St Martin, Anguilla’s Secret Ally

The tale of Anguilla’s definitive divorce from its long and troubled association with St Kitts is so deeply wrought by oblique circumstances it is almost easier to think of it in terms of lore than within the strict boundaries of history. Mock funerals and beauty pageants, bones in rice, pepper in soup and the island’s only pier being approximately 60 miles off its shores (on a different island!), are hardly the sort of facts that tend to take centre stage in the official narratives of countries around the world. Like so much else, though, things here in Anguilla are different, more intimate, almost magical.

 
Independent Anguilla stamp. Source: stampsofdistinction.com

Independent Anguilla stamp. Source: stampsofdistinction.com

May 30th 1967 constitutes the watershed moment in the history of Anguilla, the inexorable divide that separates the neglect of old from the progress that was to come. Many things would still have to happen: shots would be fired and visitors expelled, coins would be minted, stamps redrawn, people would cast their vote and Anguilla would go it alone before the British invaded. Twice. In all this process St Martin played a role as the first and at times closest friend of the rogue island: St Martin, like the Virgin Islands, proved a useful port of entry for goods and people looking to reach Anguilla; significantly, St Martin allowed Anguilla to open PO Boxes that effectively worked as a makeshift replacement to the postal service from St Kitts, suspended since May 30th—not a minor contribution to an island whose economy was primarily driven by remittances; most importantly, however, St Martin provided the income that allowed one man to fund Anguilla’s revolution through months and months of uncertainty.

 

This is where personal anecdote intertwines with official history in Anguilla, where legend meets fact and the watershed needs to be lifted for a moment to look back in time, into the dark pre-revolutionary ages, to gauge the invaluable contribution of luck, charm and circumstance in this country’s fate. Before becoming the Father of the Nation, Ronald Webster was simply a child from an average family in Island Harbour, poor and numerous in equal measure. In 1936, at the age of ten, he went to St Martin looking for employment with two of his siblings. He was engaged by DC van Romondt at Mary’s Fancy, a large estate on the south side of the island, past the great pond, at the bottom of the hills near Dutch Cul de Sac. Ronald Webster spent the best part of the following thirty years working for DC van Romondt and, once he passed away in 1948, for Ms Josie, van Romondt’s partner and sole heir.

Webster, the young revolutionary. (c) Alamy

By the time Ms Josie died, in 1958, Ronald Webster was already known in St Martin as the milkboy, since one of his multiple tasks at Mary’s Fancy was to deliver the dairy’s fresh milk to customers around the island. But Ronald had arrived in Mary’s Fancy as a small boy and he had grown into an adult in the company of Ms Josie and DC van Romondt, who practically adopted him as a son. As the son, perhaps, they never engendered themselves. So much so that when Ms Josie died in 1958 Mary’s Fancy, an estate of 300 acres of land, was left in its entirety to Ronald Webster. At the age of 32, Ronald was suddenly a very rich man.

The next stop in the catalogue of coincidences that set the scene for the events of 1967 to unfold was the passage of hurricane Donna through the northeast Caribbean in September 1960. Ronald Webster was already a rich man when Donna hit Anguilla and St Martin, and in the face of calamity he resolved to return to his homeland and help his people. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Dutch set up the electric company of the Netherland Antilles (NV GEBE), based in Willemstad, but in charge of powering all of the Dutch islands. The French adopted a different strategy, awarding St Martin certain level of autonomy from Guadeloupe, making it a sous-préfecture in 1963 and facilitating access to the banking system and power grid. Things in Anguilla, however, were drastically different, as the British not only failed to develop any infrastructure following the havoc wreaked by Donna, but even fell short of restoring the little there was before it, simply clearing the debris of the rudimentary telephone system in place on the island prior to 1960, which boasted a whopping 14 interconnected lines.

 
Mary's Fancy Estate Manor House. Source: books.caribseek.com

Mary’s Fancy Estate Manor House. Source: books.caribseek.com

While progress was palpable in St Martin, come 1967 Anguilla was firmly mired in a loop of neglect that sent it reeling into despondency but also into open disaffection. Few of the events that took place that year in Anguilla were planned. Fewer still were taken seriously by the British, or even the Kittitian governments. The assumption all round was that Anguillians would simply not know how to deal with independence, that they would be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, that the enterprise would collapse by its own weight, that this uncomfortable problem would fizzle out, smothered by its own flames. And it probably would have, had it not been for Ronald Webster, a man who had already been blessed once with the sort of luck most of us can only fantasise of, and who now was confronted with the sort of purpose that fosters conviction.

Ronald Webster proved headstrong, resilient, resourceful and generous. It helped that he had more money than he could spend but I was once told by one of Anguilla’s freedom fighters that he personally accompanied Ronald Webster to St Martin and witnessed the transaction whereby one acre of Mary’s Fancy was exchanged for $5,000—just like that, Anguilla’s monthly expenses were covered, and the revolution could go on. This was not a one-off either: by the end of 1967 the budget of Anguilla could only be balanced through loans of close to $35,000 from Webster’s personal account. Thus, uncannily, Anguilla’s struggle for dignity, for prosperity, for autonomy was funded during its earliest and most perilous years by sectioning—plot by plot, acre by acre—St Martin’s land.

 

 

 
 
An abridged version of this piece was published by Design Anguilla (Issue 09, Vol 3) in November 2014.
 
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