Being a commonwealth or territory is permanent second-class status.
– United States Senator Chris Murphy (D – Connecticut)
A certain Clematius, a man of senatorial rank, who seems to have lived in the Orient before going to Cologne, was led by frequent visions to rebuild in this city, on land belonging to him, a basilica which had fallen into ruins, in honor of the virgins who had suffered martyrdom on that spot.
– Inscription at the Church of St. Ursula (Cologne, Germany)
On Nov. 15, 1960, the Virgin Islands became a colony separate and distinct from the rest of the then British Leeward Islands, which included Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Nevis and Saint Christopher. The entity of the British Leeward Islands was established in 1671. For the majority of its existence its administration fell under the portfolio of the governor of Antigua, and aside from some minor exceptions — Dominica spent 1871 to 1940 as a member — this colonial grouping remained intact for almost 300 years. The formation of the new colony of the VI was therefore something of a big deal.
Historians agree that this defederation enhanced the political powers held locally in the new colony, allowing for infrastructural development where before there was only neglect. It is largely the experience of this new status that led officials to decline the invitation to join the West Indies Federation, believing that they would effectively have been swapping colonial government from Antigua for colonial government from Trinidad. In fact, the desire to determine and direct our own destiny was most clearly stated ten years prior when 1,500 Virgin Islanders marched on the Commissioner’s Office and presented a petition that informed the United Kingdom’s representative that locals had “outgrown that undesirable stage where one official, or an official clique, makes decisions for us.”
So, in 1960, the new colony is formed and it almost immediately adopts a flag. The flag consists of the Union Jack pinned to the upper left of a blue ensign. To the right lies a green shield. Upon this shield, a blonde white woman appears in a white robe clutching a golden lamp that emits a large red flame. The figure is surrounded by 11 more blazing lanterns. She is the iconic representation of Saint Ursula, the Romano-British saint who, legend tells us, was murdered in Cologne by a marauding horde of anonymous Huns alongside her 11,000 virginal handmaidens. Ursula stands above a scroll that bears the Latin inscription “vigilate,” or “be vigilant.” The irony is obvious. You see, Ursula’s legend is a fiction. The lack of historical records to support her existence and martyrdom means that her sainthood and commemoration were removed from Roman Catholic calendars in the late 1960s, but she survives in the Anglican tradition.
So while Catholicism has divorced itself from the Ursula delusion, she remains a prominent figure of ours. I can think of few other jurisdictions with flags that utilise iconography that does not speak to the cultural identities of their people. But despite the abiding presence of this distinctly European fantasy, the motto that lies beneath it is what Virgin Islanders must cling to now more than ever.
The first thing that we must observe is that Ursula’s myth works several different dangerous dynamics at once. While she seems a revolutionary feminist character on par with Joan of Arc, her story, at the time, propped up the maintenance of the patriarchal status quo that both Christianity and Western societies are built upon. Ursula defies her father King Dionotus, who has sent her to France to wed Conan Meriadoc, the pagan British governor of Amorica. Her second defiance of a male guardian is against her betrothed, as she declares her embarkation on a pilgrimage to be completed before marriage. Apparently moved by her piety, even the Pope and other religious leaders in Italy leave to join her on her journey. The massive party arrives in Cologne, which is blockaded by a Hun army. Ursula rebuffs the marriage proposal of the unnamed Hun general and he responds by shooting an arrow through her heart and ordering the beheading of her handmaidens.
Ursula’s fate in the myth serves two distinct purposes that reinforce the colonial realities of this territory. The first is an implicit buttressing of a patriarchy that has at its summit wealthy white British males. Initially, her fierce independence in facing and defying these three men is admirable, but the penalty she pays for that appearance of agency is a brutal one.
The second purpose the legend performs is the nameless othering of the Huns as a horde of indistinguishable barbarians. It is the Hun leader who is unable to allow Ursula to continue to live after her perceived insult as opposed to the civility shown in the silences of Dionotus and Meriadoc. At once, those two Britons are elevated as civilised and sophisticated members of the patriarchal colonial hierarchy who are able to allow Ursula her religious fancy in the knowledge that she must return and ultimately submit to their will. However, it is the savage and primitive Other who, while he recognises Ursula’s beauty — which is a discussion in itself when taking artistic representations of the legend into account — can only revert to his apparently innate barbaric nature when he is rebuffed.
If this flag, and this far away long ago legend which is emblazoned on it, is what symbolises Virgin Islander identity, then we are duty bound to remain vigilant and to unpack what the verbal and visual language that was present at our inception as a distinct political entity might entail. If we are indeed Ursula and her virgins, what does that say about our expected fate? At what point in our pilgrimage are we? Can we expect a bloody end if we ever depart our British stewards?
Flag included, we continue to collect all the markers now expected of a nation state, and because of this we often fool ourselves that we are citizens of a country, that we have some real stake in the land that our ancestors were brought to in shackles. Those shackles have not disappeared: They have merely been transformed into mystical, psychological and existential ones. We are not — and have never been — inheritors of these lands, and that is not so much a tragedy as a by-product of the great crime of the British Colonial Empire, an enterprise which still lives and breathes in all of its overseas territories. In this place, we have to perform a sort of theatre of democracy. We have political parties, but no political ideologies. We clamour for transparent government and an end to nepotistic administrations but allow political entities to operate without divulging their funding and district representatives to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars without checks and balances. And we hold elections to elect a government that British power can immediately sweep aside. What Virgin Islanders know by these facts is that the land they inhabit — the land in which they were born, the land in which they and their ancestors have laboured — is not theirs. This is a truth we know in the depths of our beings, and it is a truth that we spend our lifetimes attempting to forget.
You see, the price of the ownership of these rocks has long been paid in sweat, in actual unimagined blood, in an unwavering devotion to the eternal struggle carving out a space here for our bodies, for our spirits, for our histories. But for many others, the ownership of people does not create the expected conflict of spirit. British slave-owners received reparations as they returned to the British Isles, while those formerly in their possession largely received nothing. Those reparations were the equivalent of up to £300 billion of today’s money, which the government at the time had to borrow from Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore. In fact, up to 2015, every taxpaying British citizen was helping the British government repay that loan that purchased enslaved people from their captors. Mr. Rothshild was one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time, and along with his brother-in-law Mr. Montefiore personally financed the British government’s buyout of enslaved peoples from plantation owners for a price that was approximately 40 percent of the government’s annual income. The size of the figure, and the impracticality of paying it back to the Rothschilds, meant that the payments dragged on for the next 180 years.
But while that particularly British legacy of monetising the subjugated bodies of the black and brown colonial subject is rich in the minds of those of us who have sprouted from the varied soils of the Empire, that legacy is transformed in the minds of those who have most enriched themselves from it into an act of some sort of perverse benevolence.
This school of thought posits the ambivalent position towards slavery and colonialism, that the moral scales must weigh all the good that the Empire has done, first by bringing so many souls to Christianity, and then by providing the frameworks of education, law and ultimately democracy. We must understand, then, that when these equivocations are presented within the context of the conversation, what is really being said is that despite all the crimes against the colonised — the genocide, the enslavement, the destruction of societies and cultures, the underdevelopment of lands and the plunder of wealth that continues unabated — all of these are balanced out because they have civilised us. As former UK Prime Minister David Cameron had the audacity to say within the halls of Jamaica’s parliament as he rejected the legitimacy of any conversation about reparations, “It is my hope that as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” But how can we build anything when this legacy continues to enrich those who have perpetrated the crime? How can we move on when the bodies littering the former colonies have not yet been eulogised, have not yet received their justice?
We know what future the apologists of colonialism seek, as it looks dreadfully similar to our past. Jason Hickel, a professor at the London School of Economics and one of the world’s preeminent scholars on global inequality, articulates just how prevalent these worldviews are in an essay for the British current affairs magazine Prospect which thrusts the hypocrisy of the way Britain views its colonial past against its disdain for Nazism. We live in an age almost 200 years removed from the abolition of slavery where most Britons do not view the mechanism that created it negatively.
We live in an age this long after the abolition of slavery where we still cannot have a conversation about reparations for the descendants of the enslaved despite the fact that reparations for the enslavers have created immense generational wealth. How can this be? The answer is simply that even today, the way Britain conceives of its colonial past, even as it acknowledges the moral wrongness of slavery, rests on a foundation of white supremacy. This foundation is continually exposed by characters like UK politician Nigel Farage and Brexit; by the murder of black and brown people by British police; by Mr. Cameron’s insults in Jamaican parliament; and by the maintenance of colonial lands as overseas territories.
In fact, many figures on the British right actively proclaim the benefits of colonialism — the good work of the Empire civilising and building infrastructure in faraway lands for the advantage of the subjects of each jurisdiction. But ultimately, the argument must fall flat. Infrastructure meant for the extraction of wealth — be it tea, spices, sugar, minerals or any other precious resources — cannot now be transformed into infrastructure that was meant to be beneficial to the people who lived in those subjugated countries.
Furthermore, the infrastructure argument might gain some currency were infrastructure not so obviously missing in all the countries that were too small to produce wealth on the scales demanded by the metropole.
In the VI, for example, not so much as roads were cut to connect the various villages on each island until the first chief minister, H. Lavity Stoutt, spearheaded the construction of Waterfront Drive in the late 1960s. The UK did not so much as build schools, ports or any of the other basic infrastructural and human needs of any society.
The eagerness to contextualise colonialism as having the remotest humanitarian aspect surely fails when we factor in the apathy held towards the remaining colonial territories like the VI — which is continually demonstrated from the sitting government and parliament — and historical atrocities such as the 1919 Amritsar Massacre in India, where British soldiers murdered 1,000 Punjabi Sikhs returning from a new year festival, or the military response to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s in Kenya, which resulted in over 20,000 dead and almost half a million in concentration camps.
The way forward
I do not mean here to create some sort of equivalency or measure by which to appeal to any sentimental reaction to the political situation that the overseas territories find themselves in. I do not subscribe to a narrative of subjugation or victimisation as a platform from which to argue for self-determination.
The islands may very well remain aligned with Britain pending a constitutional review that devolves further powers to the people who live on them. Good people will have to deeply consider what a future with or without the UK will look like.
Before, the clamour of voices shouted that remaining a dependency granted us certain protections and insurances. For example, what if there were to be some major disaster?
Others point to inefficiencies and incompetence of specific politicians or specific political parties as obstacles while remaining ignorant of the multitudinous scandals and abuse in British politics. They ask: If we were independent what would come of us?
On Sept. 6, 2017, Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, smashed into the VI, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, St. Maarten, St. Martin and Barbuda. That storm was quickly followed by Hurricane Maria, which struck Dominica before making its way over St. Croix and then devastating Puerto Rico.
To date, the British government has given about $83 million in aid to the region, some $17 million of which came to the VI. The estimated cost of the damage wrought by Irma was in the billions. British law deemed the VI too wealthy to receive any more aid than that.
What would come of us if we were on our own?
The ability of the territory to recover from Irma rests on its two economic pillars: tourism and financial services. With tourism dependent on an infrastructure that has been severely hobbled, though recovering, and tourism being a relatively volatile industry, revenue from that direction cannot be relied upon in the short term.
All of our bets have been placed by necessity on the much-maligned financial services industry, which, to be fair, has outperformed expectations. But we have also learned all too clearly exactly where we stand in the British political mechanism.
On May 1, 2018, the British government accepted an amendment to a Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that would effectively force all British overseas territories to implement public registers of beneficial ownership in their financial services sectors.
The same mandate would not be required of the City of London, nor would the bill’s sponsors be campaigning similarly in the numerous jurisdictions in Europe and North America to make this new rule a global standard.
Most leaders of overseas territories reacted strongly to what they see as a constitutional overreach by the UK. Locally, thousands attended a protest march through the streets of Road Town that ended at the Governor’s Office.
Two weeks later, the governor released a video reminding residents of the support received from the UK following Irma. This support included 107 tonnes of material aid, the aforementioned $17 million in grants, and a loan guarantee of up to about $400 million. The cost is in the billions. In May, the major cruise lines, Disney and Norwegian, were still not ready to put the VI back on their itineraries. Many hotels and businesses were levelled and will not be rebuilt.
A year on, the outlook is more hopeful. The Virgin Gorda resorts are rebuilding, and the promise of hospitality jobs beckons.
As new stewards take their turn to steer the direction of the territory, we must remember our whole history and the many developments that have propelled the VI and its people to this critical moment.
More and more, we are beginning to realise that the status quo, both in terms of our local politics and our relationship with Britain, has not worked as it should and is no longer sustainable.
With each passing week, the islands are inching towards a new awareness, towards a compulsion to do something different, to be brave, to make something new out of the wreckage of the trauma. I hope that you feel that compulsion as I do.