Voices From the Past
A new book chronicles the history of the liberated
African settlement at Kingstown.
by Jane Bakewell
Can These Stones Talk? Photo by Jane Bakewell
Every day en route to her work as a Humanities Professor at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Dr. Patricia Turnbull drove through Kingstown, a flat stretch of land on Tortola's southeast coast buttressed between the high points that bookend Fish Bay and Brandywine Bay. And most days she would glance in passing at the stone ruins of an old church building, known as St Philip's Anglican Church, the site of a liberated African settlement from the early 1800s. She was mildly curious about the history, but little did she know that curiosity would take her on a five-year journey of research and reflection out of which would come a book and a historical legacy.
"As an educator and a teacher, I always insist on getting the historical context of a story," Dr. Turnbull emphasized as we met in a quiet room of the college library to chat. "We cannot erase people from their stories even if those stories are difficult to hear, as many of the slave stories are." What started as a probe into historical records of the St. Philip's Anglican Church and the community that surrounded it, became for the former history teacher at the BVI High School, a mission to speak for those forgotten voices, to give proper names to those whose records she would find and to answer the question she posed to herself and in her recently published book, Can These Stones Talk?.
"My subject matter was both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time," she smiled. It was not unusual to have settlements with a slave population in the 1800s; Tortola maps show the island divided into white colonist-owned estates, where sugarcane was grown, slaves were the labor force and the rum industry thrived. What was unusual was that Kingstown was formed to accommodate liberated Africans who had arrived by ship after the Abolition Act of 1807, which banned the transatlantic slave trade. This group became a "troublesome entity" to the ruling British colonists at the time, as the Africans were technically considered free and called apprentices, yet many were indentured for as much as 14 years of labor, some even tragically becoming enslaved again. The BVI was not to see full emancipation until 1834 almost 30 years later.
When the first ship arrived in 1809 with the liberated Africans they were put in barracks in Road Town close to the location of the old Custom's House on Main Street, now a popular coffee house and gift shop with its exterior structure historically preserved. The first decade for these liberated Africans was not better than that of their fellow slave counterparts. Although it was stipulated they were to be trained in a trade and were called "apprentices," these stipulations were often ignored and many were not paid for their work and were unfairly treated. Out of their own ingenuity and the skills they brought with them, some of the liberated Africans worked for themselves and were proficient as fishermen, tillers of the soil, artisians and builders. Their population continued to swell in the island's small capital and because they were a separate group with sketchy definitions and boundaries, they became a "growing threat" to the ruling establishment.
In 1831 the Collector of Customs at the time, Robert Claxton, negotiated with the Secretary of the State of the Colonies for Parliamentary grants to purchase 120 acres of land for the 250 liberated African adults and children in a bay across from the Custom's House. The land was named Kingstown (or Kingston) after King William IV, and was subsequently divided into parcels for "use" by the liberated Africans under very specific and strict conditions that precluded ownership.
One of the first priorities of the establishment at Kingstown was the erection of a combined schoolhouse and chapel for religious instruction and worship. From the time of the earliest Christian missionaries, it was felt the propagation of the faith helped to stabilize a community that arrived with what were considered strange cultural mores not understood by colonists. It was understood that Christianity improved social conduct and led to a more civilized society. Many of the Africans adopted this new faith as a way of social advancement, but there are indications there was some resistance to totally abandoning their ancestral Igbo spirituality.
The chapel at Kingstown was completed around 1840. The name St. Philip's can be traced back to records dating from the 1860s from St. George's Church, still in use and another historical landmark on Main Street. It is alluded by Virgin Islands scholar, Dr. Pearl Varlack that the name may have come from the encounter in the biblical Book of Acts between Philip the evangelist and a prominent Ethiopian court official that led to his conversion to Christianity and baptism. Nonetheless, this name and variations of it remain on the earliest historical documents. As was customary with churchyards, the burial site was often adjacent to the church building. Today one can see burial mounds still evident from the records Dr Turnbull found about burials at Kingstown, the last recorded in 1961.
"We cannot erase people from their stories even if those stories are difficult to hear, as many of the slave stories are."
- Dr. Turnbull
Indigenous material and labor were needed to construct the chapel at Kingstown and the resourcefulness of the liberated Africans was a distinguishing feature in this construction. The materials consisted mainly of island rock and harvested coral from the adjacent Kingstown Bay. This was supplemented by ballast brick, which served as weights in the holds of the transatlantic slave ships. Burnt crushed coral mixed together with sand and a bit of molasses formed the lime-based mortar that bound the various elements together. The other living spaces, Dr Turnbull conjectures, were movable huts that the Africans erected in Road Town, most likely out of wood. The other buildings previously on the purchased property were of the same stone and coral construct.
With the establishment of the Anglican chapel school in 1842 the educational tone for this smallcolony within a colony was set. Their religious education had begun with the earlier Methodist missionaries in Road Town and later by a schoolteacher, Mr Davis and his wife sent up from Barbados, who conducted classes in another structure thought to be further up the hill. The contribution of the Africans to education in the territory was attested by the fact that in 1845 "more than half the women managing Church of England day schools in the Virgin Islands were the daughters of Africans of Kingstown, who themselves were taught at the Kingstown School."
In 1861, just two decades after the chapel known as the "church of the Africans" was built,becoming a cornerstone of the liberated African community, 64 liberated Africans petitioned Queen Victoria with a signature mark of an "x" by each, for help in restoring the chapel-school. During this period, devastating hurricanes and continued economic depression had taken its toll on this once vibrant community and the chapel was in need of major repairs. The petition never made it past the Secretary of State at the time, the Duke of Newcastle who denied the petition, feeling it was incumbent on the liberated Africans to restore what he termed "their own chapel."
However, their names and the legacy they left behind are not forgotten. All 64 names are listed in the dedication page of Can These Stones Talk? Their names were found in Dr. Turnbull's research of government records in the BVI. "I am writing this account for my children, my grandchildren and my students," she concluded. "I want them to know their home and their history, I want to restore the stories and the memories of the people. Our ancestors should not be left in anonymity, their voices should be heard."