Last month, one of the Virgin Islands’ most valuable maritime artefacts was apparently hauled away and destroyed with no discussion, highlighting the need for the territory to enact stronger protections for its heritage.

For years, the historic 1880s VI sloop Vigilant — which some believe was the oldest wooden boat of its kind in the region — had been displayed next to the Maritime Museum at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College.

Though it had sustained damage over time and was no longer seaworthy, it was irreplaceable, and efforts to restore it had been ongoing both before and after Hurricane Irma.

To trash the boat at this stage was unconscionable. HLSCC, whose logo in fact features a VI sloop, should be leading the way when it comes to historical preservation — and in the past it has done so, not least through initiatives like the Maritime Museum’s boat exhibits and restoration projects.

Clearly, something went very wrong. It was good to hear HLSCC President Dr. Janet Smith condemn the destruction of the sloop, which she blamed on former VI Studies Institute Director Dr. Angel Smith, who after Irma has been leading the campus cleanup and who declined to discuss the decision.

Moving forward, the college should take substantive steps, including a specific protocol to ensure that other cultural artefacts under its protection will be secure, and it should explain these measures clearly in order to reassure the public that its responsibilities in this area will be fulfilled.

The destruction of the boat also reinforces the urgency of enacting dedicated legislation and comprehensive systems to safeguard the territory’s cultural heritage. The current protections — mostly a few weak provisions in the 2004 Physical Planning Act— leave heritage sites and historical artefacts dramatically exposed.

We understand that the hurricane cleanup process has presented unprecedented difficulties, but the destruction of the boat was a major mistake at a time when leaders have been promising to include preservation initiatives in their efforts to build back the territory stronger than it was before.

Many of the proudest chapters in VI history have been lost to centuries of colonialism. The territory simply cannot afford to discard what remains.


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