Looking back at Annals of Anguilla
By; Will Johnson
I was busy looking back at the book Anguilla’s Battle for Freedom 1967 – 1969 and also the book Annals of Anguilla. Something kept them right in front of my computer and I had just scanned a couple of photo’s to go with the article when I learned of the death of Mr. Ronald Webster the leader of the Anguilla revolution.
I was friends with him back in the sixties and have written about him before. The last time I was on Anguilla Sir Emile Gumbs another good friend and former Chief Minister called his home but his wife said he was not feeling well and was resting so I did not get to see him.
I have had the good fortune to know and be friends with every Chief Minister since Anguilla got its special status with Great Britain.
Looking at Anguilla today one is hard pressed to imagine how difficult life was in former times. I remember going with the ‘M.S.Antilia’ with Lt. Governor Japa Beaujon after hurricane Donna in 1960 to carry some relief supplies for the suffering population. We anchored in Sandy Ground and the Chief Warden came down to carry Mr. Beaujon to The Valley. The roads were so bad that the Governors son Jan and I opted to stay and swim in Sandy Ground and then go back on board the steamer and play cards.
As time went by and with self-rule Anguilla moved forward in the economic sense. All of the islands have suffered a decline in local populations, an influx of ‘non-belongers’ as non-native people are referred to in Anguilla and an unprecedented increase in crime. I just learned a few days ago that Nevis had 32 murders in 2016 and the year is not finished yet. Nevis, I thought in disbelief? Nevis? So I called a friend and he confirmed it with: ‘Will where have you been?’ If the truth be known I try to keep myself occupied with pleasant thoughts and not necessarily murder rates in our once unspoiled islands, so this came as a total surprise to me.
But back to Anguilla, where thank God it has not reached the level of crime as some of the other islands.
In 1976 the Annals of Anguilla, first published in 1936 was republished. The foreword of the original book reads as follows:
“These brief notes were compiled by the writer while serving as Medical Officer and Magistrate on Anguilla (August 9th, 1918 – May 31st 1923).
During this time the inhabitants experienced four consecutive years of drought; great scarcity of food, so that young children showed signs of commencing famine oedema and night blindness affected older persons; a hurricane; and, most trying of all a quarantine period of several months due to the presence in their midst of over four hundred contacts and nineteen cases of small pox imported from the Dominican Republic..
Admiration for the sterling qualities displayed by all classes of the inhabitants, – qualities of honesty, courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds, sincere loyalty to the British Throne, obedience to lawful authority and willingness to follow wise leadership, – has prompted this small tribute to a gallant and grateful people. ‘
S.B. Jones, Basseterre, St. Kitts 1936.
For this article I will just quote a few small chapters and recommend that all lovers of the islands’ histories read this small booklet.
Chapter VI. Emigration.
Mariners all, the Anguillans in times of plenty had taken their surplus stock of peas, sheep, goats and cattle to the neighboring islands, and even to Trinidad. In times of scarcity emigration naturally followed the trade routes. Some went to Antigua, some to St. Kitts, some to Trinidad and some to the Spanish Main. For all that, the greater portion clung tenaciously to Anguilla, their home, their fatherland.
Then came the Sombrero days in the middle sixties (1860, s), when a field of emigration more adapted to the mode of life of the Anguillian labourer was opened. For a part of the time he might cultivate his land and in good seasons have an abundant crop of provisions, then he could go to dig and dive for phosphate rock in Sombrero; thus acquiring a sum of ready money to purchase clothing for the family. This led to the foundation of a higher standard of living in many an Anguillian home. Three good meals a day, a liberal ration of rum and molasses, and seven or eight dollars a month constituted good pay for the Sombrero labourer. But eventually even this failed, and similar drought and distress in the early seventies forced Anguillians to become indentured labourers on the sugar plantations of St. Croix.
VII. Famine of 1890.
Forty six years ago came the first great famine in Anguilla. Prolonged drought; repeated failure of the crops; lack of seed; death of cattle, sheep and goats for want of food and water, – such was the fate of the wretched people. Starving, they crept into the woods and gathered berries and herbs for food. Their cry went out to the sister islands which at first hardly realized the extent of the necessitous condition of Anguilla. When they did, a Relief Committee in St. Kitts worked with one in Anguilla. “The actual number receiving relief was 2070”. Barrels of beef and flour, casks of fish, medicines were rushed in for the relief of the starving people.
The Government of Antigua offered work to thirty men at once, while the responsible official in the island at that time urged the establishment of ‘cultural industries’ to avert another calamity like that through which the island was passing.
VIII. The New Emigration
Somewhere about 1895 a batch of Anguillians went to labour on the great sugar estates of the American capitalists in the Republic of Santo Domingo. Emigration of this sort was eminently suited to the home-loving habits of the Anguillians. They were able to cut canes and then when the crop was over to return home. During the intervening period they prepared their own land for sweet potatoes, peas and corn; they caught fish to supply the household, curing with the salt and so easily procured the surplus to serve for times of scarcity. With the one hundred or so dollar saved they tried to build better homes, to pay off debts incurred for clothing for wife and children and to keep their Church cards straight. When, as during the Great War, there was a demand for Sea Island cotton, another ready source of ready money was at hand. The cotton crop could be easily taken care of when the men were in Santo Domingo and the returns aided to supplement the family budget. The result was that, though a period of prolonged drought overtook the island in 1918 and food prices were tremendously high because of the war, the people were able to carry on, and did so, without appeal for outside assistance, even contributing liberally, as their circumstances permitted, to the Red Cross Fund. They had money from their labour in Macoris and from the prices paid for their cotton, – the only difficulty was the inability to procure foodstuffs at the time when they had ready money. Here and there appeared swelling of the bodies of children, apparently a form of deficiency disease when too much sugar and bread is sued; here and there cases of obstinate constipation necessitating heroic measures for relief in those who ate the local cherries along with the seed; but there was no such widespread suffering as in 1890.
Again there was a prolonged drought in 1920. Cotton prices fell. But with the opening of the cane cutting season in Santo Domingo the men and boys crowded the sailing vessels and started off for the “fist relief” of their families to Macoris, the port in Santo Domingo, for which the vessels sail. They had hardly worked a month before there came back for their families clothing, sugar, rice, cocoa, coffee and later on, money to pay off debts contracted on the strength of the cotton crop which seemed ruined by insect pests and bottom prices.
The younger and bolder spirits had ventured on emigration to the United States of America where a sort of colony had been formed at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and where they worked in the munitions factories during the war. Some of these built good homes in Anguilla with the money thus earned, often sending their wives and children back to take care while they worked on, hoping someday to return and set up in business in their island home. The separation of families, however, for years at a time, the children scarcely knowing the fathers by sight, is a serious problem, likely to be solved by total severance of all connection, save a sentimental one, with the old colony.
At the present time (1922) a fresh tide of emigration, in this case of young women, is drifting with increasing force towards the American Virgin Islands, the full effect of which it is difficult as yet to estimate.
Far different is it with the labourer who goes to Santo Domingo. Entering the port of San Pedro de Macoris for the first time, he sees the dream of his boyish vision realized – the land where he can earn a little more than bare food and clothing. Leaving it when the cane cutting season is over, he sits on his box on the deck of sloop or schooner for seven or eight days, not daring to move lest he forfeit it, until at sight of the barren rocks of Anguilla his heart warms with the glow of pleasure which home-returning men alone experience, for mother, wife, brother, sister, child are looking out for him there on the white sands of Road Harbour; or on the shore of “Ensign Rumney’s Blown Poynt”, or under the manchineal trees of James Rohane’s forest Bay. But he never forgets Macoris, and when asked about the life in that country will reply with strange fervor, as if addressing some good friend who has aided him in times of dire need: “Macoris! Macoris! God bless Macoris!”
In recent years a wonderful film of the history of Anguilla was made by David Carty and which contained interviews as well with his uncle Sir Emile Gumbs. I loaned my copy to someone and never got it back. I was pleasantly surprised how well it was put together.
In these times of plenty it is worth-while at times to look back on the hungry days on our islands in the Eastern Caribbean. May Anguilla and its people continue to give substance to the words of S.B. Jones who expressed:
“Admiration for the sterling qualities displayed by all classes of the inhabitants- qualities of honesty, courage, and determination in the face of overwhelming odds!”