On Aug. 26, 1854, the United Kingdom government replaced the Virgin Islands’ House of Assembly with a Legislative Council of only nine members following the Cattle Tax Riots (as recounted in my June 15 commentary “Taxes and death: a cautionary tale”). Then three natural disasters that struck the colony in 1867 in quick succession resulted in its complete loss of representative government.
The hurricane that wrecked the Royal Mail Steam Packet Rhone off Salt Island on Oct. 28, 1867 devastated the VI. According to VI President Sir Arthur Carlos Henry Rumbold’s official report to Governor Hill in Antigua on Nov. 12, 1867, it resulted in 37 deaths: 23 in Road Town, six elsewhere on Tortola, six in Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, and two on Peter Island.
In Road Town, 60 of 123 houses were totally destroyed. Of the rest, 23 were severely damaged and 39 were partially damaged, with the only other remaining country residence on Joes Hill. All the public buildings were destroyed except one that was rented.
Elsewhere on Tortola, most houses of the labouring classes and all the sugar works except two were swept away.
On Jost Van Dyke, 25 houses were destroyed, but Anegada escaped except for “tales of woe,” according to the letter. On Virgin Gorda, 100 houses were destroyed, and no boat was available to send it supplies. The scripture reader was the only resident magistrate there.
Crops were blighted and nature was like winter in the tropics, with trees and vegetation withered (like the VI after Hurricane Irma).
Sir Arthur had hoped to visit the other islands when the government ship arrived back from St. Thomas, but urgent business had kept him in Road Town. He was greatly helped by Colonial Secretary George H. Porter, but the other officials were too old and infirm to be of use, according to his letter.
On Nov. 18, 1867, the colony suffered a massive earthquake, followed by a deadly tsunami, news of which reached England via the transatlantic cable telegraph the same day. A headline in The Liverpool Daily Post dramatically announced “the submersion of Tortola, … the most important of the British Virgin Islands.”
On Feb. 25, 1868, The New York Times reported that Sir Arthur was taking his wife’s remains to her family in France. She had died after the storm had given her a “shock to the system” (from a heart attack perhaps?). During his absence, the colony was being administered by Mr. Porter.
Sir Arthur soon followed his wife in death. The next year, on Nov. 30, 1869, the High Court of Chancery instructed a London firm of solicitors to insert a notice in the (London) Times concerning the estate of “Sir Carlo Arthur Henry Rumbold; President of the British Virgin Islands, commonly called Sir Arthur Rumbold,” who had died on June 12, 1869 on St. Thomas.
In my research, the first reference to “the British Virgin Islands” that I had seen prior to the United States VI’s Transfer Day was to a notice regarding the death on Tortola of the wife of an earlier president.
In 1871, a single federal colony of all the Leeward Islands was created, without a VI seat at this assembly. The local VI legislature and council were abolished (neither had met for years). The Legislative Council was reconstituted into an assembly of three official members and three appointed members, with none elected.