A few months ago, I wrote a commentary in which I suggested that three generations of Virgin Islanders would have seen our relationship with the United Kingdom from different perspectives. The perspective of my generation would not have varied significantly from that of my parents. However, the perspective of my children’s generation would be very different from that of mine. That difference is not surprising, because the children of my generation had a completely different experience of colonialism.
In my early adult years, Tortola and the other islands were still secluded from the rest of the world. As a matter of fact, the eastern end of Tortola was cut off from the central and western areas. There were no motorable roads, and travel was by foot, horseback or boat, so social interaction between villages was limited. As a result, outside influence, even within villages, was limited.
One might imagine that even more so, we were sheltered from foreign influence. Being sheltered from the outside world means that we were sheltered from the seamier side of colonialism. Our history books presented a sanitised version of the expansion of the British Empire. We knew more about the work of the abolitionists than we knew about the horrors of the Middle Passage slave route from Africa to America and the Caribbean.
In addition, we were not sensitised so much to what is now regarded as benign neglect by the British government as we were to the need to work hard and live by Christian principles.
‘I lived it’
This for me is not hearsay. I lived it. It was an English Methodist minister, Rev. John Mitchell, who advocated for me with the government of the day, and I was sent to Antigua in 1964 to complete the sixth form. The government was building its social infrastructure, literally one brick at a time. They could only afford to pay my board and lodging, my airfare, and my school fees. They didn’t give me an allowance and my parents couldn’t afford to give me one.
So I have some first-hand knowledge of how the local government worked to build and modernise the social infrastructure of the colony, notwithstanding the neglect of the British government. And for me, it created no feeling of resentment against the British government. The need to work hard and trust God didn’t have anything to do with the British government. We did what we had to do.
Learning to love
I do not regret that I had that experience first, because it is better to love than to hate. In my experience, learning to love in your formative years is a process which cannot be reversed. This does not mean that I am unable to empathise with the younger generations who do not feel as I do. They are responding to a vicarious experience of colonialism — capitalism and slavery — to which I was not exposed in my formative years. Someone like myself may be referred to as Uncle Tom. The truth is that I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in my teenage years, and the most lasting impression was made by Uncle Tom’s capacity for forgiveness. My Christian faith tells me that there is nothing wrong with that.
Nevertheless, I can understand the resentment which may be felt by the younger generations. They were exposed to the stark reality of capitalism and slavery as it has been expressed in black literature, through courses in black universities and colleges in the United States, and in films. It should not be a surprise that they would assert their God-given right to emancipation from mental slavery. However, the expression of that right, which I endorse, need not undermine mutual respect between the Virgin Islands and the UK.
The coming of the unfortunate Commission of Inquiry has highlighted different perceptions of our relationship with the UK. It has created a degree of confusion which we cannot afford at this time in our development.
So it is important for Virgin Islanders to take a step back and get a proper perspective on what has been done to us.