When I speak of ancestral Virgin Islanders, I am referring to those persons whose ancestry goes back to the middle and late 1800s. I expect that such persons would have been aware that in some fashion the islands came under the jurisdiction of the British crown. I would be surprised, though, if there was widespread understanding of what it meant to be a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies and a British subject/Commonwealth citizen. It wasn’t until the 1980s or thereabouts that interest in these criteria started getting the attention of the general public.

It was by no means easy to explain or to understand who was a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies and a British subject/Commonwealth citizen. Moreover, it was perplexing to figure out why one of your relatives would fall in this category of persons and another relative would not. To get an understanding of this dilemma, the go-to person was the late Elton Georges, who, a short time earlier, had been appointed as deputy governor. Because of the status of my children born before 1981, I had a personal interest in understanding how the law affected those persons who are considered ancestral Virgin Islanders. So I armed myself with a copy of the 1981 British Nationality Act and I had several discussions with Mr. Georges.

1981 rules

Through my research I discovered that the 1981 British Nationality Act had mitigated some of the impact of the 1948 British Nationality Act. However, the new provisions applied only to those ancestral Virgin Islanders who were born after the 1981 act came into force. So those persons born before 1981 had to live with the fallout from the provisions of the 1948 act. The provisions of that act did not take into account the peculiar circumstances of the Virgin Islands with respect to their relationship with nearby islands such as St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, known as the Danish West Indies prior to 1917.

From an anecdotal perspective, at least, there was considerable back and forth movement between the VI and the Danish West Indies, where men and women went to find work. These were people fighting for economic survival. Then in 1917, during the First World War, the Danish West Indies were purchased by the United States, and the ancestral Virgin Islanders who were there when the American flag was raised had the opportunity to become American citizens, living in what became the American Virgin Islands. I would be very surprised if they realised that by so doing, they were making a choice for their great-grandchildren which could lead to their disenfranchisement, by virtue of the impact of the 1948 British Nationality Act and other pieces of legislation which preceded it.

In this act there are provisions which placed certain categories of ancestral Virgin Islanders at a disadvantage. For one thing, the term “child” referred to a legitimate child and illegitimate children were excluded. For another, women who married a foreigner could lose their status. And then, citizenship by descent could only be realised through the father. Those who became American citizens, and others, were potentially disenfranchised by these and other provisions.