Anguilla Day: May 29-30, 1967

Then, finally, Rude Thompson could take it no longer. He descended upon his people, he questioned every soul he found in the streets of Anguilla, he demanded everyone get together to speak, to protest, to act, and all of a sudden a meeting was officially called to take place at the park in The Valley on May 29, 1967.

For wha’ dis meeting? Sol asked, full of suspicion.

We go figure it out right dere—de whole bunch of we. That was the best Rude could fashion for an answer, but it was enough to calm Sol’s greatest fears, and the word was spread at the pace with which it was always spread in Anguilla: the speed of light; and soon enough everybody knew about the meeting, and everyone was getting excited, and everyone wanted to take part.

A massive crowd of people gathered in and around Burrowes Park, not really certain of why they were there or what they were going to do, other than to express their discontent, other than to protest against the present arrangement, other than to take comfort in the fact that each of them was not alone, in the fact that the vast majority of people on the island suffered in similar degree. Early on the afternoon of May 29, 1967, hundreds of Anguillians arrived at Burrowes Park to listen to their leaders’ appeals, alternatives, solutions, ideas, and a dialogue began with each of the speakers, with Rude Thompson and Alwyn Cooke, but also with less actively militant members of the community, who took the chance to jump under the limelight, to take center stage and voice their opinions. There was John O’Farrell, the Anglican canon from East End, whose pipe danced frantically between his lips as he entreated the people to look deep within their souls to find the courage to face the challenges posed to them by the Lord, for regardless of their will, their fate had already been written since eternity and for eternity in the Book of the Lord, and therefore they should not be stifled by fear of earthly punishments, for nothing, not fear, nor pain, nor hunger, nor the total neglect in which Anguilla had been left since ever and ever, would be able to prevent the divine edicts from being carried out and each of their destinies from being fulfilled. And as the generalized Amen was echoed in Catholics and Methodists and Anglicans and Evangelists among the crowd, the imposing figure of Gwendolyn Stewart, firstborn child of Connor Stewart from Island Harbour, emerged with her commandeering voice: I does wan’ to fulfill my destiny, Father, but how I kyan do dat an’ not eat I ain’ understandin’ yet. And suddenly it did not matter anymore who was on the wooden speaker’s box and who was on the floor, because the discussion had grown alive, it had gained a soul of its own, and it made the rounds all through the cricket ground that was the original design of Burrowes Park.

But on this day, on May 29, 1967, Burrowes Park was anything but a sports ground, because the issues that were discussed within the stadium had nothing to do with wickets and runs but rather were fully concerned with the wishes and anxieties of the people of Anguilla, with their expectations and the way available to them to achieve them, with the future of the island and the well-being of its inhabitants. As a matter of fact, on that remarkable day, Burrowes Park was the closest thing the modern world might ever get to an ancient agora, where citizens would openly discuss the matters of their state and decide upon them through direct elections, and nobody in Anguilla might have known it at the time, and if they did, they might not have realized the magnitude of their achievement, but on May 29, 1967, as the afternoon dragged on and more and more people made their way to the park, and the discussions grew more heated and the opinions more agitated, more committed, more extreme, Anguilla put to practice a concept that for centuries had been studied and analyzed, that had been proposed, adopted, amended, discussed, theorized, developed, and redeveloped: the concept of Democracy.

Burrowes Park became the center of the most democratic process witnessed in any contemporary society, as the swelling crowd contemplated the events that had led directly to the state of desperation in which they had lived for the past four months, with each person exercising a right that was there in practice, if not in law, giving his or her views and affecting directly, without the need for representation, the course of the day and of history. This was the situation when Alwyn Cooke, suddenly aware of the potential of this forum, took to the platform and spoke through a megaphone: Fellow Anguillians, is today we mus’ show St. Kitts how bad we wan’ break up wit’ ’em. Is today we mus’ determine how we go split wit’ St. Kitts for good.

And before any possibilities could be explored, before the consequences of their actions could be measured, before, even, the meaning of the words sunk into the consciousness of the people, a slogan spontaneously devised by Rude Thompson, heckling Alwyn’s speech, grabbed hold of the collective imagination and spread like a wildfire from person to person, from one character dried out of any hope to the next, and the rumor grew into a chorus that demanded to Kick ’em out! Kick ’em out! Kick ’em out! and before anyone realized who ’em might be, Rude jumped right next to Alwyn and shouted into the megaphone, We ain’ wan’ no orders from St. Kitts! We ain’ wan’ no not’in’ from St. Kitts! and as the women looked at each other, and the men, and as the big dark eyes of one mirrored the enthusiasm of the other, the thought suddenly made itself clearer in the minds of some of the audience, and their eyes glowed with a dose of courage, and their fists got clenched in a sign of defiance, and the chorus now turned into a roar that was intoxicating, and the Kick ’em out! could now be heard as far away as the police station, and those who were not totally convinced by the resolution were persuaded by the general hysteria, and the few dissenting voices were drowned in the deafening unison of the chant, and those who were overcome by doubt or fear at the thought of outright rejection of the legal authority as stipulated by the new constitution were comforted by the thought, Wha’ dey goin’ do? Look how much people we be—or was that not a thought? Had Rude Thompson just uttered the words so many others were thinking that very moment? And, For real, wha’ dey goin’ do? Dey t’irteen, we some t’ousands, and no sooner had Rude Thompson announced that they should march toward the police station than the crowd was cut through the middle to allow him and Alwyn Cooke to make their way to the front, to lead the way toward the only bastion of Kittitian authority left on the island, to Kick ’em out! Kick ’em out! Kick ’em out!

Inspector Edmonton was as baffled when he heard the news that the mob that had congregated at Burrowes Park had determined that enough is enough, that the police task force should leave the island, never to come back, that the time had come for Anguillians to take care of their matters by themselves, as, indeed, was Aaron Lowell, the man whom Alwyn Cooke had chosen to deliver the nonnegotiable message. As the river of people flowed out of Burrowes Park in the general direction of the police station, Alwyn Cooke called on Aaron Lowell to take charge of things, because You de man de people choose to represen’ dem. Now, you go ahead an’ tell Inspector Edmonton wha’ it is you people who elect you wan’ you to do. And Aaron Lowell could not muster the strength to come up with a response, and all he could do was hide his small black eyes behind a fit of blinking that had his eyelashes fluttering away, and Alwyn, No worry, nuh, man—we have de Lord an’ de people of Anguilla on we side: wha’ could hurt us now?

And verily, Inspector Edmonton had precious little at hand to deal with a crowd of this nature in Anguilla that day, and the only thing left for him to do was buy some time and try to stall the situation in the hope that the wildfire of popular courage would choke itself, or grow weary with the passage of the hours, and if the authorities in St. Kitts resolved to act with the urgency merited by the situation the following morning, then maybe, just maybe, something could be salvaged out of all this mess, so How yer expect me to get me men out of here dis time of day?

And, indeed, it was almost five in the afternoon by then, and there were not enough planes to get all thirteen men out of the island simultaneously, and there would not be light for long enough to make two journeys to St. Kitts, and the last thing the people of Anguilla wanted was to send out just a portion of the contingent of policemen, for Bradshaw and his people to have all the details at hand to devise an attack on Anguilla overnight, so All right: you kyan stay tonight, but you leave tomorrow mornin’, before it turn to afternoon.

Thus, an initiative that had begun as a collective exercise to figure out what to do next turned into a rigorous night-long vigil outside the police station. The vast crowd thinned out progressively as the night settled over the Anguillian sky, yet Alwyn Cooke, Rude Thompson, and, now, also Aaron Lowell presided over a group of people that was never smaller than one hundred, camped along the main road in The Valley. Contrary to what might have been expected, it was not a joyous, festive, or even exciting night, but rather a bunch of tense, anxious hours during which sleep was not even a possibility. Anguilla had taken its leap of faith, but the fall would last all through that night and most of the following day, and it was anyone’s guess whether they would be able to land on their feet, or land at all.

Hour after hour the crow of the roosters reminded the men, sitting by a makeshift bonfire, around a game of dominoes or a bottle of rum, that time had not stood totally still, that the next day was approaching, until the first people from Sandy Ground, from South Hill, from Stoney Ground, started to congregate outside the police station again, even before the break of dawn. They brought with them some fish, some bread, maybe a banana cake or some fresh fruit—sugar apple, soursop, pawpaw, pomme-surette, mango—to share with the men everyone knew had stood guard all through the night.

Long before eight in the morning, Aaron Lowell went to speak again with Inspector Edmonton. By then, Diomede Alderton had readied The Pipe, his Piper Aztec, to take the first batch of policemen back to St. Kitts. The inspector showed himself less collected, less self-assured than the day before, and he had no other option but to order his men to leave him and his fellow officers behind, and I sen’ di men out shortly. It was not even an hour later when the Piper Aztec, full to the rim with members of the police task force, glided just above the heads of the crowd gathered on the main road at The Valley before turning sharply south to make the sixty-five-mile journey that put in motion an evacuating operation which didn’t even have a name.

All of a sudden, the unthinkable was happening in Anguilla, and as the ball kept rolling there was nothing, anymore, that could stop it. Not even the belated reaction of the central government in St. Kitts, whose decision to act came roughly at the same time as Diomede loaded his “Pipe” full of unwanted guardians of the public order, such that somewhere along the skyline between the two islands he must have crossed paths with a de Havilland Twin Otter operated by the Leeward Islands Air Transport and packed to the last seat with twice as many guardians of the public order as were being removed in the Aztec.

Luckily for the sake of the unthinkable and for the fate of Anguillians in general, there was absolutely no way the plane carrying the members of the police task force had arrived in St. Kitts, delivered its package, and headed back home in such a short period of time. Therefore, the most alert among a crowd that included many haggard and hungover members understood immediately, as soon as they heard the drumming of the Pratt & Whitney piston engines in the distance, that unwelcome visitors were on their way. Wallace Rey then provided the inspiration that would save the day when he jumped in his red pickup truck and drove it to the middle of the dust strip. From behind a cloud of smoke emerged the aging frame of Wallace, the old fox, wildly beckoning the rest of the cars parked near Wallblake Airport to join him in blockading the runway and preventing anyone from accessing the rebel island. A few minutes later, the Twin Otter approached the airport full of intent, seemingly unaware of the spontaneous barrier, or perhaps assuming that the drivers were still inside their cars and would be pushed into moving out of the way by the sight of this modern-day kamikaze. Except, nobody was anywhere near the cars, and no one had any intention whatsoever of breaking the blockade, such that the de Havilland Twin Otter arriving from St. Kitts with highly armed and badly psyched-out reinforcements for Inspector Edmonton was forced to fly in circles over the airport and its adjacent areas, searching in vain for a suitable landing spot.

The roar of the Pratt & Whitney piston engines got lost in the distance as abruptly as it emerged. Oil drums were sought to liberate some of the cars; for the rest of the day, and for many months to come, these drums would protect the island by making it inaccessible. Inspector Edmonton was left to face the fact that he would be forced out of the island that was meant to be his jurisdiction, and the group of improvised rebels made the arrangements to dispatch the rest of the task force. Three of them would board the weekly freighter that, like every Tuesday for the past twenty-odd years, would head to St. Kitts with the post. The other five would have to wait until the return of the Piper Aztec that would take them on its second run for their final banishment. Among those five was Inspector Edmonton, who was carrying a bag of guns and ammunition when he was intercepted by Gaynor Henderson and Rude Thompson, who told him to Drop de bag an’ go on. Then came the inspector’s reticence to obey, Gaynor Henderson’s need to restore his injured pride, and the .32 pistol he shoved right inside the man’s mouth, until it polished his uvula. You better drop de bag unless dis is da last t’ing you ever wan’ taste.

Escalation had, indeed, reached its peak. A few moments later Diomede Alderton would be on his way again, his dark gray flier sunglasses and wooden pipe clearly visible in the cockpit as he tipped the wings of his Aztec from side to side, flying low over The Valley in a saluting gesture to the men and women who had dared to rid the island of its oppressors. Just like that, an insignificant speck of coral in the northeastern corner of the Caribbean had revolted, and Anguilla found itself, very much by accident, “independent.”

 

 

This excerpt is taken from the very climax of my novel on the Anguilla Revolution, The Night of the Rambler (Part II, Ch VIII, pp 202-212).

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