his grave words. The British invasion was two days away. Jeremiah—an American citizen, his business in the United States the Gumbs Fuel and Oil Burner Service of Edison, New Jersey—was the petitioner that day for Anguilla, before the Committee on Colonialism. He spoke lucidly and without exaggeration; his tone was one of injury, familiar to me; but everything he said about the planned British invasion was true.

He was the official Anguillan spokesman again. He was back in favor in Anguilla. And it was not surprising to learn from newspaper reports that the American in green had returned to Anguilla. He had returned as a lawyer. He had no law degree, but he had “an extensive law library”; he was given a permit to practice. He did more. He advised on the new Anguillan constitution. (The previous one, very short, had been drafted by a Harvard professor, who had somehow ceased to be important in Anguilla.) The National Observer gave some of the provisions of the new constitution, Businesses, foreign or local, could not be expropriated by the Anguillan government; foreign governments could not bring tax suits against Anguilla-based businesses. A judge of the Anguillan Supreme Court didn’t have to be an Anguillan or a lawyer; all he needed was a permit to practice law in Anguilla, and he had to be over thirty-five. The National Observer also gave some details of the franchise the American had asked for in December, for his basic building-materials plant: twenty-five years tax-free, the Anguillan government to get 500 dollars a year in return.

After the British invasion the American was put on a Cessna and sent off the island.

It may seem strange to people who have lost faith in the United Nations,” Jeremiah Gumbs said to reporters a week later, “but on our little island the United Nations is still regarded, in spite of its imperfections, as the great hope of small nations and people of goodwill everywhere.”

It was the New York Times Quotation of the Day. The Times also presented, as news, some lines from the two-year-old Anguillan anthem. Anguilla—as cause, as comedy—appeared set for a re-run.