Last updated 6/6/2017 19:37

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Anguilla celebrates its 50th anniversary

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By Jenny Webb

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Anguilla which released the island from the statehood of St Kitts, Nevis & Anguilla and started its transition to status as an Overseas Territory.

Anguilla before the Revolution

Anguillians had been tied to St Kitts since 1825 when St Kitts became the governing island and Anguilla was represented by a single person in the House of Assembly. Islanders had long been unhappy with their legislative association with St Kitts and petitions for dissolution of the union were sent to Queen Victoria in 1871 and in 1958 to the Governor of the Leeward Islands asking for the independence of the island. Both petitions failed and worse still, the ties became stronger with the establishment of the Associated State of St Kitts, Nevis & Anguilla in 1967 following the failure of the West Indies Federation.

Anguillians did not support the Labour Government of Robert Bradshaw and he in turn threatened to ‘put bones in their rice and pepper in their soup’. Inadequate representation of Anguilla in the St Kitts Government severely hindered their ability to gain support for any improvements on the island. Before the revolution, Anguilla had no industries, no electricity, no water, no sanitation, insufficient school places, poor communications, poor roads, poor transport and few cars. Children from Island Harbour walked over two miles to get to the East End school each day.

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Family of Atlin Harrigan

Atlin Harrigan had spent time in the US Virgin Islands. He was fully aware of the poor conditions for the Anguillians compared to other countries. He had been a regular correspondent to the Democrat newspaper in St Kitts but it was his letter published on 6th August 1966 which stoked the fire for the revolution which was to follow. In it he described the state of the island. Schools were severely overcrowded, there was no fire truck and the only police van arrived just prior to the election. The airport was in poor repair and money promised to Anguilla never materialised. He encouraged the islanders who had not supported the Bradshaw Government to rise up in protest and once again petition the Secretary of State for the Colonies to allow Anguilla to remain colonial.  

Fellow leader of the revolution (James) Ronald Webster had grown up in Anguilla but was sent as a young man to St Maarten to work on a farm. The couple who owned the farm died childless and he had returned to Anguilla a wealthy man having inherited the property. He too had seen how life could be and on his return to Anguilla had offered to make improvements from his own pocket but his efforts were blocked by the St Kitts administration.

Anguilla 1967

Statehood was brought in on 27th February 1967 but the Anguillians protested against this new union, marching with a coffin draped in black and labelled ‘Statehood is Dead’. The planned celebratory raising of the state flag at midnight was replaced by a low-key ceremony at Government House at dawn. In the subsequent weeks, the St Kitts police on the island became the main target for the rebels and on 29th May, Wallace Rey led a public meeting which voted for the removal of the St Kitts Police. Peter Adams (Anguilla’s representative in the St Kitts Assembly), Atlin Harrigan and Ronald Webster with the crowd following, went to the Police Station where Peter Adams informed the Superintendent that the Police must leave Anguilla by 10am the following day.  

On the morning of 30th May an angry crowd gathered at the Police Station but the 10am deadline passed without movement. At the airport, gunmen had arrived and construction workers had been encouraged to move heavy equipment onto the runway to stop planes carrying reinforcements from landing. Sure enough a LIAT plane appeared and was prevented from landing when Wallace Rey drove his yellow pick-up into its path. With the police still on the island, the rebels cut power to the police station to prevent communication with St Kitts. It was clear the rebels were going to see it through and by 5:45pm all police had been removed from the island. All weapons had been removed and kept by the revolutionaries.

Anguilla quickly established an interim peace-keeping committee, comprising 15 citizens including Walter Hodge (Chairman), Atlin Harrigan, Ronald Webster, Wallace Rey and Emile Gumbs. The following day a delegation travelled to St Kitts and presented Governor Fred Phillips with a document requesting the start of processes to allow the separation of Anguilla from St Kitts. The response from St Kitts was to request that Anguillians put down their arms and return to a state of law and order under which the islanders could ‘properly exercise their constitutional right to pursue their wishes in a democratic and peaceful manner’.

The St Kitts Government did not recognise the island’s new administration and the threat of attack from St Kitts remained a risk for the islanders. In order to pre-empt any action from the governing island an attack on St Kitts was planned which if successful, could have also deposed Bradshaw, replacing him with Dr. William V. Herbert Jr, St Kitts Lawyer and leader of the People’s Action Movement (the main opposition party). The attack was not successful and resulted in the jailing of five rebels who later escaped back to Anguilla while on bail facing further charges.

In response, the St Kitts Government requested support from the British Governments and other Caribbean nations. In turn they negotiated with the Anguillian peacekeeping committee for a delegation to open talks on St Kitts to find resolution. None of the Government’s proposals permitted their separation from St Kitts and were therefore rejected by the Anguillian negotiators. Subsequently Anguilla voted 1813 to 5 in favour of secession. Walter Hodge sent a telegram to the British, the USA and the United Nations stating

‘Overwhelming referendum confirms absolute and final independence from the Federation of St Kitts, Nevis & Anguilla. This leaves no legal ties with the crown. We wish to explore status of Associated State or other arrangement of freedom and legal autonomy within the Commonwealth.’

At the same time a constitution was put in place which had been drafted by Harvard Law Professor, Roger Fisher and the peacekeeping committee ceded to a new Anguilla Council.

Further diplomatic efforts by Caribbean nations took place in late July and were initially rejected by the Anguillians earning them a stern warning from the British Government representative in attendance. After further deliberations, a proposal giving the island greater autonomy within the state of St Kitts, Nevis & Anguilla was signed by some of the Anguillian delegation including Peter Adams the only Anguillian member of the St Kitts Assembly. The delegates returned to an angry crowd and it was clear that the new agreement would need to be enforced. Caribbean peace-keeping forces were unwilling to support the use of force against the Anguillian people. Further meetings failed to resolve the situation and the agreement was never activated. Those responsible for signing the agreement were deposed and Ronald Webster made leader.

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Mural at Anguilla airport

Anguilla 1967-1969

In late 1967, an agreement between St Kitts and Anguilla allowed a British Official, Tony Lee administrative authority in conjunction with the Anguilla Council for one year. He arrived on 8th January 1968 and left on 9th January 1969 with no further progress. On 2nd February 1969 a second referendum voted 1739 to 4 against returning to Administration from St Kitts. The island announced it would become a republic.  

In March 1969, the British Government sent Willliam Whitlock with new proposals for Tony Lee to remain in administrative charge of the island as a Commissioner appointed by Her Majesty the Queen. He was met by the leaders who had planned events including a state dinner in his honour but he snubbed them and all their arrangements. Ronald Webster set out to confront Whitlock for his poor attitude towards the elected leadership. When Whitlock treated Webster with the same contempt in his response, he was forced to flee the island pursued by armed men. On his return to the UK, the British Government were been given cause to doubt Lee’s suitability when Whitlock reported to Harold Wilson that Lee was volatile and unlikely to last long in the job.

Following Whitlock’s unceremonious removal from the island, the British initiated Operation Sheepskin. Almost 400 paratroopers, marines and a small group of Metropolitan Police arrived on the island at dawn on 19th March 1969 and were met by only a barrage of press.

At the same time leaflets were dropped promising that the invading troops were there only to ensure the peaceful installation of Tony Lee as Commissioner and a return to peace and stability. His new wide-sweeping powers set him on a course against the Anguillian people. In the British Government and in the British press, questions were raised about the legality of the invasion.  As tensions grew, his position became untenable and he was removed from the island. His successor John Cumber was sworn in on 20th April 1969 and quickly set about forming good relationships with the Anguillian people and their leaders and representatives.

By the end of 1969, Engineers from the British Army had been brought in to build roads and put in electricity and water. They built a new school in Island Harbour.

Post Revolution & Present day Anguilla

Without doubt the bravery of the islanders in taking themselves into the unknown in the hope of a better future is a mark of the people of Anguilla. It was a further eleven years of uncertainty before they dissociated from St Kitts and Nevis and became a British Overseas (Dependent) Territory.

In that time the island has established itself as a high class tourist destination with tourism contributing to 21% of GDP in 2014, also contributing to GDP from other sectors such as construction. With limited resources, the country is heavily dependent on the sector but a recent paper presented at the Anguilla Country Conference by Dr Aidan Harrigan, permanent secretary of finance and Ms Gina Brooks, Tourism Planner for the Government of Anguilla looked at ways of making tourism sustainable in the face of finite resources. How the impact on the island’s ecology could be minimised and the establishment of a new national park at Cove Bay, in addition to the existing Fountain National Park could also become tourist attractions.

One of the biggest barriers to tourism is accessibility. The island needs an extension to the runway and a jetty where small cruise ships could moor. Negotiations are ongoing but private sector finance would demand a significant return from an Anguillian Government which has been slow in recovery from the recession which started in 2008.

Whilst Europe is 4000 miles away, the impact of Brexit will be hard-felt. The island received €11.7 million between 2008-2013 to support its medium-term economic strategy, additional funding from the European Development Fund for sustainable energy and marine biodiversity and support for SMEs. Between 2014-2020 it’s predicted they will receive a further €14 million from the EDF.

In addition to this there will be impact on the free movement of people and goods between British Anguilla and the nearby French/Dutch island of Sint Martin (St Maarten). Many families are split between the two islands because of the availability of work and affordable housing on the latter. Whilst at the present time, the free movement of people between the two is allowed, it is not yet known whether this will continue to be the case once the UK leaves Europe.

Furthermore, European Funding is key in conservation research and funds have contributed to the Sea Turtle Monitoring programme run by the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources (Government of Anguilla) and the Anguilla National Trust.

Anguilla Day Celebrations

Anniversary celebrations are in full swing and the weekend started with a Children’s Parade with children dressed in the national colours - orange to represent endurance, white denoting peace and tranquillity, with turquoise blue depicting the sand and the sea.

A special play has been written called ‘Pepper in Dey Soup’ (the words of Robert Bradshaw) written by islander Felix Fleming and performed by local people which marks the events of the revolution.

This year will see the appointment of an Honorary Man and Woman who reach the age of 50 years this year and there will be memories from people who were children at that time. There will be an extra day’s holiday with a parade and Anguilla 50 concert in addition to the annual boat race.

Friends of the British Overseas Territories would like to wish Anguilla a very Happy 50th Anniversary.


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