The Empire is Not Dead

This essay was published by The BVI Beacon in April 2019.

Being a commonwealth or territory is permament second-class status.
                        – Sen. Chris Murphy (D – Connecticut)

A certain Clematius, a man of senatorial rank, who seems to have lived in the Orient before going to Cologne, was led by frequent visions to rebuild in this city, on land belonging to him, a basilica which had fallen into ruins, in honor of the virgins who had suffered martyrdom on that spot.
                        – Inscription at the Church of St. Ursula (Cologne, Germany)

On the 15th of November, 1960, the British Virgin Islands became a colony separate and distinct from the rest of the then British Leeward Islands – a collection of islands consisting of Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Nevis, Saint Christopher, and the Virgin Islands. The entity of the British Leeward Islands was established in 1671 and for the majority of its existence, its administration fell under the portfolio of the Governor of Antigua, and aside from some minor exceptions – Dominica spent 1871 to 1940 as a member – this colonial grouping remained intact for almost 300 years. The formation of the new colony of the British Virgin Islands was therefore something of a big deal. Historians agree that this defederation enhanced the political powers held locally in the new colony, allowing for infrastructural development where before there was only neglect. In fact, it is largely the experience of this new status that led officials to decline the invitation to join the West Indies Federation, believing that they would effectively have been swapping colonial government from Antigua for colonial government from Trinidad. In fact, the desire to determine and direct our own destiny was most clearly stated ten years prior when 1500 British Virgin Islanders marched on the Commissioner’s Office and presented a petition that informed the United Kingdom’s representative that locals had ‘outgrown that undesirable stage where one official, or an official clique, makes decisions for us’.

“Saint Ursula”. Giuseppe Cesari, 1887.

So, in 1960, the new colony is formed and it almost immediately adopts a flag. The flag of the British Virgin Islands consists of the Union Jack pinned to the upper left of a blue ensign, to the right lies a green shield. Upon this shield, a blonde white woman appears in a white robe clutching a golden lamp that emits a large red flame. The figure is surrounded by eleven more blazing lanterns. She is the iconic representation of Saint Ursula, the Romano-British saint who, legend tells us, was murdered in Cologne by a marauding horde of anonymous Huns alongside her 11,000 virginal handmaidens. Ursula stands above a scroll that bears the Latin inscription vigilate, or ‘be vigilant’. The irony is obvious. You see, Ursula’s legend is a fiction. The lack of historical records to support her existence and martyrdom mean that her sainthood and commemoration were removed from Roman Catholic calendars in the late 1960s but she survives in the Anglican tradition. So while Catholicism has divorced itself from the Ursula delusion, she remains a prominent figure of ours. I can think of few other jurisdictions with flags that utilize iconography that does not speak to the cultural identities of its people. But despite the abiding presence of this distinctly European fantasy, the motto that lies beneath it is what British Virgin Islanders must cling to – now more than ever.

The first thing that we must observe is that Ursula’s myth works several different dangerous dynamics at once. While she seems a revolutionary feminist character on par with Joan of Arc, her story, at the time, propped up the maintenance of the patriarchal status quo that both Christianity and Western societies are built upon. Ursula defies her father King Dionotus, who has sent her to France to wed Conan Meriadoc, the pagan British governor of Amorica. Her second defiance of a male guardian is against her betrothed, as she declares her embarkation on a pilgrimage to be completed before marriage. Apparently moved by her piety, even the Pope and other religious leaders in Italy leave to join her on her journey. The massive party arrives in Cologne, which is blockaded by a Hun army. Ursula rebuffs the marriage proposal of the unnamed Hun general and he responds by shooting an arrow through her heart and ordering the beheading of her handmaidens. Ursula’s fate in the myth serves two distinct purposes that reinforce the colonial realities of this territory.

The first is an implicit buttressing of a patriarchy that has at its summit wealthy white British males. Initially, her fierce independence in facing and defying these three men is admirable, but the penalty she pays for that appearance of agency is a brutal one.

“The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins”. Unknown, 1492-96.

The second purpose the legend performs is the nameless othering of the Huns as a horde of indistinguishable barbarians. It is the Hun leader who is unable to allow Ursula to continue to live after her perceived insult as opposed to the civility shown in the silences of Dionotus and Meriadoc. At once, those two Britons are elevated as civilized and sophisticated members of the patriarchal colonial hierarchy who are able to allow Ursula her religious fancy in the knowledge that she must return and ultimately submit to their will while it is the savage and primitive Other who, while he recognizes Ursula’s beauty – which is a discussion in itself when taking artistic representations of the legend into account – can only revert to his apparently innate barbaric nature when he is rebuffed.

If this flag, and this far away long ago legend which is emblazoned on it, is what symbolizes British Virgin Islander identity, then we are duty bound to remain vigilant and to unpack what the verbal and visual language that was present at our inception as a distinct political entity might entail. If we are indeed Ursula and her virgins, what does that say about our expected fate? At what point in our pilgrimage are we? Can we expect a bloody end if we ever depart our British stewards?

Flag included, we continue to collect all the markers now expected of a nation state and because of this we often fool ourselves that we are citizens of a country, that we have some real stake in the land that our ancestors were brought to in shackles. Those shackles have not disappeared, they have merely been transformed into mystical, psychological, and existential ones. We are not – and have never been – inheritors of these lands and that is not so much a tragedy as a byproduct of the great crime of the British Colonial Empire, an enterprise which still lives and breathes in all of its Overseas Territories. In this place we have to perform a sort of theatre of democracy. We have political parties, but no political ideologies. We clamor for transparent government and an end to nepotistic administrations when corruption is hard-wired into our United Kingdom endorsed constitution. And we hold elections to elect a government that British power can immediately sweep aside. What the British Virgin Islander knows by these facts is that the land they inhabit, the land in which they were born, the land in which they and their ancestors have labored, is not his. This is a truth we know in the depths of our beings, and it is a truth that we spend our lifetimes attempting to forget.

You see, the price of the ownership of these rocks has long been paid in sweat, in actual unimagined blood, in an unwavering devotion to the eternal struggle carving out a space here for our bodies, for our spirits, for our histories. But for many others, the ownership of people does not create the expected conflict of spirit. British slaveowners received reparations as they returned to the British Isles, while those formerly in their possession largely received nothing. Those reparations were the equivalent of £16.5b of today’s money which the government at the time had to loan from Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore. In fact, up to 2015, every taxpaying British citizen was helping the British government repay that loan that purchased enslaved people from their captors. But while that particularly British legacy of monetizing the subjugated bodies of the black and brown colonial subject is rich in the minds of those of us who have sprouted from the varied soils of the Empire, that legacy is transformed in the minds of those who have most enriched themselves from it into an act of some sort of perverse benevolence. This school of thought posits the ambivalent position towards slavery and colonialism, that the moral scales must weigh all the good that the Empire has done, first by bringing so many souls to Christianity, and then by providing the frameworks of education, law, and ultimately democracy. We must understand then, that when these equivocations are presented within the context of the conversation, that what is really being said is that despite all the crimes against the colonized – the genocide, the enslavement, the destruction of societies and cultures, the underdevelopment of lands and plunder of wealth that continues unabated – all of these are balanced out because they have civilized us. As David Cameron had the audacity to say within the halls of Jamaica’s parliament as he rejected the legitimacy of any conversation about reparations, ‘It is my hope that as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future’. But how can we build anything when this legacy continues to enrich those who have perpetrated the crime? How can we move on when the bodies littering the former colonies have not yet been eulogized, have not yet received their justice?

We know what future the apologists of colonialism seek, as it looks dreadfully similar to our past. Jason Hickel articulates just how prevalent these worldviews are in an essay for Prospect, which thrusts the hypocrisy of the way Britain views its colonial past against its disdain for Nazism. We live in an age almost 200 years removed from the abolition of slavery where most Britons do not view the mechanism that created it negatively. We live in an age this long after the abolition of slavery where we still cannot have a conversation about reparations for the descendants of the enslaved despite the fact that reparations for the enslavers has created immense generational wealth. How can this be? The answer is simply that even today, the way Britain conceives of its colonial past, even as it acknowledges the moral wrongness of slavery, rests on a foundation of white supremacy. This foundation is continually exposed by characters like Nigel Farage and Brexit, by the murder of black and brown people by British police, by David Cameron’s insults in Jamaican parliament, and by the maintenance of colonial lands as Overseas Territories.

In fact, many figures on the British right actively proclaim the benefits of colonialism – the good work of the Empire civilizing and building infrastructure in faraway lands for the advantage of the subjects of each jurisdiction. But ultimately, the argument must fall flat, infrastructure meant for the extraction of wealth be it tea, spices, sugar, minerals, and all other manner of precious resource cannot now be transformed into infrastructure that was meant to be beneficial to the people who lived in those subjugated countries. Furthermore, the infrastructure argument might gain some currency were it not so obviously missing in all the countries that were too small to produce wealth on the scales demanded by the metropole. In the British Virgin Islands for example, not so much as roads were cut to connect the various villages on each island until the first Chief Minister, H. Lavity Stoutt spearheaded the construction of Waterfront Drive in the late 1960s. The United Kingdom did not so much as build schools, or ports, or any of the basic infrastructural and human needs of any society. The eagerness to contextualize colonialism as having the remotest humanitarian aspect surely fails when we factor in the apathy held towards the remaining colonial territories like the British Virgin Islands alongside atrocities such as the Amritsar Massacre in India or the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

I do not mean here to create some sort of equivalency or measure by which to appeal to any sentimental reaction to the political situation that the Overseas Territories find themselves in. I do not subscribe to a narrative of subjugation or victimization as a platform from which to argue for self-determination. The islands may very well remain aligned with Britain pending a constitutional review that devolves further powers to the people who live on them. Good people will have to deeply consider what a future with or without the United Kingdom will look like. Before, the clamour of voices shouted that remaining a dependency granted us certain protections and insurances. For example, what if there were to be some major disaster? Others point to inefficiencies and incompetence of specific politicians or specific political parties as obstacles while remaining ignorant of the multitudinous scandals and abuse in British politics. They ask if we were independent what would come of us?

On September 6, 2017, Irma, the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history smashed into the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, and Anguilla as well as Sint Maarten/Saint Martin and Barbuda. That storm was quickly followed by Hurricane Maria, which struck Dominica first before making its way over St. Croix before devastating Puerto Rico. To date, the British Government has given about $83m in aid to the region. $17m to the BVI. The estimated cost of the damage wrought by Irma was in the billions. British law deemed the BVI to wealthy to receive any more aid than that. What would come of us if were on our own?

The ability of the territory to recover from Irma rests on its two economic pillars – tourism and financial services. With tourism dependent on an infrastructure that has been severely hobbled, though recovering, and tourism being a relatively volatile industry, revenue from that direction cannot be relied upon in the short term. All of our bets have been placed by necessity on the much maligned financial services industry. Which, to be fair, has outperformed expectations. But we have also learned all too clearly exactly where we stand in the British political mechanism.

On May 1, 2018, the British government accepted an amendment to a Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that would effectively force all British Overseas Territories to implement public registers of beneficial ownership in their financial services sectors. The same mandate would not be required of the City of London, nor would the bill’s sponsors be campaigning similarly in the numerous jurisdictions in Europe and North America to make this new rule a global standard. Most leaders of Overseas Territories reacted strongly to what they see as a constitutional overreach by the United Kingdom. Locally, thousands attended a protest march through the streets of Road Town that ended at the Governor’s Office. Two weeks later, the Governor released a video reminding residents of the support received from the United Kingdom following Irma. This support included 107 tonnes of material aid, the aforementioned $17m in grants, and a loan guarantee of up to about $400m. The cost is in the billions. In May, the major cruise lines Disney and Norwegian were still not ready to put the BVI back on their itineraries. Many hotels and businesses were levelled and will not be rebuilt. A year on, the outlook is more hopeful. The Virgin Gordan resorts are rebuilding, the promise of hospitality jobs beckons.

As new stewards take their turn to steer the direction of the Territory, we must remember our whole history and the many developments that have propelled the British Virgin Islands and its people to this critical moment. More and more we are beginning to realize that the status quo, both in terms of our local politics and our relationship with Britain, has not worked as it should and is no longer sustainable. With each passing week, the islands are inching towards a new awareness, towards a compulsion to do something different, to be brave, to make something new out of the wreckage of the trauma. I hope that you feel that compulsion as I do.