Thanks for those two delightfully descriptive and informative articles on Green Cay
and Sandy Cay, the National Parks Trust’s most recent acquisition, in the June 13 edition. The involvement of experts from the United States Virgin Islands and further afield through the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society provided valuable support to the NPT’s work, but with the withdrawal of the government’s subvention many more of us living in the territory should get involved by reviving the Friends of the NPT (FNPT). Its past activities can be gathered from its old newsletters in the library’s Caribbean Studies Unit, uniting members from home and abroad in support of the NPT’s mission: “To preserve and manage designated natural and cultural areas in order to improve the quality of life” in the VI.
The FNPT could cooperate with the Friends of the National Archives (FONA) and the VI Genealogical Society (VIGS) — two other non-profit organisations already preparing to be launched publicly — in promoting and preserving our national heritage. While FONA has been quietly working in the background for some time, the VIGS is also looking forward to announcing its long-awaited launch soon. The work of all three bodies could help the development of our neglected historic land sites to provide cruise ship passenger with the sorts of shore excursion provided at most Caribbean destinations, but also tap new sources of income from family historians and other visitors interested in specific aspects of our heritage (e.g. Quaker history). These “geneatourists” would come here with the good of the VI uppermost in their minds and have long-term interest in preserving our culture, rather than just visiting us once to notch up yet another exotic destination. Many might bring more than their money, but also gladly share copies of documents from our past perhaps otherwise inaccessible to us. Each village and island in the territory could offer them its own unique product derived from its past and present inhabitants.
The Mormons have microfilmed the Anglican and Methodist church registers on Tortola and are adding the digitised records to those from events overseas, including details of Virgin Islander families living in St. Thomas enumerated in US censuses up until 1940. Genealogy, one of the fastest growing pursuits in the world, has become big business. Ancestry.com, founded by the Mormons and now the world’s largest commercial genealogy company, charters a cruise ship once or twice a year for extended itineraries in different regions of the world, combining shore trips with talks and tips from teams of eminent professional genealogists while the ship is at sea. It was recently bought by a European private equity firm for a cash deal valued at approximately $1.6 billion.
The funeral and death announcements on local radio make us all pause for thought and discussion, reflecting our heritage as a close, caring community. They often remind us how far Virgin Islanders travelled in the past to seek work — and of the many countries in the Caribbean and beyond from which people have in turn been attracted to the VI. Our funerals are a mixture of sadness at the passing of friends and family members and joyous celebrations of their lives, commemorated in funeral booklets full of tributes and photographs displaying the historic intertwining of local families. A few of these are included in a database provided by the University of the Virgin Islands as part of a Caribbean-wide initiative, but the VIGS could liaise with the CSU’s staff in indexing its large collection of booklets for their own benefit and that of their worldwide family members who are appealing online for information.
While our family burial grounds and local cemeteries (both church and public) commemorate the last resting places of our dear departed, many of the older ones are inadequately maintained, or even largely overgrown by bush. Consequently, visiting geneatourists seeking signs of their family origins here have sometimes returned home disappointed. We must be grateful for the zeal and expertise of the North American members of the Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions (advised by a leading local historian) who have surveyed several of our historic burial grounds (http://www.cvexp.org/geneology.html), but we should ourselves be building on their work by clearing our own historic and family graveyards and identifying who lies in them, as much as possible. An admirable example of what can be done has been set by the small group that has cleared and maintained the Old Planters Cemetery in Johnsons Ghut and worked at preserving the Church of the Africans in Kingstown.
The NPT recently announced plans to build a visitors’ centre at the Copper Mine National Park, which a revived FNPT could assist at and promote to geneatourists, as our only example of industrial archaeology and unique to the English-speaking Caribbean. My own Cornish ancestry helped me get in touch with the Cornish Global Migration Programme about it. My contact, who had already visited Mexico and Cuba in a quest for traces of Cornish miners, sent me an article published in Cornwall on the history of the mine by Frank and Margaret Birchall of South Wales, who worked here from 1975-83. It was based on their own observations from 1977-86; accounts by Virgin Islanders; and the copy of a Virgin Gorda Mine cash book/journal, which its Cornish owner sent them for the “British Virgin Islands [Folk?] Museum” (the original is now in other private hands overseas).
Briefly, the Virgin Gorda Mining Company, formed in 1835, sent out from St. Austell, Cornwall “31 men and 5 women miners” who sank the first shaft in 1838 and cut the road from Spanish Town to Copper Point Mine in 1840, but funds ran out and the mine had to be closed in March 1842. It was reopened by the Virgin Gorda Mine Adventure, which shipped out materials, parts and supplies in 1858-59. It purchased the land in November 1861, but mounting losses forced the mine’s closure in May 1862 and copper has not been mined there since. The companies also employed over 136 local workers, including at least 13 masons and carpenters and 55 labourers — as well as 64 women (many of whom broke up the ore for the crusher rolls) and children.
Virgin Gorda members of the FNPT might be responsible for finding locally made products for sale at the visitors’ centre (e.g. jewellery made from local semi-precious stones) and assisting research into the ruins, such as the broken engine beam made by the Perran Foundry in Cornwall in 1836 that the Birchalls saw lying on the beach below the mine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornish_engine). Our “bob” (as the Cornish call the beam) may be the oldest made there to survive anywhere. The site and remains of the foundry are now being converted into upmarket homes named after their original purposes — the first viewings were on June 24 — but it may be possible to find out more about the complete engine and equipment from the company’s archives in the Cornwall Records Office.
FONA members might examine our National Archives for records concerning the mine and undertake paid research for geneatourists (visiting and online), while VIGS members on Virgin Gorda could coordinate oral history interviews regarding family traditions of descent from workers at the mine. Most names in the Birchalls’ article are quite common in Cornwall, so the CGMP would gladly exchange the information on its database about the mine for any identification of the miners to be gleaned from local church records and cemeteries. These include the St. Thomas Bay Cemetery near the government dock, covered in the Island Resources Foundation’s Environmental Profile of Virgin Gorda (2012), which features the most recent survey and recommendations on the Copper Mine (http://j;mp/BVI_VirginGorda).
There is evidence for the mining of silver elsewhere on Virgin Gorda. The NPT might seek the cooperation of the Copper Mine Committee and all three groups of Friends in promoting an international seminar on local family history, the mine and Virgin Gorda’s other mineral resources. This could be accompanied by an examination of the benefits of institutionalising the island’s connections with Cornwall by seeking a town with which to twin, such as St. Austell, through which we could attract more geneatourists from the United Kingdom. Suggestions might come from LIME engineers who took 18-month courses at the Cable & Wireless Engineering School in Porthcurno, Cornwall before it moved away in 1993. The NPT may also gather some interesting ideas for the mine’s visitors’ centre from the web sites of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum and the Poldark Tin Mine, which represent once-thriving industries (www.porthcurno.org.uk and www.poldark-mine.co.uk).