St. Phillips Church at Kingstown. (Photo: Greg Smith-2016)

When the Rocks Cry Out

A group of historical preservationists is transforming the site of a free African village at Kingstown into a memorial park

Author, Peal Buck once wrote, “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.”  There are still voices of Virgin Island history shrouded in overgrown brush, peeking from non-accessible hilltops, or lying in forgotten ruins and graveyards. However, one voice from the past is being heard loud and clear and that voice is coming from a plot of land in Kingstown, the site of the St. Philip’s Anglican Church Ruins, which was once the home of a group of “liberated Africans,” soon to become a park dedicated to their memory. These seafaring souls were the beneficiaries of the Abolition Act of 1807, which banned the transatlantic slave trade, and after landing on these shores were granted rights other slaves did not enjoy until full emancipation in 1834.

A painting of Kitty Moquo, one of Kingstown’s freed African residents by artist Christine Taylor

Thanks to a colossal collaborative effort spearheaded by historical preservationists, St. Georges Anglican Church and shortly thereafter the Association for the Preservation of Virgin Island Heritage (APVIH), this project has also garnered the support of governmental bodies plus corporate and private funding. The St Philip’s Restoration project has already entered Phase II. Who better than two local lecturers and teachers, with a passion for history to bring a voice to a once muffled past? I sat down with Dr. Pat Turnbull and Dr. Katherine Smith on the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College campus recently to understand the scope of the “African Burial Ground” phase of the current restoration project at the church, also known as the “Church of the Africans.”

Dr. Turnbull, who lectures in Humanities at the College, also authored the book, Can These Stones Talk?, a seminal work and heart-felt look at the historical records of this once thriving community in Kingstown. Her research uncovered the names of 64 Africans, who petitioned the government in 1861 for funds to repair the church, which at that time was 30 plus years old and in a dilapidated condition. The request was denied, with the inference that it was up to the African community to maintain the property.  In her book, Turnbull lists their names and underneath wrote, “Then denied, now remembered.”

She carries a wonderful and weighty passion for understanding this early community, its history and the African  “Igbo” culture, the lineage of the majority of the settlers. One such Ibo woman named Kitty Moquo, who along with her two sisters was documented in 1815 as being harshly treated under the apprenticeship of a certain man who owned land on Guana Island that was being cleared for cotton planting. She appealed her case to the prevailing authorities and was justly heard and ultimately was granted her freedom. Although there is no known picture of Kitty, artist Christine Taylor has painted a striking portrait of her based on images of contemporary Igbo women. In the background is a village representing her African home and the Kingstown village on Tortola where she later settled.

Both Dr.’s Turnbull and Smith envision possibilities for this site as a public learning environment, convinced that much of the Virgin Islanders’ identity is intimately intertwined in understanding their history. The on-going restoration of the site is   something they refer to as “the Public Memory Project.”

Sharing Dr. Turnbull’s enthusiasm for the project, Dr. Smith is a historian and senior lecturer at the college, who was involved in the grassroots formation of the APVIH. “The awareness of one’s history adds to knowledge, gives perspective and contributes to the way of seeing history,” she commented. Both agreed the process was transformative and encouraged Virgin Islanders to make their own history a launch pad for delving into who they are and where they are going. The Association has had ongoing meetings with the Nigerian community of the BVI for further understanding of African culture, especially in regards to burial rites and traditions.

So what is happening on the ground today? The most recent accomplishment was the enclosure of the site with a stonewall similar to those constructed here in the 19th century. Keeping in mind historical authenticity – the stones were gathered from the Kingstown area, bricks graciously donated from other historical sites, and dead coral harvested from sites approved by the National Parks Trust. Even the mortar was made as close as possible to the original.  Expert stone layers and skilled artisans, headed up by Reginald Callwood, utilized historically authentic techniques. The second phase is now concentrating on the landscaping of the African burial grounds.

“It is vital that the history is maintained and that it is esthetically and sacredly preserved,” Dr. Turnbull added. To that extent, the project managers have used UNESCO Heritage models for national sites as a template to guide the restoration project.  An archeological team came in from St. Croix with ground penetrating radar equipment and were able to identify the various unmarked burial mound sites within the church property, determining that there were children’s sites as well.

Dr. Pat Turnbull with a copy of her book Can These Stones Talk?

The National Parks Trust has consulted on the vegetation, identifying indigenous trees such as; sour sop, tamarind, guinep and even replaced a calabash tree situated at the front of the property that was damaged beyond repair by a careless driver. The Public Works Department is overseeing the design for the burial site grounds and well-known artist Joseph Hodge is designing the memorial stone piece honoring the liberated Africans.

The design and layout of the site is specifically planned to reach many types of visitors. There will be a natural, possibly gravel parking area with a path to the site for small groups of tourists to walk on. There will be benches throughout for those who wish to have a more meditative experience of the site and its history. Lastly, both teachers involved in the planning see it as a public learning site and a chance for Virgin Islanders to learn more about their history.  Phase III will include a learning center with multi-media and audio-visual displays.

One thing is certain, the stones of this site have not been silent and those who have ears to hear have heard the call. For the BVI this is an exciting turn towards the honoring of the islands’ history in a way that can be both creative and visually enhancing. As well, it is instructive in understanding and appreciating historical roots – the life-sustaining sustenance one gets from knowing one’s past.

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