British Virgin Islands
In the British colonies, slavery was followed by a period of apprenticeship, a stepping stone between slavery and freedom. Under apprenticeship former slaves were no longer subject to the brutality they knew under slavery and were free to move about the island as they wished. But they were required to remain on the plantations where they once were slaves, where they worked for a small salary.
Apprenticeship ended around 1840, and by then the sugar industry was close to its death. In 1839, five years after the end of slavery, Tortola produced 423 hogshead of sugar. In 1852, it produced just one. During this time, most English planters left.
The freed slaves became yeoman farmers, merchants, and seamen. Farmers kept cattle, raised fruits and vegetables, fished, and cleared timber to make charcoal, most of which was sold to St. Thomas. In fact, aside from small-scale production for local use and the brief burst of rum production during American Prohibition, the islands said goodbye to sugar for good.
What few whites remained on the island fled after riots broke out in 1853. Angered over the government’s decision to double the cattle tax overnight, islanders gathered in Road Town to protest the tax and demand the release of two men arrested because of their refusal to pay it. Eventually, the rioters broke into the prison where the men were being held, took the firearms, and spent two days burning and destroying Road Town and what plantations remained throughout the island. Only one Road Town building survived the fire and is still known as the “fireproof building.”
The second half of the 19th century was quiet in the British Virgin Islands. Some islanders persevered by hard work, while some migrated to the United States and other places that promised more opportunity. The British government neglected the islands. The only schools were operated by the Methodist and Anglican churches, and health care was primitive. The Legislative Assembly, still a white-only establishment, disbanded in 1902, and responsibility for the islands fell to a British governor stationed in Antigua, where it remained for 50 years.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition