British Dependencies History
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands and Montserrat on his second voyage to the West Indies in 1493. He named the former "Las Virgines" in honor of St. Ursula, an Englishwoman who is alleged to have traveled to Germany with virgin attendants and to have been martyred there. Columbus named Montserrat after the mountain in Spain on which Ignatius Loyola established of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).
Whether or not Columbus also sighted Anguilla during this 1493 voyage remains uncertain. Historian Thomas Southey made the first known mention of the island in 1564, after a French expedition passed it on a voyage from Dominica to Florida. The island apparently received its present name from its long, narrow shape and serpentine shoreline. Anguilla means eel in Spanish.
In the early years of European settlement, buccaneers and pirates roamed what are now the British Virgin Islands, providing what later would be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. These buccaneers owed allegiance to no one in particular, although a Dutch group apparently held the island of Tortola when a band of English adventurers took over in 1662. The islands were annexed by England in 1672. In 1680 a few planters moved with their families from Anguilla to Virgin Gorda, starting a steady stream of settlers. By 1717 the white population of that island totaled 317, with an additional 159 on Tortola. The early 1700s also saw the establishment of a Quaker colony, which, for a while, tried to create a separate island government under the auspices of the British crown. During the eighteenth century, extensive cultivation--mainly by slave labor imported from Africa--led to the formation of sugar, indigo, and sea island cotton plantations (see The Sugar Revolutions and Slavery, ch. 1). In 1773, upon their second petition to the crown, the planters were granted civil government and constitutional courts with a completely elected twelve-member House of Assembly and a partly elected and partly appointed Legislative Council, or "Board," which met for the first time on February 1, 1774.
Anguilla was colonized by English settlers in 1650 and has remained a British colony ever since. There were, however, several raids. Carib Indians from Dominica attacked in 1656, and Irish raiders landed in 1698. A few of the Irishmen settled on the island and left descendants with Irish names. The French attacked unsuccessfully in 1745 and again in 1796.
The English first colonized Montserrat in 1632. The island fell into French hands in 1662 for a four-year period and again in 1792-93. It has remained British ever since, however. The early settlers tried to make Montserrat a prosperous plantation island. They brought African slaves to the island to cultivate sugar, limes, and vegetables, but the terrain was simply too rugged to yield these crops in great quantities. The island never became the agricultural success that the settlers envisioned.
After the British established firm control over their territories in the Leeward Islands, they combined and recombined them into various colonies and federations. In 1816, for example, St. Christopher (hereafter, St. Kitts), Nevis, and the British Virgin Islands were made into one colony with its own captain general and governor. In 1871 St. Kitts and Anguilla were made a single unit in the new Leeward Islands Federation. Soon after, Anguilla, St. Kitts, and Nevis were united into one unit of the federation and called the Presidency of St. Christopher and Nevis. The British Virgin Islands and Montserrat also were separate presidencies within the federation.
During the 1950s and 1960s, political arrangements changed rapidly. In 1956 the British government dissolved the Leeward Islands Federation, and each presidency became a separate colony. In 1958 the British established the new West Indies Federation, with St. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla as one unit and Montserrat another. The British Virgin Islands did not join the federation and became an individual crown colony (see Glossary), with a British "administrator" (later governor) who reported directly to the British government. When the British dissolved the West Indies Federation in 1962, Montserrat also became an individual British crown colony. Both the British Virgin Islands and Montserrat have since remained crown colonies. Under this arrangement, the British government has control not only over the islands' defense and external relations but also over the internal police force and administrative and budget matters.
Anguilla's situation was even more complicated. When the West Indies Federation dissolved in 1961 and various attempts at a new federation failed, Britain formed the Windward and Leeward Islands Associated States. Under British law, associated states (see Glossary) have full internal self-government, while Britain retains control of defense and external affairs. This meant full internal self-government for the new association, including the unit of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. When St. Kitts and Nevis became an individual associated state in 1967, a further step toward self-rule, Anguillians attempted to dissociate themselves from that entity. Under the leadership of Ronald Webster, a local businessman and leader of Anguilla's only political party, the People's Progressive Party (PPP), Anguillians strongly objected to internal rule by St. Kitts. On May 30, 1967, the Anguillians evicted the St. Kitts police force and began to run their own affairs through a local council. Six weeks later, Anguilla held a referendum in which all but 5 of over 1,800 voters rejected continued ties with St. Kitts and Nevis. This overwhelming sentiment may have influenced the initial low-key British response aimed at negotiating a compromise. In 1969, however, Webster led a bid to secede from the St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla union; the Anguillians made a "unilateral declaration of independence" under the "rebel" British flag.
Economic concerns were at the root of the 1969 secession. Anguillians claimed their island was the poor cousin of the union and received little from St. Kitts and Nevis. The Anguillians believed that colonial status meant a legal obligation on Britain's part to help with development aid.
After attempts to repair the breach between St. Kitts and Anguilla failed, St. Kitts requested that Britain land troops on Anguilla. The British did so in March 1969 and installed a British commissioner. Britain reluctantly accepted Anguilla's request for a return to colonial status.
In July 1971, the British Parliament passed the Anguilla Act, which provided that should St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla decide to end its associated status, Anguilla could be separated from the other islands. As independence for St. Kitts and Nevis approached, Anguilla formally separated from the state. The island became a British dependent territory in December 1980. In the late 1980s, it was still a separate dependency, an associated state administered under the terms of the British government's Anguilla Constitution Order of 1982. In accordance with this legislation, a new Constitution took effect in Anguilla on April 1, 1982. Britain also contributed considerable financial aid.
NOTE: The information regarding British Dependencies on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of British Dependencies History information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about British Dependencies History should be addressed to the Library of Congress.