Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Hallowed Ground

You stand tonight on sacred ground.  The British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean are hallowed ground for those of us who are native to these lands.  I invite those of you who are not so fortunate as to have been born among us to join me in that conviction.
We may be small in land mass, and miniscule in population compared with others.  But, the blood of great men and women flows undiminished in our veins.  Their indomitable spirit, honed through centuries of adversity and achievement, fashions our will to overcome and to accomplish.  We can trace some of this character through the achievements of the great and the good who once walked among us, and through the suffering and survival of those of our ancestors who once trod these special lands.  We are an integral part of the West Indian Civilization.
The Virgin Islands.  British Virgin Islanders have always been noted for their enterprise and achievement.  During the eighteenth century, the Medical Society of London was the premier medical institution in the United Kingdom.  I wonder how many of us remember that that Society was founded by a native British Virgin Islander.  Dr John Lettsom was born on Little Jost Van Dyke, not a stone’s throw from where we sit tonight.  He later earned the right to be appointed surgeon to the King.  He was the premier surgeon of his day, master of the latest medical techniques.  Of him it was said, 
“I, John Lettsom,
Blisters, bleeds, and sweats ‘em.
If after that, they choose to die,
I, John, lets ‘em”
There have been other noted Virgin Islanders, who have distinguished themselves in quite a different way.  One of these was the Hon Arthur Hodge of Tortola.  In the year 1811, he was a member of the Assembly, and of the Council of the British Virgin Islands.  He was, in his day, one of the wealthiest and most powerful sugar planters and slave-holders of this territory.
To his annoyance, his mangoes were at risk.  Not from theft, no one would be so bold as to attempt that.  They were at risk from the elements.  The wind was dashing those of them that were ripe to the ground, bruising the fruit.  So, he set his slave Prosper the task to guard them.
Hodge, in his later defence, testified that he had warned Prosper what would happen if he should fail.  His tongue-lashing had no effect.  Prosper missed the catch when one of the fruit fell from its branch to the ground.  Hodge was livid.  He would show these lazy good-for-nothings the need to be diligent at their tasks.  He ordered Prosper to be lashed.  This was no ordinary lashing.  He had Prosper lashed until his back was flayed.  Then, he flung him into the estate punishment cell without medical attention.  Prosper’s wounds festered, and he died several days later.
Such punishment, was not exceptional, for the time.  It was normal in the Navy, in the Prisons, and on the sugar estates.  However, on this occasion, it was considered by the authorities to have been inflicted in circumstances of extreme triviality.  After much dithering and hesitation, the Hon Arthur Hodge was brought to trial on a charge of murder before a jury of his peers.  No doubt, this was as a result of excessive pressure being brought to bear from London – something that, I am pleased to say, you will not yourselves be familiar with.
The trial was of interest to the plantocracy of the region for an unusual feature that it possessed.  The witnesses at the trial were all slaves belonging to the accused.  The British Virgin Islands Assembly had never got around to passing the law on the books in all the adjacent colonies that prohibited the giving of evidence by a slave against his master.
The legislature of the British Virgin Islands was then barely two decades old – modern, compared with that of nearby St Kitts that was nearly two centuries old.  When, in 1778, London had appointed George Suckling to come out to be Chief-Justice of the British Virgin Islands, he had been forced after a delay of many months to give up his post and return to England.  The recently elected Assembly had not got around to passing any laws that would permit him to hold the Assizes.  Persons who had committed murder remained at large, unless they did not boast friends in high places.
Unfortunately for the Hon Arthur Hodge, those happy days were now over.  The charge was laid.  His peers duly listened to the evidence and unanimously convicted him of the offence of murder.  The only sentence available in law to the judge in relation to such a conviction was the sentence of death.  The gallows were erected and the no longer honourable Arthur Hodge was taken to it and the sentence carried out.  And so, Tortola received the distinction of being the first of the British Sugar Colonies to see a white planter sentenced to death for the murder of his slave – and, convicted for that on the evidence of his slaves.  Oh, brave land!  Land of pioneers!
Montserrat.  Montserratians have their claim to fame.  Few of us today are old enough to remember the famed Rose’s lime juice.  Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this Montserrat product was the sole source of bottled lime juice available in the United Kingdom.  When Joseph Sturge sailed through the islands in 1837 to report on the outcome of the Apprenticeship system that followed the abolition of slavery, his heart went out to Montserrat.  Then, as now, well, perhaps not quite as now, its people suffered from the disadvantage of a lack of opportunity.  There were fewer enterprises than were to be found in the neighbouring islands.  Joseph Sturge, as a member of a famous and wealthy Quaker merchant family, determined to bring employment to the people.  He acquired a large Montserrat estate and employed free men and women to plant and tend to his orchards of lime trees.  These were, after only a few years – limes, unlike oranges and grapefruit, are notoriously quick to mature - ready to be reaped, and the juice squeezed from them, and to be shipped back to the UK by the barrel-full.  There it was bottled and marketed to a public grateful for any additional source of vitamin C.  The Sturges lived in Montserrat into the twentieth century, their family-owned estates continuing to produce the famed lime juice.
Until Sainsburys more recently started selling fresh limes on its grocery shelves, Montserrat lime juice, marketed under the name Rose’s Lime Juice, was the principal source in Britain of bottled lime juice.  The estates are now not only abandoned, but their location unknown to either the local population or to the visitors who come to gawk at the devastation caused to the land by the Soufriere Volcano.  Sic Transit Gloria, indeed.  Montserratians are now the Phoenicians of the Leeward Islands.  By force of circumstance they are obliged to venture overseas to find employment and livelihood.  I like to think that a faint memory of the achievement of Joseph Sturge and his descendants has helped fashion their famed enterprising nature.
Turks and Caicos Islands.  And who of us can be left unaware of the role played by the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in provisioning the sailing vessels that left the Caribbean on the long haul back to the shipping ports of the United Kingdom, or to the ports of the Northern Colonies of New England?  It was the salt of Sal Cay that was used to preserve the fish and meat required for use on the voyage.  Canning, as a method of preserving meat, was not available until the chemists of Napoleon discovered the technique in the early Nineteenth Century.  The sailors and salt workers of Bermuda annually sailed south to Sal Cay and helped to develop the industry and to people the Turks and Caicos Islands, making their contribution to the development of the character of the people, now enjoying a prosperity unknown to their forebears.
Cayman Islands.  And, the famed Cayman Islands, the home of the Boddens and the Ebanks, descendants of free men who would not live as slaves in mainland Jamaica.  These sturdy sea-farers and fisher-folk of Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac have given rise to progeny who are no less enterprising and ingenious.  It is the culture of independence and self-reliance that characterised these early settlers that is responsible for the social and commercial success enjoyed by the islanders today.  This is hallowed land!  For over half a century, one of the top five banking centres of the world!
Bermuda.  And, Bermuda, famous from so early that even William Shakespeare is said to have based a play on it!  When Sir George Somers’ ship, the “Sea Venture”, was shipwrecked on its shores, the incident was widely reported.  At least two published accounts of the fierce storm that caused the catastrophe, and the terrors of the landing on the wild shores, were available to him before he wrote “The Tempest.”
And, which other British territory can boast of such a long period of parliamentary government?  Why, the legislature of the Bermudas is even older than that of England, interrupted as it was by Cromwell’s Commonwealth and his abolition of the Rump Parliament.  Bermuda, the location since 1621 of the longest continuous history of parliamentary sittings in the entire Commonwealth of Nations.  Sacred territory, indeed!
When Churchill sent Bill Williamson out to the West Indies, even before the United States joined the War, with the mission to steam open and to read every letter leaving the USA that might carry information on the war preparations of the allies, where else but Bermuda did he select to set up his teams of searchers for micro-dots and secret inks?  This man called “Intrepid” was the precursor to the fabled insurance brokers who during and after the War stopped off on the long flight from Heathrow to Shannon to Bermuda to New York, and who would found the Re-Insurance subsidiaries that to this day underlie the International Financial Service industry of Bermuda.  Oh, happy land, indeed!  One of the most prosperous in the entire Western Hemisphere!
Anguilla.  And my own Anguilla?  The land of Johanna.  Have I never ever told you of Johanna?  In the year 1825, for administrative reasons, Britain condemned us to live under the government of the Council and Assembly of St Kitts.  In that year, the colony of St Christopher and Anguilla came into being.  It was to last until the year 1967, when the first successful armed revolt in the British West Indies brought about a permanent separation of the two islands.  The Anguilla Revolution lives on in song and literature and life of the islanders, as they celebrate their freedom and true, not mere symbolic political independence.
In that year, 1825, the Chief Justice of St Kitts, the Honourable Richard Pickering, sailed his sloop from his estate on the north-west coast of St Kitts to hold the first Assizes in Anguilla under the new regime.  The Chief Justice of those days was a planter, not a lawyer.  He knew no law, not unusual, some might say, of judges today.  But his heart was in the right place, unusual for those times.  To arrive at the port of Road Bay, he had to sail past the small Anguillian Cay known as Dog Island.
The Honourable Peter Lake was then the owner of the Road Plantation and one of the leading citizens of Anguilla.  He had been smitten by the beauty of his slave Johanna.  Consumed by passion, he brazenly conducted an affair with her that soon came to the knowledge of his wife.  Mrs Lake, with the cunning of a woman scorned, hit upon a device to get rid of Johanna.  She secretly cut up her own clothes and linen and torched them in her yard in the absence of her husband, falsely placing the blame on Johanna.
She gave evidence, at the subsequent trial before the magistrates, that she had observed Johanna committing the act.  Johanna’s protestations of innocence could not squelch the guilt felt by the magistrate at the infidelity that her beauty had incited in his colleague towards his own wife.  She was convicted of the arson, and sentenced to be marooned on Dog Island for a month, as punishment.  Now, Dog Island was, and is, a tiny, barren cay, with just a shed and a shallow well on it for the use of the shepherds placed there to keep an eye on the goats and other small stock that it was home to.  And then, as now, marooning was and always has been an illegal punishment, not sanctioned in any legal text.
As Chief Justice Richard Pickering sailed past Dog Island, whom should he spy on its shore but the beautiful Johanna, illegally marooned on the cay in punishment.  The Chief Justice was smitten, as were most men who crossed Johanna’s path.  On his arrival in Road Bay, accompanied by Johanna, he brought charges against Dr Benjamin Gumbs-Hodge for unlawful assault in taking Johanna out to Dog Island to serve her illegal sentence.  By this time Dr Gumbs-Hodge had been elected to be Anguilla’s sole representative in the St Kitts House of Assembly.  Sometime later, the Chief Justice had the constable drag the unfortunate doctor before him and his assessors.  The charge was drawn up by the chief justice himself.  The Attorney General from St Kitts read it to the magistrate who pleaded not guilty.
We know about all of this because of the records of the impeachment proceedings brought by the planters of St Kitts and Anguilla against the Chief Justice.  These records are preserved in the Public Records Office at Kew Gardens.  Unable under the laws of St Kitts, which had by now been extended to Anguilla, to call Johanna or any other slave to testify, the Chief Justice could find no free Anguillian who would testify at the trial.  The Chief Justice did what no judge, hopefully, would do today.  He tore off his wig from his head, stepped down from the bench upon which he sat with the two local assessors who by law joined him at the trial, and entered into the witness box to testify.  When he had finished, he put back on his wig and resumed his seat.  He then bullied his assessors to join him in bringing in a verdict of guilty against Johanna’s owner, the Hon Dr Benjamin Gumbs-Hodge.  However, they refused to convict their fellow white Anguillian planter, and the case was dismissed by a verdict of two to one.  So far as I am aware, Anguilla thereby became the first colony in the British Empire where the chief justice acted not only as judge but also as witness in the prosecution and trial of an offender at the Assizes.  Who can say that these are not special lands!
And so we continue to survive.  Some would say, at the margins of legality.  Others would say, with ingenuity.  We, citizens of the British Overseas Territories in the West Indies, are nothing if not enterprising.  We continue to live by our wits;  resisting powers and princes more powerful than we are;  scurrying around the corners, just out of reach of claw and tooth;  scuttling over the obstacles and hazards put in the way of the advancement of the interests of our people;  dodging unseen and unexpected missiles thrown our way.  But, we do it because these are special lands that have produced a special people:  successful against overwhelming adversity.  We are survivors all. 
An after-dinner speech given to the Attorneys General of the United Kingdom and the British Overseas Territories, at Peter Island in the Virgin Islands, on Wednesday 18 February 2004 while I was temporarily assigned to the High Court in Tortola