The nickname for BVI is nature’s little secrets. I believe this is because of its hidden-away natural beauty, rather than a nod to its reputation as a place for pirates and privateers to hide pieces of eight (and for their modern counterparts to stash roubles and pounds sterling). It is a quiet place, inaccessible by large planes and largely made up of villages nestled around bays and docks. The whitest sand and bluest water. We haven’t even got a pret a manger.
Today, it will be less quiet: there will be a public protest in our capital, Road Town. I’m not aware of there having been any other protests since I’ve been here. Felt a bit left out TBH when people were marching for women or black lives. (But obviously too repressed and English to march on my own.)
Anyway this march is not the type of cause celebre that would get liberal Londoners out on a Saturday: it’s a march to protest against the UK parliament’s decision to order that BVI make a public register of ownership of companies. Usually the BVI makes its own laws. But the UK is able to push through this measure by an Order in Council, so-called imperial legislation. Such orders were used for cuddlier causes such as abolishing the death penalty and decriminalizing homosexuality (yay!). The end goal of this Order is to make information about who owns BVI companies transparent and available publicly.
I offer no comment on the Order, as I have no special insight or original thoughts about it. But there has been a chorus of dismay on the island in response to it. Although the financial services firms expect to adapt to whatever measures are effected, people are nonetheless frightened of large scale job losses and that the territory will lose its primary industry.
I expect the march will be well attended. It will begin at the Sunday Morning Well, a very meaningful place in the BVI because it was where the emancipation proclamation was announced to enslaved people. The activism against this decision has been likened by some to the BVI’s positive action movement of the late 60s. And some employers are allowing employees to leave work early to join the 4pm march.
Everyday chatter now touches on colonialism and even independence. A local minister made a speech last night saying:
This rule that the United Kingdom is trying to put on us will affect you in your homes; affect you with your mortgages; it will affect you with the food on your table; it will affect everywhere; your children will have problems, we will not be able to build schools; we will not be able to build roads. We must stand up and stand up for our rights. Let us march down to the Governor, whether he is there or not. We want to send a message to the United Kingdom that we as a people of the Virgin Islands will not accept that rule and they better go carry it back where it come from.
People are angry and upset. Because, ah yes, it’s easy to forget if you’re not still walking amongst the ruins daily, there was a natural catastrophe here last year. It’s not a giant holiday camp: the damage wrought by Hurricanes Ima and Maria is visible everywhere. People are still living under tarpaulins (and not in a glamping way). In the meantime, a plume of noxious smoke still rises from the West side of the island. It’s coming from the huge pile of hurricane debris that somehow caught on fire around a week ago, burning for days on end and forcing people out of their homes. There is still just a pile of broken wood where my favourite bar used to be. The place feels as much rubble as roubles right now.
So the territory is just about staggering to its knees and whallop! “Why“, asks my colleague, gesturing outside to the derelict roofless buildings, “would they shut us down? We’re suffering“. She is incredulous when I explain how a lot of Brits imagine this place: as playground of rich white immigrants merrily helping the UK’s mega rich to avoid taxes. A sunny place for shady people.
Similarly, a lot of BVIslanders do not think of austerity, a cash-strapped NHS, pay-freezes or closed-down domestic violence refuges when they imagine the UK. The palpable antipathy against ‘tax havens’ back home isn’t really understood here.
So an ocean of misunderstanding swirls between the motherland and nature’s little secrets.
On news sites, local figures are exhorting ‘ex-pats’ to join the march. The comments sections on those news sites are, as comments sections are wont to be, an unfriendly place. Some immigrants are questioning why their voices are now welcome, in a territory that requires them to provide a poo sample just to turn up, and where they cannot ever realistically hope to have the right to vote. Other commenters are unimpressed, inviting the ungrateful incomers to ‘hurry home’. And then of course you get the odd person on social media rubbing their hands in the expectation that an economic crash will bring back control, into local hands (might sound familiar to post-Brexit Brits).
The BVI feels picked on. Water cooler chat now includes debate as to the ins and outs of transparency rules across the world: how come US States like Delaware are allowed to keep their companies’ information secret but we aren’t? BVI just put into place the ‘BOSSS’ system, which makes it possible for the beneficial ownership information of BVI companies to be immediately available to BVI authorities, and for onward transmission to UK law enforcement (apparently within an hour, which is impressive given that it can take longer than an hour to get a sandwich here sometimes).
So there we go. An eventful day in natures little secrets.