British Virgin Islands - "We The Black Suffering

September 25, 2007

A 45-minute flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, the sunny Brit- ish Virgin Islands, some 60 in all, are viewed as part of the "un- spoiled" tourist world. They are
famous in yachting circles for
some of the world's best sailing,
as well as their "natural beauty."
Untouched by some of the famil-
iar signs of tourist development--
big seaside hotels, hamburger
stands-the islands of Tortola,
Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke
are to visitors the ideal place to
"get away from it all."
Tourism in the British Virgin Is-
lands began with Laurence Rock-
efeller's construction of Little Dix
Bay. With the birth of tourism in
the 1960s, the British Virgin Is-
lands took their place alongside
most other Caribbean islands in
the competition for tourists--and
for cheap labor to serve them.
That labor, part of the migrant
chain that extends throughout the
Caribbean, has come largely from
from the Eastern Caribbean
("down-island"), as it has in previ-
ous periods of capitalist expan-
sion in the region.
To many residents and immi-
grant workers in the British Virgin
Islands, however, tourism is sim-
ply a new form of slavery.
You know in the next world white
people going to be slave?
You ever had any white people
were slave yet?
All white on top all over the
White people going to die on top.*
Nobody going to treat me like a grandfather came
from India to grind cane as a
slave.. .he said don't be like me;
do better than me.
Too much work.. .man on his
face workin'. My father used to
*These quotes, as well as the headline, are all from remarks made to the author by
a wide spectrum of workers in the British
Virgin Islands.
NACLA Reportupdate 9 update * update * update
have to work hard...He used to cut sugar cane... Well I was go-
ing to school until I was sixteen
years old and when I sixteen years
old I would stop and go and get a
job. But I would not have get it
easy. I would have had hard time
to get it...I would like to come a
teacher. ..
They saying now that only Tolian
[from Tortola] they want to work
here. Only like my brother who
born here would get any kind of
job he want... What they give me I
would have to take it. . .It is easy
for the Tolian dem but not for the
outside-one dem...They treat
them bad because they can't get
what kind of job they want. They
give them mind
someone's baby or to clean out
the house...
First claimed by the Dutch, the
islands were seized and colonized
by Great Britain, in 1673, as part
of the lucrative British West Indian
"triangular trade" in sugar and
slaves. The European demand for
timber, sugar, cotton and rum pro-
vided the British Virgin Islands
(BVI) with a brief period of pros-
perity between 1750 and 1815,
but the islands were used primar-
ily as hideouts for pirates and
After the abolition of slavery in
1834 the sugar plantations were
abandoned by English planters,
whose profits depended on con-
tinued slave labor and the mercy
of their Liverpool creditors. The
islanders, mostly former slaves,
purchased or squatted on avail-
able land and began to produce
vegetables and fruits and raise
animals, continuing on a larger
scale what they had begun as
slaves. Despite hurricanes, rocky
soil, and steep cliffside farming,
they expanded throughout the
19th century, so that by the early
Mar/Apr 1983
Tourism came late to BVI. Here, the Lord Nelson Inn, Virgin Gorda.
20th century these petty produc-
ers had become the main sup-
pliers of beef, poultry, vegetables
and fruits to their neighbors, the
Danish Virgin Islands.
In 1917, the United States pur-
chased those islands from the
Danes for $25 million. U.S. inter-
ests were primarily strategic, but
island residents soon saw the
tourist advantages; hotels as well
as military installations mush-
roomed in the next two decades.
The boom created an attractive
market for U.S. mainland produc-
ers. BVI farmers were unable to
compete with mainland food sup-
pliers for the U.S. Virgin Island
markets-though some tried to
survive in the margin that re-
mained. With no industry and little
help from Great Britain, the BVI
offered them few alternatives.
Those who could not compete
faced the choice of subsistence
farming on the rocky soil or mi-
grating to other Caribbean islands
for work.
The main source of work was
the tourist industry on the U.S.
Virgin Islands. Thus as tourism
flourished in St. Thomas, St. Croix
and later, St. John, it drew the
unemployed and impoverished
from St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla,
Antigua as well as the British Vir-
gin Islands.
Migration was not new to the
British Virgin Islanders, however.
Many of them had had to leave the
subsistence plots of their ex-slave
ancestors in the 19th century to
carry coal on the docks of St.
Thomas or cut cane in St. Croix.
With other West Indians, BV Is-
landers had also migrated to the
Panama Canal and to the cane-
fields of Cuba and the Dominican
Republic in the early 20th century.
So the pattern was a familiar
one in the 1930s and 1940s-
when the British Virgin Islanders,
along with the rest of the "down-
islanders," once again migrated
to fill the lowest paid, least pro-
tected jobs, this time in the ser-
vice sector. For the low wages
that St. Thomians migrated to the
United States to avoid, immigrants
worked, legally and illegally-as
taxi drivers, ditch diggers, wait-
ers, bartenders, cooks and do-
Uncertainty created by the ille-
gal status of most of their em-
ployees caused problems for hotel
and restaurant owners, who wel-
comed the passage of the U.S.
Immigration and Nationality Act in
1952. This act secured the legal-
ity of resident workers. Simultane-
ously, it allowed for the entry of
thousands more immigrants as
"temporary workers"--guarantee-
47update . update * update * update
ing the industry a virtually inex-
haustible labor supply.
Down-Island Labor Needed
Then in 1961 the British Virgin
Islands joined the tourist develop-
ment scene. The economy had
deteriorated to the point where an
outside economist was called in.
Her advice to the governor: pri-
vate, i.e., primarily foreign owned,
tourism. BVI businessmen were
quick to point out that with so many
British Virgin Islanders working in
the U.S. Virgin Islands--as tem-
porarily permanent residents--
they needed a new source of
labor. This labor was most easily
acquired from "down-island."
Since the inauguration of tour-
ism in the 1960s, hundreds of
West Indians from Antigua, St.
Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, Montserrat,
St. Maarten and Dominica have
migrated to the British Virgin Is-
lands-escaping the unemploy-
ment and poverty of their own
home islands in search of jobs
and higher wages.
Employed as electricians, plum-
bers, waiters, bartenders, maids,
mechanics, nurse maids, dock
hands and waitresses, down-is-
landers constituted 30.8% of the
BVI labor force of 2,544 in 1976.*
These figures, compiled from vol-
untary employer responses to a
questionnaire, underrepresent the
number of illegal workers, if it in-
cludes them at all. As a result, the
very large extent to which the BVI
economy depends on the supply
of down-island labor is obscured.
Other figures published by the
government tourist board indicate
that approximately 2,300 down-
islanders enter the British Virgin
Islands temporarily (as "tourists"
or "visitors") each year. Of these,
*The only publicly available statistics on
migration come from the government publi-
cation, Tourism in the British Virgin Islands.
These figures come from the 1978 issue,
the most recently published.
52% are men and 48% are wo- creased by the obligations of most
men. Seventy-eight percent of this to send money to family members
group are of working age: be- in their home islands.
tween 20 and 50 years old, with All this is aggravated by the
the average age 25. These figures, ideology of "Island People." In
while obscuring the numbers of this socially sanctioned discourse,
immigrants who come looking for Eastern Caribbean immigrants are
work or who actually obtain jobs, ostracized and degraded, blamed
dogivean indicationofthepoten- for the ills of BVI society and
tial supply of down-island labor in viewed as untrustworthy and cri-
the islands. minally disposed. This notion
gains acceptance in part from BVI
Mlfgrats' Needs Overlooked residents who feel outnumbered
For immigrant workers, how- by skilled immigrants, and angry
ever, the initial appeal of higher at the huge influx of foreign work-
wages in the BVI tourist industry is ers, the increase in crime in the
dulled by the conditions they find last 20 years and the reluctance
there. In addition to the high cost of immigrants to take part in labor
of living,* the legal status of many struggles.
immigrants is extremely precari- These antagonisms between
ous. Many enter illegally, are hired resident and immigrant workers in
illegally (without a work permit) or turn create difficulties in union or-
"overstay" their visitor passes ganizing. Employer opposition to
while looking for a job. For all im- unions is continuous, and at-
migrant workers-legal and ille- tempts at organizing in the 1960s
gal--deportation without due pro- and 1970s have failed in part be-
cess is an ever-present threat, cause of the inability of workers to
one which aids in the control and overcome these divisions. To
discipline of the workforce. When date, only the teachers have a
compared to prices, wages are union.
barely at subsistence level; the In fact, in contrast to BV Island-
average hourly wage for women, ers, many immigrants bring ex-
for example, was $1.29 in 1976. perience of labor struggles in their
The status of naturalized citizen, home islands. The desire to con-
with its corresponding rights to tinue those struggles, however, is
education and health care, is pos- frustrated by the restrictions they
sible after seven consecutive face as immigrants and "tempor-
years' residence. Before that, ary workers." Laws similar to the
immigrants' needs can be over- U.S. Immigration and Nationality
looked. And without land they Act were passed in the late 1960s.
have no garden plots essential to Workers are bound to their em-
offset the high cost of food. Thus, ployers by work permits and visa
immigrants especially suffer the conditions, and they know they
high cost of living, a burden in- can be deported for any behavior
*According to a report by the Royal Com- deemed "improper" by immigra-
monwealth Society in 1975, the following tion authorities-whose sympa-
food prices and wage differentials existed thies generally lie with resident
between the BVI and St. Kitts in 1974.
St. Kitts BVI
1 doz. eggs U.S. $ 94 $ 1.50 In spite of these obstacles, pro-
4 oz. coffee $ 1.06 $ 2.63 union sentiment exists-however
1 lb. chicken $ .68 $ .80 infrequently or quietly ex-
Monthly wages for
a full time cook and pressed-among both BV Island-
home helper $30. 19 $60.00 ers and down-islanders. This in
NACLA Reportupdate . update * update * update
part emerges from their common
work experience. Both groups
face uncertain health and safety
on the job and an absence of an
effective formal grievance proce-
dure. Both also face the high cost
of living from which resident work-
ers' access to housing and land
on which to grow food does not
entirely exempt them.
Shared Racial Oppression
These bonds between residents
and immigrants are expressed in
community and family. Residents
and immigrants intermarry, drink
rum and play dominoes together
and help each other in times of
financial need. Living side by side
in communities all over the islands,
they establish deep friendships
with one another. All of this con-
trasts with the hostility expressed
in the ideology of "Island People."
Bringing them closer together
is their shared experience of ra-
cial oppression. To the expatriate
North American and British hotel
and restaurant owners, managers
and tourists, both BV Islanders
and down-island immigrants are
merely black West Indians. For
Mar/Apr 1983
the most part whites and blacks
attend separate schools, live in
separate neighborhoods and so-
cialize in separate restaurants
and bars. These divisions only
reinforce the fundamental class
divisions in society between white
employers and black workers.
They keep you down all the days
of your life . .want you be a slave
for them.. .one day [you] might
say the hell with them.
We have our hope; we build our
hope. And when we read God's
Bible, it strengthen our hope.
I'm a revolutionary. . .a quiet revo-
lutionary. I have influence on peo-
ple...Jesus wasn't a colonialist,
an imperialist.. .Baptists have al-
ways been revolutionaries.
Rasta talk about slavery . .it's up
to Black people to change things
.. I got my mind.
One of the most outspoken
groups against racism and ex-
ploitation is the Rastafarians,
comprised largely of young BVI
nationals, sons and daughters
of wage laborers and farmers.
Rastas demand an end to the 400
years of political, cultural and
economic oppression of Black
West Indians by white Anglo
Saxon culture, the U.S. dollar and
British colonialism.
Another community group puts
forth more specific demands. It
struggles for local control over re-
sources, money for schools and
housing and the fair treatment of
immigrants. Frequently the target
of harassment, one leader was
recently jailed.
Despite the divisions between
resident and immigrant workers,
these bases of commonality may
yet provide the foundations of a
working class movement. Those
who struggle in the British Virgin
Islands will not endlessly suffer
the political, economic and racial
brutalities of their daily existence.
As one islander put it: "West In-
dian man going to fight against
you unless you treat him with dig-
nity. .. We all Caribbean people."
Elizabeth Oakes did research on Tor- tola, BVI, in 1980 and 1981. Her Ph.D. dissertation, in anthropology, is on class consciousness in the British Vir- gin Islands.

Tags: British Virgin Islands, tourism, racism, inequality, slavery

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