The Political Development of the Virgin Islands

People have been asking what have I been doing since the last elections in 2015. For those who know me well, they know that I am passionate about learning about our VI History and Heritage, so much so I enrolled at the HLSCC in 2015 and took the Virgin Islands History course (VIS110). I was blown away by what I did NOT know about my own history and culture in my late thirties and since then I have been advocating that this course needs to be made a REQUIREMENT for graduation to ensure every college student learns about who we are as Virgin Islanders and come to appreciate their heritage all the way back to the African continent. For me this is the first step in building a more patriotic attitude in our society because as the elders move off the scene and the oral history is lost, it must be institutionalized to make sure generations to come can tell it to the next.

All during the course I felt as if I had been disenfranchised by not learning about our History in depth from high school. After all we had to learn Caribbean History inside out for CXC exams and “our” story is nowhere in there. So in 2017 my instructor Dr. Kathy Smith asked if I’d like to share the research paper I did in the VI Studies Institute’s journal and of course I said sure. This is actually a summary of my 16-page paper on what else? The Political Development of the Virgin Islands! That paper was a joy to write and it made me even more determined as an aspiring politician to see my country progress because of visionary leadership. The shoulders on which we stand on sacrificed in the 1950’s for us to see better days in the 21st Century and it for those of us coming on the scene to ensure we leave the country even better than we met it. I hope you enjoy reading it and it compels you to take the course, advocate for VI History to be a required course at the college and introduced in the high school curriculum. And if you know a young person attending the college, encourage them to take the course. They will be enriched by it because as Marcus Garvey so wisely said “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Let’s us be intentional about connecting to our roots so that the Virgin Islands “tree” grows stronger and thrives for generation to come. In my book, we can’t practice a culture we barely know.

To read all the other great articles in the Fall 2018 issue of the journal you can get a copy by the college’s bookstore or by Mac's Cafe at the Tortola Pier Park.

The socioeconomic development of the Virgin Islands has come through agitation of the local population for political advancement over more than two hundred and forty years.

Political Development from 1774 to 1901

The development of the Virgin Islands was very slow up until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Deputy Governors were appointed in Tortola and Virgin Gorda and each convened a council which represented the English authority in the islands but did not have real power to govern and deal with civil suits. (Pickering 27-28, 30). The Deputy Governors reported to the Governor of the Leeward Islands Federation which the Virgin Islands was a part of. As a result of the neglect of these islands because London was doubtful of their economic worth, the Virgin Islands developed its own political culture, at times contrary to the nature of British colonial administration (2).

The economy shifted to sugar production as more reputable settlers came in the 1730’s and 1740’s, the Virgin Islands took on a new importance to the mother country (Pickering 35). Legislative government was granted on the 30th November 1773 when the Governor issued a proclamation order to convene a local legislature and the first assembly met on 1 February 1774. The legislature came on the condition of planters paying duty of four and a half percent on all produce exported. The Virgin Islands became a colony with a Council of twelve appointed members from prominent settlers and an eleven member elected Assembly, modeled on the UK Westminster model.

In 1867 a severe change of government of the islands took place where elections were abolished and the Legislative Council was changed to consist of six nominated members for fear of political control passing “into hands of farmers and peasants” after emancipation. The Virgin Islands became a full crown colony with executive power vested in the Governor of the Leeward Islands Federation. Pickering described these changes as a removal of “any possibility of advancement of the blacks,” far from the principle of representation introduced in 1773 (55-56).

The Virgin Islands representative was a nominated official. In 1872 the Virgin Islands became a presidency of the Leeward Islands Federation and the President was nominated by the Governor. Frederick Augustus Pickering, a former President’s Clerk, was the first coloured Virgin Islander to act as President from 1884 to 1887.

According to Harrigan and Varlack, the VI Legislature surrendered its constitutions in 1901 and the Federal Council in Antigua abolished the local council in 1902 and the Governor of the Leeward Islands became the sole legislative authority. The presidency was now completely without representation locally or on the Federal Council and most of the important departments including law, education, audit and police were controlled by federal officers (55). “In a little over 125 years after the Virgin Islands had pledged themselves to pay in perpetuity for the right of self-government their last political state became nearly as bad as the first for in the system of Crown Colony government the islands appeared to be forever beginning” (Harrigan and Varlack 55).

Political Development from 1902 to 1950

The political development of the Virgin Islands entered a period of stagnation after the abolition of the Legislative Assembly and its reinstitution was a result of public outcry of the anemic socioeconomic development of the presidency over the next forty plus years. There was not much economic progress in the islands and the people were only concerned with “eking out a living” (Legislative 240) as the days of the estate were gone and persons worked their land, raising cattle, building boats and sailing. According to Harrigan and Varlack, the man on the street was focused on feeding his family and paying taxes more so than political representation as it had no bearing on his daily life or so he thought (153).

In 1938, when Hope R. Stevens, a native Tortolian, trained in law in the US, returned home and saw the depressed conditions of the Virgin Islands, he organized the Civic League along with David G. Fonseca (President), Charlie Georges (Vice President), Howard R. Penn (Treasurer) and Jose R. O’Neal (Secretary). The Civic League prepared a petition requesting a reconstitution of an elected legislative council in the Virgin Islands. Hundreds of signatures were collected and submitted to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. According to the Memoirs of H.R. Penn, “nothing came of that first effort, except for the important fact that seeds for an elected Legislative Council had been planted” (21). It is important to note that a supporting petition also sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies from Virgin Islanders living in New York, where Mr. Stevens previously resided (Harrigan and Varlack 154).

There was another opportunity for local leaders to agitate for political and economic reform through the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission which was established in 1942. A group called The Virgin Islands Welfare Committee, led by H.A. Abbott, H.R. Penn, David G. Fonseca and Richard L. DeCastro circulated a petition and collected “some 800 signatures,” outlining the grievances of the people and requesting an audience at the Commission that was to meet in St. Thomas. There was even the radical request for a unified Virgin Islands in the statement about the “Virgin Group be given one nationality” but this drew strong opposition in the British Virgins even though it was estimated that 95% of the population favoured the change in US nationality (Harrigan and Varlack 155).

Harrigan and Varlack wrote that “things came to a head in a curious manner” when an Anegadian fisherman, Theodolph Halburn Faulkner came to Road Town seeking medical assistance for his wife, had a disagreement with the Medical Officer and was unable to find redress (157). Faulkner found that in conversations with other locals that many had grievances, some against Commissioner Cruickshank, PWD Superintendent A.C. Franklin or Superintendent of Education Thomas Dixon Green (Penn 25). He made a rostrum in the marketplace over several nights and spoke about the grievances people had told him about during the day and demanded change. He knew Carlton DeCastro and I. Glanville Fonseca, both with Anegadian roots, and they joined him in organizing a demonstration to ask for the removal of Commissioner Cruickshank. Two petitions were prepared for people to sign: one for the removal of the Commissioner and another for an elected Legislative Council (Penn 25).

According to Harrigan and Varlack, The St. Thomas Daily News published an editorial October 1949 that “A rumbling sound is coming out of the British Virgin Islands which may soon get the attention of No. 10 Downing Street” (158). On 24 November 1949 over 1,500 people led by Faulkner, DeCastro and Fonseca marched through Road Town to the Commissioner’s Office (present day Governor’s Office) and presented a document outlining their grievances against the political system and how the presidency was being administered. A Constitutional Committee was set up in February 1950 by the Governor of the Leeward Islands, Lord Baldwin. H.R. In July 1950, the General Council of the Leeward Islands approved the Virgin Islands Constitution Act 1950 and granted permission for the local council to be reconstituted. This was in fact the fifth constitutional order made for the Virgin Islands under British colonial rule.

Elections were held in November 1950 and the first representative government in 175 years was formed with elected members: Mr. Isaac G. Fonseca, Mr. Howard R. Penn, Mr. Carlton DeCastro and Mr. J. Charles Brundell-Bruce along with nominated members: Mr. J. Olva Georges and Mr. Benjamin A. Romney. It is interesting to note in the Virgin Islands Story that the 1950 elections had all the political trimmings of a campaign, voter education and a political party called the Progressive League (Harrigan and Varlack 161-162). The Council was inaugurated on 5 December 1950 and two of the elected members were appointed to the Executive Council. Though a significant milestone in the territory’s development, these first elections did not provide for the interests of rural areas and outer islands and the nominated and official votes were greater than the elected so the Commissioner was still able to carry on his policies.

Political Development from 1951 to 2000

The reconstitution of a legislative assembly in the Virgin Islands in 1950 marked the dawning of an era of constitutional advancement and socioeconomic development of the presidency through greater local representation and increased responsibility for local affairs that has been carried forward over the last 65 years.

The second election was held in September 1954. In the Membership System, two elected members in the LEGCO were elected as Member for Works and Communications and Member for Trade and Production. They functioned in an advisory role on the subjects that were under their purview on the Executive Council. The federation of the Leeward Islands was dissolved in 1956 and the status of the islands changed from presidency to a colony and the Governor remained the governor in each former presidency and the Commissioner was retitled to Administrator. With the dissolution of the Federation of the Leeward Islands, discussion began amongst the islands to form a Federation of the West Indies to which the local Council voted not to join when they were told that a senator from Antigua or St. Kitts would have to represent the Virgin Islands because its population was too small to justify a senator. Penn describes passionately the argument presented that “we would be unwise to relinquish any part of that hard won right…” (32).

The third election was held in 1957 and voter participation improved from the second where there was a lower voter turnout than the first elections, seemingly due to disenchantment with the politicians for not fulfilling grand promises made on the first campaign trail (Harrigan and Varlack 165). There were constitutional talks in 1959 with the Secretary of State for the Colonies and it was agreed that the Virgin Islands would advance to status of a colony with direct access to the Colonial Office, the Membership System should continue and members be given more responsibilities over time until full ministerial authority was granted (Penn 37-38).

The sixties were a kind of golden age in the Virgin Islands where there were significant developments such the opening of the Little Dix Bay Resort, commercial bank, the BVI High School and the Moorings yacht charter company, the laying of telephone cable from Bermuda to Tortola, postal service to Jamaica, the US currency becoming the legal tender, electricity service was extended throughout Tortola and the infamous Wickham’s Cay Development agreement. The fourth and fifth general elections were held in 1960 and 1963, respectively (Pickering 78-83). The office of Governor of the Leeward Islands was abolished in 1960 and the Administrator now reported directly to the Colonial Office and was vested with all the powers of the Governor.

There was agitation for a more political reform after the 1963 elections and this resulted in the appointment of Constitutional Commissioner Dr. Mary Proudfoot in 1965 to review the constitution. The Opposition members rejected her report with its recommendations to evacuate the population and turn the territory into a bird sanctuary, amalgamate with the USVI or build the tourism industry for economic viability. A Constitutional meeting was convened in London in October 1966. An agreement on a greater measure of internal self-government for the islands with a ministerial system was reached. The EXCO would consist of a Chief Minister, two other ministers and the Financial Secretary and Attorney General as ex-officio. The LEGCO would now comprise of seven elected members, a Speaker elected from non-members, a nominated member and the ex-officio members of EXCO. The new constitution came into effect in April 1967 and a boundary commission was appointed to define new constituencies for elections later that year (Harrigan and Varlack 171-172). There were three political parties formed to contest in the sixth general elections and it was understood under the new system that the party that won the most seats would be asked to form the government. The political groups were the BVI United Party, BVI Democratic Party and People’s Own Party (based on the original Progressive League). The United Party won four seats and its leader H. Lavity Stoutt became the first Chief Minister. The ministerial portfolios were Chief Minister and Minister of Education, Natural Resources and Health, and Works and Communications. The Administrator remained head of Government and responsible for finance, law and order, external affairs and the civil service.

In the 1971 elections, the first woman ran for office amongst the field of many candidates from the Virgin Islands Party led by H. Lavity Stoutt, United Party led by Conrad Maduro and the Democratic Party led by Dr. Q.W. Osborne and independent candidates. After elections, independent candidate Willard Wheatley joined the Democratic Party that had won three seats to form the government and became the second Chief Minister. The Administrator’s title was changed to Governor in the same year. Several significant projects were accomplished such as the construction of the government Central Office and Town Plaza off Main Street, the new deep-water harbor at Port Purcell and a new airport terminal. Air BVI started flights to Puerto Rico in 1972. However, the economic development of the country was still slow due to a global recession since the late 60’s. The tradition of the USVI/BVI Friendship Day was started during this term in October 1972 to foster stronger trade and economic ties.

In the 1975 General Elections United Party Candidate Hon. Willard Wheatley became Chief Minister again by joining with the Virgin Islands Party. At its first meeting, the Eight Legislature passed a resolution to amend the Constitution Order 1967 to include the responsibility of the finances be given to an elected member thus the Financial Secretary would cease to be a member of the EXCO and LEGCO, Chief Secretary would be renamed Deputy Governor, a Deputy Chief Minister would be appointed, increase districts to nine, no more nominated member and require candidates to be Virgin Islanders.

Her Majesty’s Government agreed and the Constitutional Order 1976 was enacted (Penn 59-60). Significant legislation was constituted during this Administration: the Labour Code, Immigration and Passport Ordinance and Development Bank of the Virgin Islands. The Wheatley-led government managed to balance the recurrent budget and the territory was taken off grant-in-aid in 1979 which it received since 1950 when Commissioner Cruickshank had first obtained it (Penn 61).

A general election in 1979 resulted in the ninth Legislature with H. Lavity Stoutt as the Chief Minister and three other Ministerial posts and a major achievement was the passage of the Social Security Board Act. The tenth Legislative Council was elected in November 1983 with independent candidate Cyril Romney joining with the United Party to form the government after three seats were won by the United Party and Virgin Islands Party each. This administration that was credited with the passage of the International Business Companies Act in August 1984 that changed the economic trajectory of these islands as financial services became a main industry but it was marred by political distress in the country. Charges and countercharges were levied against the government and a vote of No Confidence was called but Chief Minister Romney asked Governor Barwick to dissolve the Council and early elections were held in September 1988. The eleventh legislature, which was the third Stoutt government, was elected and the subsequent elections held in 1990 returned a Stoutt administration (Penn 64).

Rapid social and economic change and the close approach of the twenty first century propelled Britain and the Virgin Islands to appreciate the need for further constitutional review (Legislative 271). A Constitutional Commission was appointed in late 1993 and a report submitted in April 1994 to the UK Parliament and it was decided to implement a territorial (at-large) district for the election of four additional representatives. Membership of the Legislative Council comprised of thirteen elected, the Speaker and the Attorney General (ex-officio). Proxy voting was abolished and reduced the voting age to 18 years old with the new Election Act 1994. The 1995 and 1999 elections were watershed moments in VI politics where the At-large candidates were elected on the strength of the district candidate; no independent candidates were returned for the first time and the first female members were elected to the legislature (Legislative 278-279).

Political Development from 2001 to present

A new political party entered the political scene in 1999 called the National Democratic Party (NDP), led by Dr. Orlando Smith. NDP was successful in its bid for power in 2003, 2011 and 2015, unseating the entrenched Virgin Islands Party. The United Party had long left the scene in 1980’s. The constitutional reform started in 1993 was completed in 2006 and the Constitution Order 2007 was approved and is substantially similar in form to the constitutions of a number of other British dependent territories. The Constitution came into force immediately following the dissolution of the old Legislative Council prior to the 2007 general election. The new constitution adopted new nomenclature: The Chief Minister was renamed the Premier, the Executive Council was renamed Cabinet and the Legislative Council was renamed the House of Assembly (Constitution Order 2007). A Bill of Rights was added and the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court continues to have jurisdiction in the Islands. Provision was made for a Police Service Commission to provide advice on appointments to police officers. A new National Security Council was established, as was the office of Director of Public Prosecutions. Provision was also made for public finance[SS1] , a Complaints Commissioner, and a Register of Interests. The most recent amendment to the Constitution Order 2007 has been the implementation of two junior Ministers in October 2015.


It has been shown that as Hope R. Stevens spoke about economic development coming with political advancements to one of the founders of the Civic League (Penn 21), so it has come in rapid succession since 1938. Major milestones have been accomplished in our political advancement since 1773 when the local planters petitioned for local representation right up to the modern-day system now in place thanks to the perseverance and tenacity of Virgin Islanders who advanced the cause for the continued betterment of these islands. May we never forget our history and stay vigilant in the fight for governance that is in the best interest of future generations.

Last modified onWednesday, 09 January 2019 18:29

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