Friday, March 18, 2011

Cultural Identity


The term culture refers to an integrated pattern of knowledge, belief and behaviour.  A people’s culture consists of their language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies, and other related components[1].  The development of a people’s culture is said to depend upon their capacity to learn and to transmit knowledge to succeeding generations.
So, is there something that we can call Anguillian culture?  In answering that question, we must acknowledge that we all approach the subject with innate prejudices and preferences.  Any answer will be by its nature subjective.  There is no objective answer.  Does the fact that I am not a born-Anguillian make the formulation of an answer easier or more difficult?
What does ‘culture’ mean to us?  Culture does not have the same meaning for everyone.  Not all Anguillians share the same culture.  The culture of the Anguillian child consigned to Zenaida Haven[2] is far removed from the culture of the Anguillian academic.  The one is a culture of bare survival in a hostile world.  The other is a culture of the appreciation of the finer things that life and the human intellect have to offer.  The two are as far apart as can be.  Some will consider the making of corn dumplings an aspect of culture.  Others will scorn dumplings and look for fine fare.  Is there any point in debating which is the more authentic form of Anguillian culture?
Anguilla as a unique island society may reasonably be said to have its own particular culture, or socio-cultural system.  It overlaps to some extent with other systems.  We share our majority religious beliefs with the Judeo-Christian world, though there is a growing Muslim population.  The majority of our people accept the variety of rituals and beliefs developed in the 20th century in the Bible Belt of the southern States of the USA.  We share in the West Indian colonial experience of slavery and the plantation system of exploitation.  We are part of the English-speaking world, and are firmly rooted in the Americas.  In this so-called age of globalization we listen to US and Jamaican music.  We dance to a US and Caribbean-inspired choreography.  We dress in a combination of New York chic and Los Angeles ghetto.  The fear is that with a population of fewer than 15,000 souls it is difficult to justify the continued survival of the “Guillie” culture against the massive onslaught of Black Entertainment TV and the ubiquitous music video.  We can be certain that the struggle will be well worth the effort.
“If you do not know where you come from, you will not know where you are going to”[3]
Until the early 20th century, Anguilla had no organised form of government.  It was run by a mid-level civil servant from St Kitts, usually a physician or an administrator.  There was no real court, felons being sent to St Kitts for trial by jury.  The St Kitts administrator acted as Magistrate, trying summary offences and hearing small debt cases.  Roads were rudimentary.  Public electricity had to await the Anguilla Revolution of 1967.  Brackish water was piped from four Amerindian wells to stand-pipes along the main road.  You collected your own rain water that fell on your roof.  You built the biggest cistern you could afford, or you learned to drink the salty public supply.
The history of the early colonial era contains the seeds of official contempt and disregard for the needs and aspirations of the Anguillians.  After the first settlement of 1650 by landless refugees from Barbados and St Kitts, no Governor in Chief visited Anguilla for nearly 100 years.  The islanders exported none of the traditional plantation crops or other primary produce, save very infrequently.  Anguilla was not treated as a real colony because it never contributed to the imperial economy.  Nor did Anguilla serve any strategic purpose.  Its settlers were considered of so little account that the authorities in both Antigua, the head of the Leeward Islands government, and London, could not be bothered to make any arrangement during the first 175 years for its proper administration.  The consequence has been a simmering sense in Anguilla of abandonment by all outside authorities, and a deep seated awareness of the need for self-reliance, that characterise the Anguillian political psyche to this day. 
Between 1650, the date of settlement, and 1978, the birthdate of Anguilla’s luxury tourism industry, there were few West Indians who had to struggle to make ends meet as did Anguillians.  It was said of Dominica that the land was so fertile and the rainfall so continuous that you had only to throw a stick onto the ground and it would sprout and put down roots.  Not so in Anguilla.  Anguilla is a semi-arid, scrub-covered, flat little island with no weather of its own[4] and few resources for her people.  We survived by exporting small stock, pigeon peas, corn and sweet potatoes to our neighbouring islands.  Smuggling came easily to the more enterprising of our ancestors.  Boat building was a major industry for those who had the talent and skills.  Fishing put meat on the table.  Everyone engaged in subsistence-agriculture to put vegetables alongside the fish.  In the driest years it was corn porridge for breakfast, corn dumplings for lunch and fish and fungi for supper.  Our ancestors’ fruit was the occasional wild berry picked while pulling goats from one spot to another in the family’s ‘bush land’.
The journals of the early Christian Missionaries and Ministers who visited Anguilla during the 17th and 18th centuries generally depicted a people who, while suffering from the greatest extremes of poverty and deprivation, hungered for knowledge and learning.  The Blue Books of colonial statistics submitted by the St Kitts administration to London each year during the 19th century show large numbers of children in Anguilla attending the Methodist and Anglican schools.  There were no government schools until the 20th century.  Yet, an education was valued by the residents as essential if their children were to have a better chance in life than they had had.
The church played an important cultural role as well as an educational one.  It provided a route for ambitious young men to better their conditions and to administer to the needs of the island’s inhabitants.  The first black Methodist Minister in the West Indies was the Anguillian John Hodge who went to New York to be ordained by John Wesley himself.  Rev John Hodge returned to Anguilla where he built the Methodist Church at The Valley in 1821 with the help of the slaves and other members of his congregation.  He spent his entire ministry between Anguilla and St Martin. 
Dr Benjamin Gumbs-Hodge, who flourished in the 1820s, was the first medical doctor[5] known from Anguilla, but he was not the last.  As a percentage of population, there is not likely to have been another West Indian island which has over the centuries produced a greater number of doctors, lawyers, preachers and civil servants who served with distinction throughout the region.  The simple schools established by the Ministers of Religion and their spouses in the 18th and 19th centuries were invariably described as over-subscribed.  Dr Samuel B Jones[6] describes Anguilla in the 1920s as spending more money per capita on education than the nearby islands of Antigua and St Kitts.  Education was for many Anguillians the one guaranteed route out of poverty and unemployment and into a career and a relatively prosperous life. 
In the years just prior to the Anguilla Revolution the material hardships of the Anguillians had not altered much.  Long hours of back-breaking labour in the semi-arid fields produced little but corn, sweet potato and pigeon peas.  For a few short weeks once a year, a few hardworking salt pickers of South Hill and North Hill villages supplemented their meager income by reaping salt in the Road Pond.  Other than that, the only source of cash lay overseas.  Emigration was the one hope for the ambitious and enterprising young person.  Life at home had been characterised by deprivation and want.  A good basic education would provide envied positions as teachers, preachers and civil servants in the colonial administration.  There was nothing to look forward to at home in Anguilla.
The character and nature of the Anguillian individual has evolved through hundreds of years of colonial neglect, absence of natural resources, and the struggle to survive.  The harsh features of Anguilla’s society and economy from the days of settlement to the late 20th century moulded the Anguillian of yesterday.  It produced positive and good features such as thrift and adaptability.  But this harshness also produced negative and harmful characteristics, such as envy and dishonesty.  These are all to be seen today.
The Anguilla Revolution, its positive and its negative cultural contributions
The Anguilla Revolution of 1967 saw Anguillians seize their future in their own hands and throw off the burdens of St Kitts administration.  There was no support from either Britain or the other islands of the West Indies for the Revolution.  The other islands feared what they considered the threat of ‘fragmentation’.  Britain was attempting to shed her last colonies in the West Indies by pushing them first into ‘associated statehoodship’, and then, hopefully, into full independence.  With the ‘winds of change’ blowing through Africa and the Americas, she was not looking for another colony.  However, the Anguillians were determined to separate from St Kitts.  A few young men, mainly from Island Harbour and East End villages, incensed at their local beauties parading themselves in swim-suits on stage at the 1967 Statehood Celebrations, rioted.  The Anguilla Revolution was born out of this mundane event[7].
The Anguillian leaders formed a ‘Peacekeeping Committee’ which took over the management of Anguilla after the St Kitts administration and policemen had been evicted.  They had been spurred on by a number of motives, some commendable and others not so commendable.  Some of them were original thinkers and political philosophers of merit.  Atlin Harrigan was the writer, Bob Rogers was the agitator, while Ronald Webster was the steely-willed leader.  Atlin, with the financial help of locals and foreigners, published his influential newspaper The Beacon.  In his regular columns he set out eloquently the aspirations of the Anguillians for self-government.  Few of his fellow citizens took up the intellectual challenge.  There was to be no intellectual foundation to the Anguilla Revolution: no Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, or Thomas Jefferson of Anguilla.  There were some men of immense integrity in Anguilla’s leadership who made not a penny, and were as straight as a ruler.  Other revolutionary leaders were more interested in making money by selling licenses and concessions. 
“My plenty made me poor”[8]
The next wave of damage to the culture of self-reliance and perseverance that had characterized previous generations of Anguillians came with the development of the luxury tourism industry of Anguilla.  The 1970s saw the opening of resorts such as Cul-de-Sac, Cinnamon Reef, and Shoal Bay Villas hotels.  Regular jobs and steady incomes from the private sector became possible for the first time in Anguilla’s history.  The spin-off in car rentals, lobster and fish sales to foreign and local restaurants took off.  Large numbers of both men and women gained employment in industry for the first time.  Indeed, many were finding steady employment in Anguilla for the first times in their lives.  Within a decade the homes of even the most illiterate manual worker from Island Harbour to West End could boast a deep freeze as well as a refrigerator.  By the 1990s there was a TV in every bedroom plus the kitchen.  Hip Hop culture was all the rage.  Anguilla’s culture of poverty and deprivation was rapidly being replaced by a popular US mass-media driven culture of consumerism and vulgarity.
Anguillians have never examined the malign and adverse impact of the unintellectual and avaricious nature of some of our more recent leaders on the island’s fragile socio-political culture.  If only chance had provided us with more enlightened leaders! Anguilla had no one willing and able to lay an intellectual foundation for the birth of this new nation-in-the-womb.  We stepped off into comparative self-government on the wrong foot.  It would be completely mean and insulting for us to pour scorn on our fathers of the nation.  But, the truth is that the fishermen and goat-keepers who were the fathers of our nation had little formal education,[9] and no grounding in the principles of good governance.  The British administrators who took charge completely failed to introduce them to such notions.  The result of this lack of preparation was inevitable.  The dominating political philosophy of our leadership became the enjoyment of copious quantities of sexual favours, monetary gifts, and the use and abuse of power.  Our parents and grandparents had emphasized thrift and self-improvement, an education and a career.  We, their children, aspire instead to sell sex, marijuana and cocaine to the tourist girls, and bundles of Chinese-manufactured trinkets to the old ladies, on Shoal Bay Beach. 
Traditional Anguillian culture has some deep roots.  One of them is the ownership of land.  With the destruction of the plantation economy in Anguilla in the 1830s, and its replacement by a subsistence economy that lasted to the 1970s, the land was distributed among those who lived here.  Some families acquired land by purchase and others by inheritance.  Throughout the 19th century, Anguillians, poor as we were, were known as a landed people.  It was said that we were cash-poor but land-rich.  In the 1920s and 30s, hundreds of acres changed hands for tens of pounds sterling.  By the 1960s, values had hardly increased.  An acre was now valued in the hundreds of EC dollars.  By the 1990s, an acre of land on the beach was selling at over US$1 million.  There followed a frenzy of land marketing.  Now, we hear the complaint that Anguillians are running out of land.
There were few Anguillians in the 1980s and 1990s who were not tempted to sell their ancestral lands.  Many of us did so.  Only a few obeyed the rule, “If you must sell land, sell it for years, not forever.”  A long lease of building land for 60 years, or of a house or apartment for 20 years turns the real estate into currency as readily as an outright sale.  It may be gone for this generation and the next, but it comes back to the family. 
It may not be fair to compare the Websters, Hodges, Gumbs, Richardsons and Brooks to the Duke of Westminster.  But, I am going to do it anyway.  The present Duke and his family’s Grosvenor property company control assets in London that were estimated to be worth £6.8 billion in 2010.  This family company traces its roots back to the 17th century.  When Sir Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies in 1677 she brought to the marriage 500 acres on the outskirts of early London.  Today these 500 acres have been absorbed into the heart of an expanded London.  They include the most expensive office and residential properties in fashionable Mayfair and Belgravia.  These 500 acres and the rental properties built on them have remained in the family ever since they were acquired.  They are held in trust by the present Duke for future generations of the family.  They are the source of the family fortune.  Today they bring in rents of many millions of pounds every week.  When one of his condos in Mayfair comes on the market, it sells for upwards of £5 million.  No one is surprised to learn that what is being sold is nothing but a lease for 20 years.  People line up to purchase since there is no other way to own an apartment in Mayfair.  Why has it proven so difficult for Anguillians to learn such a simple lesson?
There was a time when our ancestors struggled to improve their chances for success in the outside world.  With the break-up of the West Indies Federation in 1962 into individual colonies that have since gone into independence, it is no longer easy for us to emigrate to practise our professions and occupations in other islands.  Immigration rules are enforced everywhere.  Now, we hear complaints that Anguillians aspire to become hotel managers, restaurant chefs, recording artists, and aeroplane pilots.  Reading and writing are not essential skills for one to rise to the top in many of these modern occupations.  Everything changed with the development of an up-market tourism industry in the 1980s.  Anguilla’s economy was catapulted from the 19th century into the 21st, hardly stopping for the 20th.  The result is that Anguilla’s modern socio-political culture is new and unsettled.  There has not been enough time for binding conventions and new social structures to develop.  Anguillian culture may be said to be essentially that of a frontier society: unsettled, shifting, brash and unruly.
Literacy levels in Anguilla have fallen from a peak in the 1950s and 60s.  Now, the average public servant can hardly write a complete sentence without at least one grammatical and punctuation error.  The Anguilla public service is viewed by all administrations as a sponge to soak up school leavers who are not capable for one reason or another of finding employment in the private sector.  The semi-literate Anguillian demanding his or her rights is not a pretty sight.  I born here” is put forward as some sort of qualification for a job, and a justification for an unwillingness to pay taxes or hospital fees.  No one can tell me what to do on my property” has triumphed over the introduction of planning laws.  Was the lack of intellectual depth to the Anguilla Revolution responsible for the current rebellious attitude and the rejection of authority that is so widespread?  Certainly, these attitudes were popularized and rewarded during and after the Revolution.  The result has been that for the past two generations we Anguillians have been brought up to believe that we acquire undeserved rights from the accident of birth.  We claim to be entitled to be put first and to hold the best jobs, qualified or not.  Arrogance and ignorance have replaced ambition and a drive to succeed. 
The Church in Anguilla bears a large portion of the responsibility for the descent of Anguillian values during the latter part of the 20th century.  The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries was a period in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature, and man were synthesized into a worldview that gained wide acceptance.  Revolutionary developments in art, philosophy and politics ensued.  Central to Enlightenment thought was the use and celebration of reason.  Reason is the power by which we can understand the universe and improve our own condition.  The greatest goals of the rational man are considered to be knowledge, freedom and happiness.  If you were to ask a class of 18-year old Anguillian students, as I have done, how many of them believe that humans and other apes evolved from a common ancestor, you would be lucky to get more than 10% agreeing.  It is almost as if the Enlightenment passed us by, leaving us in perpetual intellectual darkness.
Given Anguilla’s economic straits throughout the early period under review, it should perhaps not surprise us that the Enlightenment came and went without any impact on our culture.  No aspect of Romanticism touched us, though the Reign of Terror did result in the last violent French invasion of Anguilla in 1798.  As Anguilla’s best and brightest, who managed to take advantage of what little education was available from the Church Schools, moved abroad to better themselves, Anguilla as a nation-to-be remained a cultural backwater stuck in time.  Other than The Beacon of the Anguilla Revolution, no successful[10] newspaper was to be published on the island until The Light and The Anguillian at the end of the 20th century.  No Anguillian has published[11] any significant study of the culture, economy or history of the island.  The learned journals of West Indian science, economics, history and society are devoid to this day of any mention of developments in Anguilla.  Culturally, Anguilla does not make any mark on the region or on the world.
“Know thyself”[12]
The year 2006 was a wake-up call for those concerned about Anguillian culture and values.  Ten of our young men, ten times more than in most previous or subsequent years, were gunned down or disappeared in drug-related violence.  Five of those deaths and disappearances occurred in Anguilla itself and five were scattered between St Kitts, Nevis and St Maarten.  Anguillian adults looked on in rising shame and horror as the luxury hotels of Viceroy and Flag were permitted by our government to be built using ‘slave labour’.  The first hotel employed almost exclusively workers from India and the second from China, all at scandalously low wages.  Anguilla shared in the world economic boom which was not to crash until the year 2008 when Anguilla’s new culture of greed and avarice received its greatest shock from which we are still recovering.
Anguillians, we boast, do not read.  While the statement is generally true, it ought not to be a boast.  “Reading”, as the Anguilla Public Library radio jingle reminds us daily, “is fun-damental”.  The public library is a bank wherein is housed the sum total of human knowledge.  It is an exceptional bank.  It is the only one where each withdrawal adds to the total amount on deposit.  The mother and father who do not read stories at night to their child as they put it to bed, is guilty of more than child cruelty and abandonment.  They should stand condemned for child abuse.  Such abandonment is a commonplace event in Anguilla, so much so that it is hardly remarked on.  The vast majority of Anguilla’s children today are brought up by the television.  Unlike the way their parents were themselves brought up, they are members of the ‘latchkey’ generation.  After school, the average Anguillian child must lift the latch himself and let himself into the empty house.  With both parents working two jobs to bring home the Nike shoes and the latest electronic gadget demanded by their children, the children are left to bring up themselves.  When no one reads a child to sleep, no love of books and of learning is engendered.  When grandparents and parents are not at home to pass on values to a child, to reassure it of its intrinsic worth and to assure it of unrestricted love, it grows up without the ability to love or to hold and to pass on worthwhile values.  The result is the semi-literate society that we are left with in Anguilla today.  The children are without culture, we say.
Many of the positive features of Anguilla’s traditional culture remain.  Our people are characterized by Independence of Spirit.  Never having been under the thumb of absentee proprietors or sugar barons, Anguillians are unique in the whole West Indies for owning their own land.  With the only financial institution for a long time being a savings account at the Post Office, there is no tradition of borrowing.  The sea and that inherited property had to be sufficient to exist on.  The first Anguilla-born doctors went to elementary school barefooted.  They never got to watch The Simpsons on television, but so excelled at reading, writing and computing that they blew away all the competition and gained the needed Leeward Island scholarships to go away and study.  Their footsteps are followed by the hundreds of modern Anguillian students who take up the scholarships that are offered by the local government, and, after completing their education, return home to take up the challenge of developing their country.
While borrowing has undoubtedly increased, the spirit of Sacrifice remains.  The traditional “Child, you have to learn to do without … until you can afford it” still resonates in each adult’s ears.  A drive around the island will show that this ethic survives today.  The unfinished houses, with their rusty rebar reaching for the sky until another round of fresh funding arrives, show the determination of the Anguillians to build upwards when the time comes. 
The Good Samaritan ethic still flourishes.  One hundred years ago it was almost unheard of for you to pass a bicyclist disabled with a flat tire.  You brought out your own patching kit to assist.  You would not let a tired, returning fisherman tug and pull up his row boat onto the beach by himself.  As then, today a stronger and fitter neighbour thinks nothing of rushing to your house in the teeth of a hurricane with hammer, nails and timber to help to board up your flapping windows.  Nor is there ever a question of payment.  Today, we recognize the Jollification, when everyone joins in a house building or the planting or reaping of a field, as a fundamental part of the Anguillian culture.
Anguillians, of necessity, know the virtues of Hard Work.  There are 80-year old homes still standing after 30-odd hurricanes.  The men who built them walked miles to and from work and used only hand tools.  They survived on the meager diet of the times, but they were far fitter than their descendents today.  Their genes ensure that today’s Anguillian quickly learns from study or an apprenticeship to fill almost any position available in modern industry today.  So, we feel disappointed and let down when we hear the hotelier let it slip that he would rather hire anyone else but an Anguillian either to build or to run his complex.
Anguillians can be argumentative, contrarian and paradoxical by nature.  Because of the humiliating treatment endured at the hands of St Kitts and other governing bodies we can seem to be overly sensitive to dealings that are even well-intentioned.  The collective feeling towards tourism tends to be somewhat schizophrenic.  Gratitude for its presence is offset by occasional rancour and suspicion.  Yet, historically, Anguillians are the warmest, most welcoming, and best mannered of islanders.  Our Native Charm is frequently referred to in the tourist literature.  We look both friend and stranger in the eye and bid them an earnest Good Morning or Good Afternoon! And, we expect a similar response.
Visitors have remarked on the personal Warmth shown by Anguillians among themselves.  A European may greet a long lost schoolmate with a sober, “How do you do?” The Anguillians, by comparison, will enthusiastically hug each other, clap each other on the back, and slap themselves on the thigh, when they meet after a separation.  As for the Anguillian feeling for their island home, there is no equivalent.  Although Anguillians long grew up knowing they were going to have to leave the island to better themselves, their sense of devotion to it, and once away, their sense of exile, have always been remarkable.  Today, fewer leave, and when they do, after perhaps preparing themselves for a profession, a trade, or a skill, they now return since there is a better life to return to than before.  Even those who cover their bets for future prosperity with a British, Canadian or US passport and citizenship pride themselves on being forever Anguillian.  That, perhaps, is the best summation of the Anguillian culture.
A speech delivered to a youth group at the Church of God (Holiness) at Pope Hill at the request of the Department of Youth and Culture
18 March 2011

[1]       New Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 15th edition) 1992.
[2]       Anguilla’s juvenile rehabilitation centre.
[3]       Frequently-used saying by “Yanchie” Richardson on his radio call-in programme “The Mayor’s Show” on Kool-FM Radio, 103.3fm, on Saturday Mornings at 9:30 am.
[4]       According to the High School Geography text book of my day, while St Kitts and Nevis had mountains that caused rain to fall, Anguilla had to be content with whatever the passing cloud systems chose to let drop.
[5]       He was also the first Anguillian representative in the St Kitts House of Assembly in 1825 and in subsequent years.
[6]       In his Annals of Anguilla (Basseterre: Labour Spokesman) 1931.
[7]       According to Louvan Webster an eye-witness of the events, in a private conversation.
[8]       Translation of “Inopem me copia fecit” (Ovid, Metamorphoses).
[9]       One exception was Walter Hodge, who was a college-educated engineer, and another was the Rev Leonard Carty, who was an ordained Methodist Minister.
[10]     Rev Wilbert Forker published The Times for a short period during the early 1970s, and Felix Fleming and his son James published the Vantage newspaper for some two years in the late 1980s.
[11]     Other than the valuable monographs by Colville Petty OBE and Nat Hodge MBE. But, these mainly deal with the Anguilla Revolution and its aftermath.
[12]     Socrates’ main maxim for his life. His best known pronouncement is “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Life is not something just to be lived by blindly following base instincts, popular convictions and time-honoured customs. The good life is a life that questions and thinks about things. It is a life of contemplation, self-examination, and open-minded wondering. The good life is an inner life, the life of an inquiring and ever-expanding mind: