A playwright stated in 1716, “’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but death and taxes.” However, participants in the 1949 Great March in the Virgin Islands couldn’t have foreseen that one day most VI taxpayers would have no say in how their government’s revenue would be raised and spent.
The territory’s modern prosperity is largely based on the skills and land of what VI historian Dr. Norwell Harrigan called a “truly indigenous Virgin Islands society, founded as a result of a violent confrontation between the white rulers and black labourers.”
Most belongers born in the VI inherit land on which their families own their own homes. Many also profit from renting property to government, firms and private tenants who are mostly voteless, landless expatriates with whom they share their ancestry.
Labourers expected their conditions to improve after apprenticeship ended in 1838. Many families worked hard to develop their own plots of land and sold their surplus crops, poultry and livestock in the market. Some acquired land at low prices to expand their smallholdings into farms large enough to make cattle-rearing a profitable proposition.
However, a downturn in the economy followed years of drought, and many landowners were deeply indebted to the bank, so they laid off workers despite them being poorly paid. So in 1840 the House of Assembly tapped this new source of income by imposing a tax on cattle. Then in June 1853 it passed an act that increased the cattle tax by 50 percent to fund some capital projects.
Cattle-owners viewed the new act as both crippling financially and an attempt to re-impose tighter controls over their lives. An initially peaceful protest, symbolically held on Aug. 1, left one leader incarcerated. Denied his release, the protestors marched back up Main Street, threatening to return with many more protesters from the countryside. The next morning, nearly 2,000 men, women and children — about half Tortola’s population — marched into town.
After one protester was shot and killed by an armed constable, the crowds torched most of Road Town and many houses throughout Tortola. Nearly all the white residents fled to St. Thomas, including every government official except President John Chads. Thirty Danish soldiers were sent to restore order.
No white inhabitant was killed during the riots, but four male and three female prisoners were sentenced to death for setting fire to a house while it was occupied. Some protesters had claimed to model their actions on the Haitian Revolution, so Aug. 1, 1853 presented a warning of what might happen if the government neglected its people’s views.
The British government agreed to help the colony recover from the riots provided that the House of Assembly be replaced by a Legislative Council of only nine members. Chad believed that many white refugees would never return permanently from St. Thomas.
The trials of prisoners accused of citing the Cattle Tax riots in Aug. 2-3, 1853, were reported in the St. Croix Avis under the heading “News from the British Virgin Islands,” as the VI was popularly known.
Mr. Chads had barricaded himself inside Government House for a week until a British naval officer from a warship carrying soldiers from Antigua persuaded him he was safe. He never fully recovered from his ordeal. The London Times announced the death on Feb. 28, 1854 of Colonel John Chads, “President of the British Virgin Islands.”
It has been said that thereafter the legislature tried not to tax residents beyond people’s means.
The VI’s white electorate had taken the black labourers’ docility for granted.
Today, belongers expecting the UK to grant them greater autonomy if they pay mere lip service to the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations are due a rude awakening. A new Constitution must provide long-term expatriates with a transparent path to belongership
Successive administrations have sought to find new ways of taxing expatriate workers. The National Unity Government has announced its intention to replace the controversial seven percent tax on remittances, but it should review all its sources of revenue with a view to abolishing taxes deemed to be discriminatory
The belonger-based government must appeal to long-term expatriates for help out of our crisis, but what might be the last straw for dependence on their goodwill? The refusal of friendly medical companies in St. Thomas to accept payments by the National Health Insurance card until huge past debts have been cleared, perhaps?
Politicians’ disinterest in the people’s welfare is highlighted by arc lights unquestioningly blazing over an empty Greenland sports field for months while families are struggling to meet soaring fuel costs. Is somebody being paid for controlling them manually?