Cooper Island is one of the BVI's little gems. It has a protected anchorage, a white sand beach, a resort and restaurant, a superb snorkeling location with wreck diving nearby and an interesting shoreline for kayaking and exploring. It also has a little known but interesting history. The name of the island is somewhat enigmatic but there are two theories: it was named for its first settlers, a Dutch family named Koop; or it was named Cooper for the coopers that came to collect the white cedar used for making rum barrels.
Many visitors and sailors know that Cooper Island's superb snorkeling site is in the waters around Cistern Point and the rock named Little Carvel Rock. What is not commonly known is that on the shore adjacent to the rock are the remnants of a cistern once used for watering livestock and plantation land. A plantation existed here back in the 1800s and possibly earlier. On the summit of the promontory lies the ruin of a fort; now the base of a residence. The walls are some three feet thick in order to resist cannon balls fired from potential enemy ships. Long time owners of the property, Jack and Nancy Fuller told me that according to local lore a dungeon existed under the fort for incarcerating wayward workers but it has since been converted to a cistern and has never been properly explored. During some 44 years of residency the Fullers have found many artifacts from the plantation era including musket and cannon balls. So why would there be a fort on a small and insignificant island like Cooper? The Fullers explained it this way: In the plantation era there were no police and no military to protect the citizenry, especially on an outer island like Cooper. In the event of a pirate attack or Spanish incursion it was every man for himself. Self protection was paramount.
During the 1900s, property on Cooper Island changed hands on a regular basis. There appears to have been one original owner of the island: the Abbott family. Samuel White bought the northern half of the island in 1910 for 50 cents an acre while the Abbotts retained the southern half. White built his first house on the ridge close by Harry's Bottom but one year a hurricane blew the roof off. It landed on the beach at Carol Bay on the island's eastern shore and he decided that if that was where the Lord wanted him to live that was where he would rebuild his house. Cornelius Leonard of Salt Island became firm friends with Mr White helping him to farm his property, which included the land at Cistern Point. Successful crops included pigeon peas and sugar cane. Years later he bought 50 acres and a portion of this land was to become the Cooper Island Beach Club.
Several owners were involved in the Cooper Island Beach Club property before it became what it is today. A Mr Eckert bought a large portion of beach front property from Cornelius in the 1960s and built a house on the hill, later to become the staff house of the Beach Club. Then a yachtsman, named McCord, decided he wanted a land base and built a house on the beach, but this didn't suit his wife and it was sold to the Treasure Isle Hotel to provide a beach for Road Town's land locked facility. By the mid 70s a few yachts from the fledgling charter industry would anchor off the beach and a yachting couple, Tim and Jan Short, prepared informal meals served in the open air dining room. Jan described their more than two years at Cooper Island: "We heard of the vacancy to run the small informal restaurant when a couple, who were brought out from England to run it, couldn't stand the isolation and left. Tim installed the first moorings to encourage yachts to stay overnight and would row out to invite the guests ashore. My conch fritters and Cornish Pasties were favorites, as were our Piña Coladas. On Tuesdays the windjammer Flying Cloud would bring passengers and Bomba's Fungi Band would provide entertainment. My two years at Cooper Island were the best years of my life; my daughter, born during our time on the island, is called Stephanie Cooper Short."
In 1980 Toby Holmes and Steve Pardoe acquired the property, and with Chris Tilling as part owner/manager, turned it into the successful beach bar and restaurant. The philosophy was to keep it low key and eco friendly; the island had no electricity and a generator was used very sparingly, so much so, that even blender drinks were not available. Battery powered lights and candles actually added to the ambience of a Bohemian tropical island paradise. The view was, and is, magnificent overlooking the Sir Francis Drake Channel with the sun setting over Tortola. Guest cottages were added to the property in 1992 with further additions in 1996.
According to historical documents there have been some singular events surrounding Cooper Island. Samuel White apparently stood seven feet tall and had red hair. His daughter, Maria, a tall and stately lady, married Cornelius Leonard and they had twenty children. Their homestead was in Carol Bay on Cooper's eastern shore. At one point there was a duel with machetes between Cornelius and Clarence Smith over a land boundary – unlike today's judicial process the issue was settled in a timely manner. It was Cornelius who built up Cooper Island's beach by carrying sand in pannier baskets by donkey. It was also he who planted the coconuts to form the palm lined beach we see today. Cornelius was a talented farmer, builder and boat captain. In 1971 Cornelius was walking up the trail to a residence on Quart o' Nancy Point and sat down and died. A week later Maria had a heart attack and her daughter Alice tried to raise help by lighting a signal fire on the ridge overlooking Salt Island; there was no-one else on Cooper Island at the time. The fire wouldn't light and in desperation Alice ran down to Manchioneel Bay and launched an old dinghy to row to Salt Island for help but she was handicapped by a withered arm and rough seas. Fortunately the minister from Maria's church on Tortola was coming over to pay a call and found Alice. Maria was taken to Tortola but died shortly afterwards, testament to the rigors of life on a small Caribbean island before the days of mass communication.
Today Manchioneel Bay has about forty mooring balls for yachtsmen. The bay is a central location for scuba divers with a dive shop ashore. Nearby are the shipwrecks of "Wreck Alley" where derelict vessels have been sunk to provide artificial dive sites and fish habitats. The internationally famous wreck of the RMS Rhone is also not far away. To the south of Little Carvel Rock, the island's popular snorkeling spot, there is a well defined isthmus called the Haulovers that divides the island, and here a small bay offers a good anchorage in sand for one or two boats with close proximity to two dive sites.
In 2009 the Cooper Island Beach Club changed hands again and the property, now owned by the Harris family, has had major renovations and further improvements are on the horizon. Probably the most salient feature of the upgrade is their continuing 'green' initiative. Ninety solar panels installed on the roof of the restaurant provide nearly 75 percent of the resort's energy requirements and the hot water to the cottages is also produced by solar power. Other eco-friendly features include environmentally friendly detergents, recyclable corn-based cups and take-out boxes and a composting area for vegetable matter. Chip fat from the fryers is even recycled into bio-diesel for the generator.
The new-look resort has a delightful al fresco lounge area under shade umbrellas and several beach games have been installed. The restaurant continues to be popular with several new menu items and the prices are reasonable by today's standards. The accommodations have all been upgraded to a high level of comfort.
Cooper Island continues to metamorphose into the 21st century and it still maintains a unique charm. With the husbandry and nurturing the island has received during its interesting history it looks set to remain an enchanting port of call.
Note: While all beaches in the BVI are open to the public the privacy of residences is strictly enforced. Please respect residential properties and do not wander onto private land without a prior invitation.
Thanks are due to the Fuller family, Jan Short, Ed Hamilton, Chris Tilling and Samantha Baker for valuable information.