Anguilla’s thirty-odd immaculate beaches have turned it into one of the most exclusive tourist destinations in the world. No other country in the western hemisphere can compete with the rate at which Anguilla has gained popularity as a jet-setting spot among the rich and famous in the past twenty-five years. Reputed for the high standard of its hotels, villas and restaurants, the vast majority of visitors remain unaware of the peculiar conditions that made possible the existence of such remarkable place. Years of neglect, followed by the ill-advised creation of the joint state of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, a bloodless revolution, and, finally, the invasion by British forces are only part of the story.
First settled in 1650 and part of the Colony of the Leeward Islands, Anguilla only was granted a Council in 1735. Its role, however, was advisory to the executive Council in St Kitts and, eventually, it was abolished. From 1825 onwards Anguilla was only allowed to send a representative to the St Kitts Council, thus putting an end to any semblance of autonomy in the island. Unsurprisingly, Anguillians filed a formal complaint at this arrangement, as they did in 1873, when the ‘Presidency’ of St Kitts and Anguilla was allocated one seat in the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands.
Most recently, however, Anguilla vociferously requested the dissolution of its association with St Kitts in a petition dating from 1958, in view of the constitutional changes which had taken place two years earlier in order to enact the dissolution of the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands and the formation of the Federation of the West Indies. This petition, together with the insight that “a people cannot live without hope for long without erupting socially”, was ignored by the British Government. No one could claim, then, when the people of Anguilla took to the streets on May 29, 1967, when they met en masse in the Park, when they marched towards the police station and spontaneously demanded the task force leave the island, that this reaction had come without any warning.
Despite the fact that Anguillians had made obvious their dislike towards the new arrangement, the Associated State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla was officially formed on February 27, 1967. Earlier that year, Anguillians had expelled Peter Johnston from the island, a British government expert who had come to speak about Statehood; they had sabotaged a visit by the Premier of St Kitts, Robert Bradshaw, who was heckled on each of his four speeches in West End, The Valley, East End and Sandy Ground; they had disrupted the Statehood Queen Show (an event organised by the government of St Kitts in order to celebrate the creation of the new State). In fact, Anguillians – mostly young ones, led by the enthusiastic spirits of Ronald Webster and Atlin Harrigan – had done everything in their power to make it clear to the British government and to Premier Bradshaw that they would not accept yet another grouping with the sister island.
But nobody would listen, so Anguilla was forced to take things in its own hands. On May 29, 1967 a mob of roughly 2000 people gathered in the Park and spontaneously decided that this was it, that by four pm the following day they wanted to have no more to do with St. Kitts. Seventeen policemen spent the next 24 hours looking for ships, planes, anything, really, that would take them on the 65-mile journey back to where they belonged. Just like that, Anguilla had a revolution.
At that point the condition was critical: A Peacekeeping Committee comprising fifteen respectable members from a wide number of sectors of society was formed to take control of the island provisionally. Its first priority was to seek protection from any foreign power to safeguard the interests of the population; the Committee’s efforts were in vain and the situation in the island was precarious, as an invasion from St Kitts seemed imminent. Intrepidly, Anguillans took the initiative, devised a makeshift attack on St Kitts, and on the morning of June 10, 1967 embarked upon what must stand out among the most naïve failures in the history of military aggressions.
And yet, fortuitously, the mission achieved its goals. Faced with the threat of an armed uprising – faced, really, with the unthinkable – Prime Minister Bradshaw spent the following month turning St Kitts into a 100% safe, invasion-resistant bunker. Meanwhile, the Anguilla Peacekeeping Committee acted in all haste to build the institutional edifice required to rule the country. By July 11, 1967, one month and one day after the attempted attack on St Kitts, Anguilla already had a small “army” of fifty servicemen, an anthem, a constitution, a revolutionary leader, a patriarch and a foreign advisor. The provisional government also had organised an internal referendum to decide upon the question of secession from the State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. The overwhelming result of 1813 votes in favour to five against, out of 2554 registered voters, forever changed the course of Anguilla’s destiny.
What was most peculiar about Anguilla’s struggle was that, remarkably, the goal was not to declare full-fledged independence but to redress a condition that many Anguillians saw as tantamount to being a double colony, given that the island was ruled by a government in St Kitts which in turn was suzerain to Great Britain. Hence, the idea was to cut the middle man and return to the fold of colonialism through direct association with the UK. Constitutionally, however, Britain could not interfere with the internal affairs of the State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, and the most it committed to provide was an interim Administrator to the rebel island, which would reside in Anguilla for a period of one year, beginning on January 1968.
Twelve months later the deadlock remained intact. With no final solution to the conflict in sight, Britain proposed to extend the interim administration indefinitely. The leadership of Anguilla feared no progress would be derived from such move, so, following a new referendum to ratify the people’s will to secede from St Kitts, Anguilla declared independence on February 7, 1969. St Kitts retaliated by demanding support (from the British, from Jamaica, from Trinidad) for a military expedition to crush the insurgency. Britain’s response was to step-up her efforts to make diplomacy prevail. Alas, they sent one of their most incompetent envoys in the figure of William Whitlock, who arrived in Anguilla on March 11, 1969 with perfectly reasonable proposals – except he decided to deliver them in such curt, thoughtless way that he was forced out of the island at gunpoint. Eight days later the British had invaded.
Operation ‘Sheepskin’ was set in motion on March 17, 1969, when 135 Red Devil paratroopers from the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment together with 40 members of the Scotland Yard police force gathered at Lyneham airfield with views to departing to Antigua early in the morning. However, a fog so dense fell over the Oxfordshire countryside that taking off was out of the question. A number of the troops were then mobilised to Brize Norton – but the trucks that took them there were hardly immune to the weather conditions, as was evident in their speed. Eventually, a nice sample of the RAF fleet, including at least one Hercules, a Vickers VC10 and a Bristol Britannia, managed to find its bearings in the mist and lift the troops en route to the perils awaiting them in the Caribbean.
However, the bad weather was not exclusive to the English countryside: strong headwinds throughout the flight forced the VC10 to stop for refuelling in the island of Bermuda; the same headwinds, presumably, which brought about a rather brusque landing that claimed two tyres. Which was a problem, because the textbook said that the VC10 should always carry one spare wheel in case of an accident. But no one had envisaged a scenario where two tyres blew, causing absolutely no further damage to the aircraft.
As anyone might be forgiven to imagine, the cosmopolitan airport facilities in Bermuda didn’t happen to have a spare wheel of the specifications required. So a motley crew of paratroopers in their red berets and Scotland Yard policemen in their uniforms loitered while reinforcements from wherever came to the rescue. Meanwhile, another bunch of white men in red berets tapped their fingers or, more likely, scorched, in Antigua, as they awaited the arrival of the remainder of the task force to, finally, pounce on their prey. By the time the men from Bermuda arrived in Antigua, late in the afternoon of March 18, the London Daily Express and Evening News already had divulged the secrets of an invasion that wouldn’t take place for another twelve hours.
Two British frigates (the H.M.S. Minerva and the H.M.S. Rothesay) finally landed in Anguilla in the early hours of March 19. At the time, Ronald Webster, president of the rebel nation and leader of its revolution, was asleep. In fact, so were most Anguillans. Only a bunch of journalists eagerly awaited the arrival of the invading army. Penetrating the island simultaneously from Crocus Bay and Road Bay, the British encountered some surprise and a good degree of indignation among the locals. But no resistance, at all. Nor any of the disturbances which they had listed as reasons for the invasion: ‘Mafia-like gangster elements’, armed militiamen, intimidated portions of the population, etc.
Before the end of the day the oil drums blocking Walblake Airport had been removed, Tony Lee (the man who had acted as interim Administrator in 1968 and now came as H.M. Commissioner of Anguilla) and the rest of the British high command had arrived by RAF Andover (to continue the RAF’s parade of aircrafts on the day) and the peace that had always reigned in Anguilla had been restored. Although the legal battle would go on for years (secession was officially declared in 1971, but the legal status of Anguilla within the Crown would not be elucidated until 1980), Anguilla had succeeded in returning to the hands of the British. And they had done so without a single casualty. Which is not to say there had been no tension. The British troops had arrived prepared to find armed people ready to fight. It is to the credit of Anguillians that precisely this was what they did not find. Then again, they were not the enemies: the government of St Kitts was. And, indeed, the British, and only the British, could provide that which Anguillians wanted most: not only secession from St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, but legality at that.
The invasion of Anguilla was a total public relations disaster for the British. The world’s press immediately dubbed it the ‘Bay of Piglets’. Six months after it had started, the operation already had cost the British taxpayer at least £600,000. It cost William Whitlock his job and it ended his ministerial career. It contributed to Harold Wilson’s defeat in the 1970 general elections in the UK; and it certainly cost the no-longer-existent British Empire some of the little face it had left. Yet, somehow, forty years on, ties between the governments of Great Britain and Anguilla remain strong. The island’s economy has grown exponentially over the past decade and political lessons have been learnt under the guidance of what has proved to be a benevolent parent. Military aggression is certainly not the recommended strategy to establish friendships, yet, implausibly, operation ‘Sheepskin’, for all the criticism it sparked back in the day, might well be the unlikeliest of success stories in the history of Britain.
ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY CARIBBEAN BEAT IN NOVEMBER 2009 (ISSUE 100).