I described in my Aug. 30 commentary, “A VI wedding and Captain Wagner,” how an amusing incident after my wedding on Tortola in 1983 led me to discover my Virgin Islands family links with the family of Polish captain Wladek Wagner — nearly 30 years later.

After my wedding, I encountered bewilderingly complex family relationships that knowledgeable Virgin Islanders could easily explain. Even my attempts to construct a Penn family tree could not include god-sisters or compadres. It was not until I’d learnt to study funeral booklets celebrating a person’s life that I began to appreciate their connections with their survivors and those who had already passed.

Added to that mix were the familial ties that bridged the different allegiances between the citizens of the United Kingdom and United States, a relationship which had been largely driven by Tortola’s historic economic dependence on St. Thomas. I could not remember as a child ever querying why VI stamps depicting the British monarch’s head were denominated in US currency.

Peter Bailey

My best man, Peter Bailey, prepared me for the wedding day and steered me through my encounters with my new environment. We became lifelong friends. Peter welcomed an addition to the mixed marriages on Tortola of Methodist and Anglican spouses. He was a member of the East End Methodist Church and well-known to Carris and “Clo” Penn, my parents-in-law.

Peter managed the rental properties on Great Camanoe. An outboard motor powered his boat to the small island’s landing stage. (Nearby was the A-framed unsupervised lending library, where residents and visitors could exchange paperbacks for those left by previous users.) Then he deftly kept his jeep’s wheels on the parallel strips of concrete that wound uphill along the dirt roads to meet his family.

Parents-in-law

My parents-in-laws’ ancestors were free British citizens long before my German grandfather was naturalised in the late 1800s.

Clo, a Potter by birth, was descended from the Long Look Nottinghams whom Quaker plantation owners had manumitted before returning to England just prior to the American Revolution. They worshipped at the original East End Methodist chapel on Chapel Hill, which was built in 1810.

After Carris’s forebears ended their post-emancipation apprenticeship on Camanoe, its estate owner, Benjamin Penn, returned to England, leaving them to protect a small indigo farm and other cash crops from herds of feral goats. However, they acquired land on East End, Tortola, where they prospered from fishing and boatbuilding.

They didn’t encourage me to drive up the dauntingly steep, narrow roads until I was more familiar with them, so most Sundays I was driven to St. George’s in Road Town, the nearest active Anglican church, passing the ruin of St. Philip’s on the way and being greeted by an Anglican set of Penn cousins who were established as merchants in more urban professions.

Family compound

Before the wedding, Carris kept me occupied with useful pastimes like breaking the outer husks off coconuts by hitting them on the concrete with a block of wood. I thought that there must have been an easier way to do this, because it had always been done for me in Malawi. Carris must have thought it safer for his son-in-law to strain his arm muscles than be shown how to wield a cutlass on a coconut.

After our honeymoon on another island, Virgin Gorda, I was introduced to life on our family compound on Chapel Hill, East End, nearly opposite East End Methodist Church. Almost every bit of the concrete drive between the old single-storey family home and its three-storey successor was covered with pots of flowering plants (I was told that those with variegated leaves were called crotons). How Clo loved her plants!

Fruit ‘alien to me’

I recognised some fruit growing in the front garden, like pomegranates, but trees with familiar English names bore fruit quite alien to me. The only quality that gooseberries shared with the fruit of an English gooseberry bush was that they were more palatable after being stewed with sugar.

I learnt to ignore the small green balls around a large tree that concealed a tree house in its spreading branches. They had only a little flesh around the kernel and puckered my mouth horribly.

Sometimes, I awoke to loud conversations between people out of sight from me. Somebody in one or two houses above the hill behind us would be hailing passers-by on the road below, hidden behind some self-sown kapok trees whose ancestors would have been cultivated for their cotton. I could not understand what they were saying, but I was amazed at their sharpness of sight and hearing.

Trellis Bay book

Nearly 30 years later, I told Doug Wheatley that Mabel Wagner’s book Lest I Forget was available on Tortola from Aragon’s Studio at Trellis Bay, or by post from the author in Winter Park, Florida — preferably in batches of five, packed in used cereal boxes, to keep within US postal weight regulations and lower mailing charges (remarkably astute considerations for a widow in her 90s).

Her book’s flyer described it as the story of Wladek and Mabel Wagner, whose plan in 1948 to sail to Australia had to be changed after her unforeseen pregnancy, which ultimately brought them to the VI. The young couple chose to make their home with their new baby daughter on beautiful, remote, uninhabited Trellis Bay, after being “lured by the magical beauty and unspoiled charm of the BVI.”

Postscript

A typo in my Aug. 31 commentary disguised the real reasons for us celebrating the life of Douglas Wheatley’s father, the late Willard Wheatley. After entering politics, he rose from being East End’s school teacher to being appointed the second chief minister of the VI (after H. Lavity Stoutt) and the first minister of finance. He led two successive administrations composed of two different coalition governments, from 1971 to 1979.

To continue “The Wagners of Trellis Bay,” click here.

To start from the beginning, click here.