A flag on the island | On this day

When a British military force landed in Anguilla fifty years ago, it was a strangely anachronistic moment in Caribbean colonial history — but one that Anguillans welcomed with open arms, suggests James Ferguson

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

From Haiti’s revolution of 1791 to the more peaceful mass movements of the 1930s onwards in the English-speaking colonies, the modern history of the Caribbean has been determined by a rejection of foreign rule and a desire for independence. While not all territories have opted for autonomy, the great majority have, creating nation states out of colonial dependencies. Few citizens of the contemporary Caribbean would want to turn the clock back and find themselves ruled from London or Madrid.

Needless to say, of course, there is always an exception to prove the rule, and here it takes the form of a direct appeal to the former colonial power to re-establish control over the territory in question. I can think of only two such cases in the Caribbean. The first occurred in 1861, when the president of the Dominican Republic, confronted by political chaos and bankruptcy, asked Queen Isabella II of Spain to reconvert the country into a Spanish colony after seventeen years of independence (the US and France had already declined the offer). It ended messily: after two years of inept and repressive colonial administration, a popular insurrection turned into guerrilla war, and the Spanish were finally kicked out for good in 1865.

The second case was much more recent, and featured a tiny, formerly British colony, best known today for its stunning beaches and luxury resorts: Anguilla. And this incident bizarrely culminated fifty years ago, on 19 March, 1969, with a British military invasion of the island.

Anguilla had long been a remote outpost among Britain’s Caribbean possessions. Small and mostly arid, it was not suited to plantation-based agriculture, and as such had fewer enslaved Africans than nearby islands. The French made a couple of half-hearted attempts to seize it, but the British retained control from its first colonisation in 1650. Its insignificance was illustrated by the fact that it was not considered worthy of its own governor, and was administered first from Antigua and then, from 1825, from St Kitts. This arrangement fuelled resentment, as Anguillans viewed the legislative union as inefficient and discriminatory. A petition of 1872 requesting direct rule from London was ignored.

A further cost-cutting exercise in 1882 saw Anguilla pulled into the three-island union of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla, part of the Leeward Islands Federation. Nobody, however, thought to consult the people of Anguilla, who endured great hardships and mass emigration due to famines and the shockwaves of the 1930s Great Depression. The British persisted with the three-island model, first as a crown colony in 1956 and then as a self-governing associated state in 1967. This effectively handed over control of Anguilla to the majority legislators in St Kitts.

This unwanted alignment was to prove a tipping point in Nevis and Anguilla, which both viewed themselves as deprived of resources and development by the biggest of the three islands. In one instance, Canada had donated funds for a pier to be built in Anguilla. The money went to St Kitts, where the pier was duly constructed instead. The premier of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla was Robert Bradshaw, a tough veteran trade unionist, who seemingly had little time for Anguilla. “I will not rest,” he allegedly once said, “until I have reduced that place to a desert.” Discontent simmered in Nevis even after the granting of limited self-rule, but in Anguilla, where no such concession was made, anger would soon turn into open revolt.

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Three months after the official celebration of associated statehood in February 1967, a group of locals ejected seventeen Kittitian policemen from Anguilla, thereby removing whatever authority Premier Bradshaw thought he had. A provisional government was formed, the Union Jack was raised over the police station, and a referendum rather unambiguously recorded 1,813 votes in favour of secession from the new state and five against. Attempts were made by Britain to resolve the impasse, but most Anguillans remained resolutely opposed to rule from St Kitts. Robert Bradshaw, meanwhile, furious that a group of Anguillans had staged an abortive kidnapping attempt on him, claimed that Anguilla had been infiltrated by the US mafia, and demanded that Britain invade and stop the secession movement.

An air of farce was rapidly surrounding proceedings when another overwhelming referendum result was followed by Anguilla declaring itself an independent republic, with Ronald Webster as its leader. This prompted a visit on 11 March, 1969, from a British junior minister, William Whitlock, in search of an “interim agreement.” His mission was not a success. He snubbed Webster and patronised those who had turned out to greet him by having his staff distribute leaflets outlining British proposals — in the words of a local journalist, “as a farmer might throw corn to fowl.” After a few armed supporters of Webster turned up, Whitlock decided to call it a day and flee.

With Anguilla now a rogue state, it faced the military might of imperial Britain, which arrived eight days later in the form of 135 troops from 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and forty Metropolitan Police officers. Disembarking into smaller vessels from a frigate (there was, of course, no pier) in the pre-dawn darkness, they were momentarily alarmed to see flashes coming from the beach. But these were not gunshots, but the flash bulbs of photographers, many foreign, who had been tipped off about the “invasion” named Operation Sheepskin.

In fact, there was no resistance whatsoever, not least because the return of the British was precisely what the Anguillans wanted. The paratroopers were soon replaced by unarmed personnel from the Royal Engineers. One policeman recalled, “The vast majority of Anguillans were very nice to us and we very quickly dispensed with carrying arms and reverted to our more normal situation — that of being Bobbies, policing by consent.” Many could not believe their luck at being posted to this friendly, if undeveloped, island.

The incident was widely mocked around the world as the ailing British Empire’s “Bay of Piglets.” But the people of Anguilla were to have the last laugh. In 1976 the island was given its own constitution, and on 19 December, 1980, it was formally separated from St Kitts-Nevis as a British dependency, a status it retains today — renamed as a British overseas territory. The Anguillans finally achieved their aim — and, into the bargain, the massive infrastructural improvements carried out by the Royal Engineers and largely paid for by London paved the way for the island’s transformation from an impoverished backwater into today’s tourist mecca.