Ladies and gentlemen, it is my understanding that we are here to celebrate our transition from being a presidency of the Leeward Islands Federation to a standalone colony, later changed to territory, of the United Kingdom. I would like to broaden the context for the discussion today and how we understand “Territory Day.” It is my contention that this day should celebrate our long walk to freedom, from enslaved people to our present status, and we should use this opportunity to discuss our future.
The planters’ first legislature was sworn in on 27 January 1774. The Virgin Islands Slave Code, which ruled the daily lives of our enslaved ancestors, was subsequently enacted in 1783. This would remain until general emancipation in 1834 and full freedom in 1838. It is important to note that we had some of the fiercest riots against the institution of slavery. Our trajectory was always towards ruling our own destiny. Emancipation, when our status changed from that of “property” to one of human was important in that.
Following emancipation, our people fought for civil rights. Interestingly enough, free blacks and ”coloureds” in the Virgin islands had pursued civil rights as early as 1815. In 1837, two such “coloured” candidates were elected to the Assembly from the Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke constituencies – W.A. O’Neal and A.C. Hill Smith. Other such “coloureds” included Henry and Thomas Buntin, John Davies, and George and Lewis Martin.
After full emancipation, a colonial government remained. Crown colony government was instituted in 1854, one year after the cattle tax riot which occurred in 1853. In response to the cattle tax (sale of cattle played a significant role in bringing cash to the colony), the people rioted, destroying the greater part of Road Town and a number of homes throughout the island. On this occasion, all the members of the legislature and the majority of the white population left. It is worthwhile remembering that the planter had already abandoned the territory after the 1819 hurricane completely destroyed the sugar plantation in the Virgin Islands, never to return. After the 1853 riot, three of the leaders were sentenced to death and twenty persons imprisoned.
In keeping with Crown colony government, by 1859 the House of Assembly consisted of four elected members and three nominated members, presided over by the governor or his deputy. By 1867 the composition of the Executive Council was as following: colonial secretary, colonial treasurer and president. The Leeward Islands Federation had been restored in 1871, and the local Virgin Islands Council relinquished its constituent powers in 1901, and was abolished by the General Legislature of the Leeward Islands Federation in 1902. Ladies and gentlemen, the power of the commissioner, sometimes known as the administrator or governor was all encompassing.
This set the stage for one of the greatest demonstrations of our will for greater autonomy, which was the Grand March or the Freedom March on 24 November 1949! This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the March. You will certainly be hearing more of the march, and the individuals who participated in it, and led it!
Several factors contributed to the movement which culminated in the Grand March of 1949. These included the establishment of the Civic League, the Virgin Islands Welfare Committee, and challenges to the Commissioner’s power over issues such as education. One such challenge came from Anegada in the person of from Theodolph Faulkner - a fisherman who came to Road Town with his wife to await birth of their child at Peebles Hospital He had a disagreement with the Medical Officer and found no redress. Faulkner went to the marketplace and complained about the colonial government night after night.
A movement developed which was supported by Virgin Islanders in the United States Virgin Islands and in the United States. On 24 November 1949 over 1500 people led by Faulkner, L. Glenville Fonseca and Carlton Decastro marched through the streets of Road Town to the Commissioner’s office to present to the Commissioner J. A. Cruikshank an address in which detailed their grievances. They demanded two things: the removal of Commissioner Cruikshank and the re-institution of legislative government.
They stated that since the beginning of this century the history had been one long tale of political oppression by a government which was not constitutionally ‘of the people’ nor ‘by the people’ - that at it least should have been a government ‘for the people.’ They charged Commissioner Cruikshank with the mismanagement of public affairs – governing for the benefit of a certain few
They also stated that they refused to pay taxes and revenues for others to spend and waste as they saw fit with no regard for public needs and expressed the desire to decide local affairs: how monies were spent and laws made.
They stated, “Today we are marching towards freedom and we will continue to march until that freedom has to us been secured”
Our Legislative Council was restored in 1950 as a result of this great march, this expression of our desire to rule our destiny.
The territory received its first constitution in 48 years. At this time, the territory was treated as one constituency – a sort of at large system! Candidates for election had to satisfy income and property qualifications - but were unpaid if elected. Universal adult suffrage was modified by a simple literacy test and the secret ballot. But, under the new system the Governor of the Leeward Islands could no longer legislate for the British Virgin Islands. This power would now be exercised by the Legislative Council - subject to the Leeward Islands act of 1871. General elections were held in November 1950. 67.4% of the 1,267 registered voters cast their ballots. Yet, the general election of 1950 caused an imbalance in Legislative Council in favour of the urban population of Road Town.
There was a new constitution drafted in 1954. It divided into the territory into five constituencies or ‘districts’ to return 6 elected members to the Legislative Council. The income and property qualifications for candidates and the literacy test for voters were abolished. This speaks to the need for greater representation and a greater measure of democracy.
Ladies and gentlemen, with the introduction of ministerial government in 1967, the Administrator was bound to obtain the advice of Executive Council and to act on it unless he considered it in the interest of his special responsibilities not to do that. The Executive Council would consist of a Chief Minister, the late great Lavity Stoutt, and two other Ministers and two ex-officio Members the Attorney General and the Financial Secretary. On the legislative side it was provided that the council should consist of a Speaker elected from among persons who were not members, two ex-officio members, one nominated member, and seven elected members.
A greater measure of self-determination had been achieved! 3,645 registered voters and 71.36% cast their ballot on Election Day! The all oppressive power of the commissioner had been curtailed. And now, a bureaucratic framework for planned development was in place. Roads, seaports, harbours, telecommunications, marine, commercial, industrial, tourism, and financial industries would be developed! Education and health would also see developments.
Further constitutional advancement occurred in 1976 Constitution where the Chief Minister, my grandfather, the late great Willard Wheatley, acquired the responsibility for Finance from the Governor and the number of constituencies was increased to nine. Interestingly enough, the recommendations to include territorial at large candidates were not implemented at this time. These recommendations were to happen based on the 1993 Constitutional Commission’s recommendations increasing the number of members in the Legislative Council to thirteen with nine district members and four territorial at large members.
Ladies and gentlemen, many individuals have served admirably as members of our legislative council. I am grateful that the Territory day committee has consistently chosen to honour them. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate our honourees todays: John Charles Brudenell-Bruce, Reeial George, Omar Hodge, Arnando Scatliffe, Eileene Parsons and Ethlyn Smith. They are representations of this Territory’s desire for greater control of our destiny and a leadership which is representative of the diversity of our Territory.
I would like to pay particular attention to women in politics here in the Virgin Islands. The first woman to run for office was Millicent Mercer in 1971 with the young Virgin Islands Party. In 1983 Patsy Lake and Eileene Parsons ran for office, with the Virgin Islands Party and independently, respectively. In 1986, three women ran for office, Malcia Hodge and Patsy Lake for the Virgin Islands Party and Eileene Parsons, independently. In 1990, we saw two additional women run for office, both independently. They were Medita Wheatley and Inez Turnbull.
Interestingly enough, it was after the introduction of the territorial at large seats that two of these women politicians saw victory. In 1995, five of six female candidates ran as territorial at large candidates. Two women won. Eileene Parsons gained the most votes of the territorial at large candidates and newcomer Ethlyn Smith won District Five.
I also make note of the contributions of Reeial George, who represented the 9th district and was an advocate for the rights of children born outside wedlock, Omar Hodge, the peoples man, who among other things was an advocate for those who have come from elsewhere to be a part of the Virgin Islands family, Arnando Scatliffe, who helped establish a morgue, and Charles Bruce, who was the first and only white man to be elected since the restoration of the legislative council, which speaks to the inclusiveness of our politics.
Now as we reflect on our past, we must carefully consider our present circumstances and chart our course forward. Our present status is not intended to be permanent. The United Nations made a “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” in 1960. Article 73 of the United Nations Charter addresses specifically non-governing territories such as ours:
“Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:
a. to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses;
b. to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement;
c. to further international peace and security;
d. to promote constructive measures of development, to encourage research, and to cooperate with one another and, when and where appropriate, with specialized international bodies with a view to the practical achievement of the social, economic, and scientific purposes set forth in this Article; and
e. to transmit regularly to the Secretary-General for information purposes, subject to such limitation as security and constitutional considerations may require, statistical and other information of a technical nature relating to economic, social, and educational conditions in the territories for which they are respectively responsible other than those territories to which Chapters XII and XIII apply.”
Contrary to popular opinion, independence is not the only option available to us. There is free association and integration. I also recognize that we live in an increasingly interconnected global village where relationships with others groups around the world is of paramount importance. But what is without question is that our partnership must evolve from a place where one group can impose on others on questions of morality, such as the same-sex marriage debate, or one group can bully another to accept measures, which will significantly damage our economy.
So as we approach the time for another constitutional review, I am confident in my Premier that he will lead the discussion of where we go as a Territory as we continue our march towards greater autonomy and measure of democracy in keeping with the internationally accepted principle, that we are all created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Virgin Islands family. I thank you for your kind attention. Happy Territory day!