Following Black History Month, I would like to share a piece of my maternal family’s history with you. I’ll start where my journey began. My maternal family has been in dispute over land in Paraquita Bay for more than 47 years. I used to think that it was us against them. What I now know is we’re one and our roots here run deep. In search of the truth regarding this dispute, here is what I found.
In 1972, one of my grandfather’s first cousins made claim to a portion of land in Paraquita Bay that had belonged to my great-grandfather. My grandfather, upon becoming aware of this claim, contested it. Hence, the dispute began. The dispute is about a gift (Deed 10 of 1910) of 13 acres of land that was given to 13 of my great-great-grandfather’s children from his first and second marriage. The gift was given by his brother, who himself did not have children and inherited the land from his parents. My grandfather contested the claim on the grounds that his father purchased the land from Christopher Fleming in 1911.
In the first tribunal in 1972, the opening scene of the Parody of Justice, my grandfather presented certified copies of Deeds 191-193 of 1871 showing Christopher Fleming purchasing land from Goodluck and Angela Cunningham, which showed and linked the chain of conveyance. In trying to understand the lay of the land as it relates to the boundaries described in the deeds, I came upon the old plantation map (dated June 1, 1798) and was informed that I could purchase one from the museum at the Old Government House, which I did in 2007. The boundaries laid out in all these deeds become clearer — and, I then knew, undisputable. The adjudicating officers in 1972 and 1978 were either confused about these boundaries or deliberately muddied the water.
I got a copy of the cadastral map of Paraquita Bay from the 1970s, which I gave to one of my uncles, who took it to the Land Registry to inquire about who owned a portion of the land and how they came about it. Turned out, the government acquired 69.85 acres of land from my extended family in 1961.
My uncle got a copy of the deed (Deed 139 of 1961). The deed makes reference to a map, and so I went to the High Court Registry to see if I could get a copy of the map. Sure enough, there is a 1960 map by Louis Harrigan of St. Thomas, and there are five undivided parcels demarcated on the map. One of the five parcels is 13 acres. In 40 years of litigation, the decision makers in government — including the adjudicating officers in 1972 and 1978, who would have had access to this information — never made mention of it. It is nowhere to be found in the records.
With regards to the 13-acre dispute, had the government followed the letter of the law in 1961, the claim could not have been made in 1972. The government in its zeal to acquire the land skirted the law in 1961. Putting it mildly, they were less than transparent, which set the stage for the 1972 debacle and the Parody of Justice that followed.
‘Parody of Justice’
In the late 1950s the government placed notifications in The Antigua, Montserrat and VI Gazette stating its interest in acquiring lands in Paraquita Bay for public purposes: 183 acres in the eastern half, 130 acres in the eastern half. This was done in accordance with The Land Acquisition Ordinance (CAP. 222) of 1957. However, no declaration was made as required by section 3(1): “If the Governor in Council considers that any land should be acquired for a public purpose he may, with the approval of the Legislative Council, cause a declaration to that effect to be made by the clerk of the Executive Council in the manner provided by this section, and the declaration shall be conclusive evidence that the land to which it relates is required for a public purpose. (2) Every declaration shall be published in two ordinary issues of the Gazette.”
In essence, this acquisition was made on the down low (undercover and in the dark). Many people who would have been entitled to compensation were not compensated because they would not have been aware that this was taking place. My grandfather’s cousin used one of the deeds used in this acquisition as his documentary evidence of ownership of the disputed land in 1972. This is confirmed by a Land Registry Tribunal held in late 2018. The Tribunal Summary of Findings of Feb. 20, 2019 states: “Having considered the nature of the claim, the evidence adduced by the claimant, and the provisions of pertinent legislation, the committee has concluded that the claim is one of merit. The Adjudication Officer in 1972 mistakenly accepted Deed 10/1910 as evidence of acquisition of the relevant lands, without recognising that the Gifted Lands had already been sold to Her Majesty.”
As a matter of fact, as we’re talking about history, this piece of acquisition history is missing from the history books. In my research, I came across a book in the main library that lists government land acquisitions, and this one is not there. Our family history has been buried, and present and future generation will never know of our contribution. This is why I say the college’s name should be changed from H. Lavity Stoutt to Stoutt Community College. The college sits on the land acquired from the Stout family It is not a stretch to believe that our family owned this land before H. Lavity Stoutt’s parents were born. Changing the name would be a good faith gesture (1) acknowledging that real harm was done here and (2) recognising the Stout family’s contribution to the territory, as I do not believe the acquisition was voluntary on the part of the family. To all descendants of Thomas Stout, I would like to say to you that our forefathers’ legacy and our story was hijacked in 1961 and we need to reclaim it. I know there are some of you that would say this is no big deal.
In 1871, my great-great-great-grandparents for sure owned 130 acres of land in Paraquita Bay. I do not know at the moment from whom they acquired the land or when. I’m still searching, and what I’m finding is fascinating.
I went back to the old plantation map to try and make the linkage of the land ownership. In 1798, according to the old plantation map, the Paraquita Bay Estate was owned by the heirs of Bezaliel Hodge. When Bezaliel Hodge died in 1787, he left most of his properties on Tortola to his granddaughter Ruth Hodge, which included 318 acres at Paraquita Bay. Ruth Hodge married Pickering Lettsom in1808. He died a few months after their marriage. She died in 1809 and bequeathed her slave-derived fortune to her father-in-law John Coakly Lettsom, the famous English physician born on Little Jost Van Dyke. The bequest was contested and may have led to the estate being put up for sale in 1825.
In 1823, it is reported, a quarter of the population of almost 1,500 people of African descent were free. Some even owned slaves themselves. We know of the 25 slaves who were manumitted by Samuel Nottingham in 1776. Apparently, several other Quakers followed suit. In a letter dated April 4, 1791, John C. Lettsom stated, “In giving my slaves their freedom, I acted from an impulse I could not overcome. Those Negroes constituted a decent patrimony; I was injured by my executor, so that when I revisited my native Island I found myself some hundreds in debt. Nevertheless I emancipated my slaves and left myself penniless.”
I recognise that there are many other stories of land ownership here in the territory stemming from the 1800s. The difference between those other stories and ours is that the government in 1961 hijacked our story and our foreparents’ legacy.
In closing, lesson number one for me is that not knowing your history can cost you financially and otherwise. What’s funny is that I have always had an interest in black history, but it was always somewhere else — mainly America and Africa. What I would say to my Virgin Islands family is before we cross the ocean, let’s first know our local history — and not just in general, but specifics about our families if possible.
Most of the hard work has already been done for the East End and Long Look community in the Skelton and Thomas families’ genealogy books. Without these books, I would be lost, and a big piece of the puzzle would still be missing.
I am very thankful to my cousins who did the painstaking work putting these books together. To skip this piece of our history and make the leap across the ocean is a travesty. I learned that on this journey, my foreparents have accomplished much, for which I’m eternally grateful and proud. We stand on their shoulders, and I, for one, can say where I live in Paraquita Bay today would not have been possible without the accomplishments of my parents (Joseph Malone and Alsie Thomas-Malone, in this context); my maternal aunt (Alice Thomas); my uncles (Alfred, Alphonso and Ecedro Thomas); my grandparents (Caesar and Mary Tomar); my great-grandparents (John and Angela Stout-Tomar); my great-great-grandfather (Thomas Stout) and uncle (John Cunningham); and finally my great-great-great-grandparents (Goodluck and Angela Cunningham), who owned 130 acres at Paraquita Bay in 1871. This is black history.