Painting by Rueben Vanterpool

Down Memory Lane

The author talks to her elders about their early life in the BVI

Who would have believed 50 years ago that the BVI would develop into to the modern island we know today? Imagine someone living through the experience.

Ever since I was a child I loved to hear my elders’ stories about the BVI from back in the days when there was no electricity, roads were unpaved and there were few cars; when people either walked or travelled by horse, donkey or boat. Some of my favorite stories are about life on the outer islands and cays – a time when families still lived on Peter Island and Salt Island. Being a proud descendant of Salt Island I’m happy to share with you how generations before me lived as told by family members whom I spoke with.

Painting by Reuben Vanterpool
Jenesis Studios

Life on the cays was an endless vacation or life in paradise. Rather than alarm clocks, the sound of pelicans plunging in the sea and the laughter of the gulls were the wakeup calls. Each morning also brought the aroma from the whistling kettle of lemon grass tea or the fresh scent of coconut bread baking. As today, morning prayers and tooth brushing would be part of the routine, but let’s pause a minute here to talk about that toothbrush. Instead of the store-bought models we use now, they used the twigs of a few pigeon peas bushes! Morning baths were in the sea, and for toilets, residents set up pits with rocks in the bottoms called latrines. The daily sweep of the yard was done with “witch brooms,” made of coconut fronds or other suitable stiff leaves. Fish was always on the menu, such as a big pot of fry fish, hard-nose or pot fish on the coal pot, normally served with dumb bread (a bread cooked in a round pot on the stove).

Children in those days were never hungry because they learned how to fish at an early age. They caught and cleaned their own fish or picked coconuts; sometimes turning them into coconut oil for various uses. Seagrape tree leaves were often used as plates.

Although fish was always on the menu it was not the only meal: Mondays there would be fish and cornbread; pumpkin soup with goat head was served on Tuesdays; lobster, whelks and conch were served on Wednesdays; fish and dumpling (one per man) was on Thursdays and pea soup on Fridays. You got fried fish, rice, beans and plantain on Saturdays and you could have chosen between stew beef or mutton on Sundays.

At this point in time you helped your neighbors; the fishermen and farmers brought the meat and the women cooked. Everyone got something to eat. On the outer cays children always helped out. This meant helping the fishermen haul their boats to shore or going to the main island (Tortola) to sell the day’s catch. Money earned was spent on candy or saved.

In those days you traveled by boat whether it had an engine or was rowed. If you were getting around on dry land, you could either walk or ride a donkey.

Painting by Reuben Vanterpool
Jenesis Studios

As we journey across to the “mainland” (Tortola) you will learn how families earned their keep and what they did to pass time. Everybody helped out, even the children. They were responsible for going to the well to fetch water for use at home as there were no pipes. They also had to pick wood for household fires, and go into the garden to gather sweet potatoes and other vegetables for selling or for cooking. Feeding the goats, milking the cows and washing the dishes were all chores that were done before they went to school and they were always on time.

Do you think the school was nearby? Nope. You had to walk from Slaney to Sea Cows Bay or from Sea Cows Bay to Road Town. But if you lived in the town area the walking distance wasn’t too bad. In 1964 Mr. Luther Scatliffe started a school bus service and attending school should have become quicker, but because of the turn-around time (the bus had to make many trips) children often decided to walk to school anyway. To pass time children played dolly house, checkers and many other games. Some looked forward to return to their families on the cays on weekends. During the fifties and forward, adults had dances at various spots, including a church hall! One such popular spot was the Anglican Church Hall on Main Street in Road Town. In Baughers Bay where, Island Sizzle Restaurant and Club is located now, there was once an old-fashioned dance spot.

What fascinates me the most is how they survived life with no electricity. In today’s time when electricity goes, many of us act as if life is coming to an end. Cost of living may have been a whole lot cheaper in those days, but as scarce as things were, they always made do. Imagine a bag of rice was ten cents a pound and $20 could last you a week, or even a month. In those days there were no high-end brands like today, clothes were either made here or ordered from abroad with money from catching fish or selling produce. When fishermen went to St Thomas and St Croix to sell their catch, they’d shop and bring back items as well. To make a living, persons also migrated to our neighbors US Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

So far, everyone I’ve spoken to who lived in those times has said that while the modern world makes life easier, it also made them lazier because everything is at the touch of your hand. I don’t envy those days, but I do admire the way previous generations put in the work so we can live better than they did. I value the traditions that we still keep. It also reminds me not to take anything for granted.

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Official webpage of The BVI Welcome Guide. Source of information for everything in the British Virgin Islands since 1971.

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