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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.

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