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 …

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