The Virgin Islands’ freedom to make its own political and economic decisions is often taken for granted by Virgin Islanders and other residents who are unfamiliar with the modern history of the islands.
All too often, it is assumed either that self-government has always been in place or that the United Kingdom in its benevolence instituted self-government. Neither is the case.
The historical record shows that self-government in the VI, and democracy for that matter, came about as a result of the demand by the people of the VI for the British Empire to re-establish local decision-making and political representation on the islands during the middle of the 20th Century.
This history is largely unknown by the population today and not well integrated into the school system or into the residency, belongership and naturalisation processes.
A lack of awareness of the modern history of the VI from the mid-20th Century onward may be a contributing factor to the much-diminished sense of pride in the VI community.
The occasion of the 70th anniversary of the House of Assembly on Nov. 20, 2020 is an opportunity to educate the public on how the VI came to have self-government and democracy, which have been instrumental in the islands’ progress and upheld the dignity of Virgin Islanders as a people.
The HOA’s modern history as a legislature provides a lens through which to see how self-government and democracy were actually achieved.
The legislature’s historical roots are in the Great March of Nov. 24, 1949, when more than 1,500 Virgin Islanders converged on Road Town in a peaceful demonstration to protest the gross neglect of the British Empire and to demand the return of local decision-making and political representation in the governance of the islands after five decades of direct rule in which the VI was the poorest part of the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands.
In response to the Great March, the colony’s General Legislative Council based in Antigua adopted the first modern constitution for the VI in July 1950 based on the recommendations of a local constitutional committee in the VI chaired by the late Howard Penn.
The new constitution provided for a legislature to make laws for the islands in the form of a restored Legislative Council that was earlier abolished in 1902. The Legislative Council’s initial composition included both elected and appointed members.
The first election under the new constitution was held on Nov. 20, 1950, after which the elected and appointed members took the seats that officially reconstituted the Legislative Council. However, until 1967 executive power remained under British authority in the person of the commissioner, whose title later changed to “administrator” and then “governor.”
This was the first measure of internal self-government achieved in the VI, from which self-government and democracy have evolved.
‘A critical role’
From its inception, the Legislative Council played a critical role in the development of the VI, particularly as one of the main drivers of the initial modernisation of the islands in the pre-ministerial-government era from 1950 to 1967 under the committee/membership system.
After 15 years in operation, the Legislative Council sought greater autonomy for the islands and was instrumental in the introduction of the ministerial system of government in 1967 that featured the appointment of both a chief minister as the leader of government business (i.e. head of government) and portfolio ministers from among the elected representatives. It also included an Executive Council made up of the governor and ministers of government.
The Legislative Council was renamed the House of Assembly in 2007 along with the change of titles of the chief minister to premier and the Executive Council to Cabinet.
For seven decades, the legislature has been the political institution in which the representatives elected by the people of the VI have debated and made the laws of the land and kept government accountable.
Its platinum anniversary is a time to celebrate the legislature’s historical impact on the society, advances in self-government, and the vibrancy of democracy.
In the lead-up to the anniversary on Nov. 20, the government should highlight all the people who have served in the legislature.
Special acknowledgement should be given to the long-forgotten members of the pre-ministerial government era (1950-1967) who painstakingly guided the initial phase of modernisation upon which all else was built.
The opportunity should also not be missed to properly acknowledge the Great March of 1949 and its three great heroes: Theodolph H. Faulkner, Isaac Glanville Fonseca, and Carlton L. de Castro. The effort moved the British Empire to restore the Legislative Council to the VI.
These freedom fighters and the pre-ministerial-government-era members of the Legislative Council are the founding fathers of the modern VI. A great debt is owed to them for changing the course of VI history.
A special sitting of the HOA should be held on Nov. 20 to mark the 70th anniversary of the legislature, during which time the House can proclaim Nov. 24 November “Virgin Islands Day” to serve as the official day on which the people of the islands celebrate the VI story and the people’s great journey on the path of self-determination.
Let us never take for granted the freedom the VI enjoys today, which was the product of the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before us. VI pride!
Mr. Wheatley is a policy fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.