Little by little, as Anguilla learned to act the role of nationhood in the summer of 1967, its revolution fashioned, one after another, the props it required to gain credibility. In Ronald Webster it had not only its revolutionary leader, but its face; in Jeremiah Gumbs, its patriarch; in Roger Fisher, its lawyer and foreign advisor; it had its own flag (remember that surreal design with two sirens over a sea-shell?); its own currency (“Liberty Dollars” overprinted on coins from all around the world, from Peru to Yemen); its own stamps (also overprinted, and incidentally among the most valuable stamps worldwide); and then, as of September 27, 1967, it had its own newspaper – its voice, as it were, in The Beacon.
Edited by Atlin Harrigan, the man who, together with Ronald Webster, orchestrated Anguilla’s dissidence, and published by the Anglican Canon Guy Carleton, Rector of Anguilla, in his own Xerox machine in the basement of his house in Island Harbour, the paper initially consisted of a single sheet printed with news on both sides. While its first edition was published on a Wednesday, subsequent numbers were printed every Saturday without fault from October 1967 to March 1969, when the British invaded the island, and then again from April 1969 to the end 1971. Its original single-sheet format was enhanced towards October 1968, when an electrical printer donated by Roger Fisher and other sympathisers of Anguilla’s cause in Boston, USA, finally reached the island. From then on, it adopted the eight-page format with which it would be identified until the end of its days.
In the first edition of The Beacon Atlin Harrigan explains the concept behind the name: “… all the big ships passing to the north of Anguilla, are grateful to Anguilla for her beacon at Sombrero to guide them to their destination. So too, many people all over the world are grateful to Anguilla for the stand she has made for freedom and democracy.” Despite Harrigan’s original intentions, The Beacon inevitably came to mirror the situation in which the island was mired, with an overwhelming majority of its people decidedly not wanting association with St. Kitts, but no palpable consensus in terms of what positive action should be taken to achieve such goal. Consequently, Ronald Webster in his Scrapbook of Anguilla’s Revolution accuses the paper of “shifting slowly from its real target of secession from St. Kitts,” to deal instead with personalities, to the point where a “gradual distortion crept into the news.”
Atlin Harrigan, of course, would never have admitted to this, although it wouldn’t take a great observer to sense certain callousness in some of the material published by the paper. Then again, Mr. Harrigan and Mr. Webster differed fundamentally in their opinion of the role the British should play in the war Anguilla waged against St. Kitts, and their appreciation of the Crown’s efforts to achieve a diplomatic and legal solution to the problem.
But beyond the feud between Atlin Harrigan and Ronald Webster, which had a much wider, more public facet to it than it might seem, The Beacon served a purpose at the time that was as important as it was unique: it provided the people of Anguilla with an outlet to voice their thoughts (roughly one third of the paper’s content consisted in letters to the editor), while it developed its profile as a credible vehicle to traffic news in and out of the island, with excerpts of relevant articles printed in international publications featuring regularly within its pages.
Regardless of its format and its template, The Beacon was committed to expressing the views of its readers, even if they were drafted in less than delicate terms, and Mr. Harrigan’s editorials were often fiery exhortations, which nonetheless knew how to appeal to sentiment without breaching the boundaries of respect. Indeed, animosity against The Beacon in general and its editor in particular was such that at one point a group of eight men walked into the premises of the paper, which were no other than Mr. Harrigan’s home, and confiscated (quite frankly, stole) its press, the same one that had been gifted to the paper by Mr. Fisher and co. in 1968, under the pretext that it belonged to the people of Anguilla and that The Beacon was printing treasonable material. This was on May 12, 1969 – some 24 hours after the forceful expulsion from the island of the British envoy, William Whitlock. The following day, Ronald Webster arranged for the press to be returned to Atlin Harrigan. Damaged. Less than a week later 135 British paratroopers and 40 Scotland Yard policemen invaded Anguilla. By the end of the month the press was running again, and from April 12, 1969 onwards the regular service provided by the publication was back to normal.
Despite its shortcomings, The Beacon was intrepid and innovative. By their own admission, both Atlin Harrigan and Canon Carleton knew nothing of the printing business when they started the newspaper – all they knew was that one was needed. Over forty years removed from its establishment, the legacy that looms largest in the fold of the paper’s accomplishments might be the reminder that the seemingly spontaneous revolt staged by Anguilla on May 29, 1967 was, in fact, the culmination of a long period of dissatisfaction, protests and demands that had simmered for centuries. Atlin Harrigan was just the final and most ardent agent in a long list of Anguillian dissenters who went ignored from the end of the XVIII century until the revolution. Before creating The Beacon, he had written eloquently and profusely for St Kitts’ opposition newspaper, The Democrat. But part of the dynamics of revolting entail not to accept the established system, and that includes its communication outlets. Similarly, part of the task of the rebel newspaper in the rebel island was to reassert the identity of Anguilla and the legitimacy of its claim. Through extensive historical chronicles and incisive modern features (often borrowed from foreign sources) The Beacon managed to portray not the unity it wished to instigate in the island’s population, but the singularity of Anguilla’s case and its people. Insofar as this singularity still shapes our lives daily, The Beacon and its message remain eerily relevant in their own distant way.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON AUGUST 22, 2009.