In time everything becomes manageable, doable, bearable. Even living past the mahogany trees, in the forest, at the mercy of ravaging creatures and monstrous insects, under the constant threat of attack from the greedy French, from the indigenous cannibals. It’s the memories that hurt most – the past, not the present. Living in a makeshift hut, camouflaged in the jungle, hopelessly unable to establish communication with the outside world, becomes, in time, just another element of routine. After hiding behind shadows for what must be close to one year (it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re on the run), the mind forgets what was normal before, what is normal now.
We have been reduced to that which we loathe by what loathes us even more: devoid not so much of the knowledge to improve our own existence but of the courage to put such knowledge to practice for fear of being discovered (raided, decimated), we choose to chase the trail of goats like savages do, to have them caught and slain, like savages do, to eat the meat raw or cured at best – not even boiled, lest the smoke of the fire informs our enemies, any of our enemies, of our whereabouts.
Fear has grown to rule our lives, and the place that once loomed bright as the home of our freedom has become an impenetrable prison less than ten years later. Ten years. No – not so much. It is not as far as ten years hence, the day when, broke, broken and repressed we all – we few – decided to set sail from the tyrannical rule of St Christopher to establish anew the colonial rule on the snake-like formation known as Anguilla. We were aware of the tragic destiny that had awaited our predecessors – brave men and women from our own island who ventured on the very same trip eight years before, in the year of our Lord 1650 AD, with the sole purpose of expanding the English Empire, of securing land, resources, riches for the crown. Their measured success came to an end a few months before our arrival, when an invasion by native savages – barbaric, cannibalistic animals – depleted the settlement to the point of extinction. All dead. All gone.
Upon news of our brethren’s misfortunes a handful of us, the less privileged portion of the English half of St Christopher, resolved to depart in the direction of the barren coasts of this flat islet, to revive (through revenge) the memory, the merit, the product of our fellow countrymen’s endeavour, to run away from the confining grip of provincial government at St. Christopher, to look for the liberty which circumstance had somehow taken from us. We succeeded with admirable ease: tribal disputes or nomadic tradition led the savages away from Anguilla as soon as they had ravished the land, proving beyond doubt that their raid of the island had had no purpose other than to satisfy the whims of their bloodthirsty spirit. We outnumbered the few savages we encountered, we took them by surprise, we forced them into submission. Most of them disappeared beyond the maze of the mahogany – inside the jungle where we now dwell.
Life in our newly conquered land was hard – as hard as it had been elsewhere. The soil, arid and untilled, was difficult to plough. The weather, so predictably reliable in St Christopher, was ruthless just three score miles further north. Farming under this set of conditions was simply torturous. Daily routine was tiring, demanding, unrewarding. The days, long and hot, dragged hopelessly. Additionally, the future did not bode any sign of improvement as even our status within the colony seemed to strand us in the limbo of the undefined: devoid of commissioning paperwork we were neither under the jurisdiction of St Christopher nor under direct mandate of England.
Yet, in time, the frustration of our effort receded into resignation, the toil of our existence seemed to fade, and life, though miserable, seemed bearable, liveable, right. Yes, right. Because if we suffered the same hardship we had endured in St Christopher, we did so for ourselves, in our own land, by our own means. This might seem little gratification but it was more than anyone could ever have offered, it was more than anyone could give.
Seven years of struggle were rewarded with our first decent crop in the summer of ’65. The weather was kind, water abundant and the harvest provided us with enough sugarcane to conduct trade for the first time. We contacted the Dutch West Indian Company in St Eustatius, we bargained with the French from St Bartholomew and the French half of St Martin, we liaised with pirates from St Thomas. For whatever reason (pride) we did not contact the English traders headed for Port Royal.
Our crops were modest compared to plantations in other islands, but the quality was outstanding and that made our product popular. We had never traded with any of the ships before but we were cunning nonetheless, negotiating with several parties simultaneously to raise the price. In the end the Dutch bought most of our sugarcane. The French were incensed – they had even bid more money for it than the Dutch, because their recent altercations with the English in St Christopher had destroyed a large number of plantations on that island, but we never trusted the French, had never intended to deal with them in the first place.
Perhaps aggrieved by our ultimate disregard for their offer or deluded about the potential of dry Anguillian soil by our miraculously large harvest, or, perhaps, simply continuing their belligerent campaign against the English West Indian colonies, the filthy French decided to invade us less than one year later. Calamity seems to strike this place every eight years: we were outnumbered, we were surprised, we were defeated, forced to escape, to run for our lives into the wild labyrinth that has since become our home. For the best part of one year we have hidden behind the shadows, uncertain of the tool fortune will employ in making us meet our destiny – whether the French or the savages, disease, hunger or any other similar agent.
For what must be close to one year we have sheltered ourselves from the rain and our enemies inside the ruinous shacks we have assembled from the leftover timber discarded in the jungle. For what must be coming up to a year we have measured our steps and restrained our activity to the minimum, for fear of disclosing our whereabouts, for fear of death. Recoiled and cowering we have shared an unrighteous existence day after day after day after day, for at least three hundred years, it seems – or days. For the best part of one year we have lived pretending to be dead, hoping the French assume we have become extinct.
Only on the rare occasions when the wind blows from the south, or from the west, do we venture outside, to the modest hills where we have hidden the generator. On these rare days we drag the transmitter through the wilderness as quietly as possible, preoccupied yet confident that whatever noise we make will not reach the French bastion on the southern coast of the island. On these rare occasions, we unearth the generator, we connect the transmitter, we take turns to turn the lever that will get the spark going and as the whaling siren of the power-source gets lost in the endless nothingness of the Atlantic we sit and wait for our engineer to find the frequency of the world service of the BBC, bounced from Antigua.
But the wind always blows from the east in Anguilla, and sometimes we have had to go for weeks on end without the privilege of information, without the relative freedom awarded to us by a change in the course of the sound waves. During these grim weeks of silence we have continued our petty lives outside the boundaries of time – an insignificant group of refugees struggling to stay together beyond the scope of the victorious. And often failing at that. Many of us have split from the group. Many have gone their own way. Every time a new cell splits from the main body the chances of us getting discovered become greater, the danger more imminent. It is harder to be inconspicuous, to appear to be dead, when several limbs move simultaneously.
But there is only one generator; and when the wind is blowing the right way – that is, when the wind blows away from the French, towards the north or the east – then we all congregate on the modest hills, by the fine whaling of the power-source, and we wait for the engineer to find the appropriate frequency and we pray beside our shrine for the newsreader to bring up our name, for the world to show some concern for our well-being.
For the best part of a year we have carried out this rite, disrupting the routine that somehow made our petty little lives seem tolerable, manageable, normal, bringing back to perspective the extent of our wretchedness, the intensity of our hope. For the best part of one year we saw that hope demolished by the utter disregard shown towards us by the editorial team of the BBC. Suddenly, the crowd that gathered on the modest hills towards the northern edge of the forest became progressively smaller, progressively less enthusiastic. One by one the dissenting communities stopped attending the ritual, or commissioned a token representative to be present, so that, in case there were any good news, he could relay it to the rest of his clan. Except there never was.
Until ten days ago, when, after facing adverse conditions for two or three weeks (it is hard to keep track of time), the wind finally died out. It was risky to take to the hills with no wind at all, but the long lapse of silence had instilled such anxiety in the community that we all intuitively headed towards the generator. It was a gamble – in fact, an instinct – which was to pay off. With smoke and ashes still smouldering the memories of all Londoners who survived the recent great fire, the English government has pledged to concentrate all its efforts in the reconstruction of the metropolis. The first step in this direction will be the pursuit of a treaty that guarantees dignified conditions and to cease all conflicts with European rivals. No sweeter words could have escaped the newsreader’s lips, no sweeter sound could have infested the stale Caribbean air around the northern hills of Anguilla.
Delegates from France, Denmark, the United Provinces and England have gathered around a table in the city of Breda to discuss the terms of the armistice that will put an end the long-drawn war that begun with the English raid of New Netherland. I knew as soon as I first heard about it, over two years ago, that we would be involved in an alien war. The raid was followed by the French invasion of the English half of St Christopher. Although we had long departed that island, the grief that assailed us was proportional to the ties that remained in our memories and our minds to the homeland of our past. The certainty that, somehow, we had been dragged into the European war added concern to our sorrow. But our lugubrious frame of mind was enlivened by the miraculously large harvest which graced us during the summer of ’65. We took advantage of our legal inexistence, ignored all embargos, conducted trade for the first time with anyone—Dutch, French or pirate—willing to pay the price of our sugarcane. Despite war and poverty the future looked brighter than ever—until, of course, the filthy French decided to bring slaughter, displacement, calamity with their assault.
For one full year (or has it been longer? Might so much misery be lived in only one year? Has it, perchance, lasted three centuries?) we have fooled our weary souls into believing that our barbarous routine is tolerable, liveable, normal. This deceiving lie was shattered one windless afternoon when the trained voice of a perfectly composed newsreader uttered the promise of relief that travelled through the stagnant air onto the brain of each of the dispossessed victims that surrounded the generator. From that day onwards we were simply unable to return to our makeshift sheds, to pretend that our lives were no worse than anyone else’s. For ten days we have sat by the northern hills, biding our time during the day, scrambling to the top at night, when the sound waves travel with no disruption from the light, when the sun no longer impairs the clarity of the signal, when the news relayed from Antigua fails to deliver us from our ordeal. For ten days we have heard about government delegates making progress in their negotiations; for ten days we have waited in vain for a favourable outcome. And yet, ten days have been no more than a trifle; ten days have been a lapse so short it has remained outside the unassailable reach of time; ten days of anxiety and desperation have been so little that we have been able to live through them without losing count, without losing sense.
On the tenth day of our silent siege came the announcement that decreed the end of our slavery. After a pitiful ten-day negotiation that self-same newsreader who had announced the arrival of the international delegations to Breda has comforted our souls with the foreign – Latin – words for which we all have been praying: uti posidetis; the re-establishment of the status quo, the restitution of usurped land: the English must depart New Amsterdam, de Ruyter must loosen his grip on the North Sea, the French must return half of St Christopher and all of Anguilla to the English, and the Danes… it escapes my mind what role the Danes play in this treaty but that is beyond the question because as we wander out of the darkness of the forest I can see the full blown sails of the French frigates heading towards Grand Case or Marigot or Anse Marcel and all that concerns me, the only thought for which I find room in my brain, is the promise that, as sure as my name is Abraham Howell, I will devote the rest of my life to ensure that never again do the filthy French or anyone else stand between us and our destiny, between Anguilla and freedom.