COMMENTARY: Paradise lost

Painting of Road Town in the mid-1980’s by the author

In 1975, while sailing north with my family through the Caribbean, stormy weather caused us to take shelter in the British Virgin Islands. The anchorage off Road Town was exposed and uncomfortable but we were told of a sheltered cove a few miles along the coast. Although its entrance was narrow, once we were inside the surrounding reef offered perfect protection. Our intention was to continue on our way as soon as the weather improved.

The weather did improve but we stayed on, and that idyllic cove became our home port for the next twenty years.

In the British Virgin Islands much is made about Belonger Status. However, Somerset Maugham in his book “The Moon and Sixpence” speaks about a deeper sense of belonging: “…Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.”

I collected the material for my book “Virgin Island Sketches” during the early years of my stay. It celebrates the way of life of the islanders and my sketches now serve as a reminder of those halcyon times past.

While I was busy preserving scenes from the past, Virgin Island poet Sheila Hyndman (1958-1991) was prophesizing the future.

They will come with tools and machines.
They will bring to light your secret places,
They will demand your mysteries.
They will destroy, build up.
They will dilute your treasures,
And rob you of your chastity.
They will adorn you like ancient Jezebel.
‘Till all that’s left of your true self
Will be an old and forgotten poem
Like mine.

I shared Sheila’s love of her homeland and in the years that followed, I contributed my own work to that end. But as the 1980’s progressed I found it increasingly difficult to relate the past to the future. The maxim “Yes, We’re Different” was being cast aside in favour of being the same as everywhere else. I began to realise that much of the development taking place was for the benefit of foreign entities. It had begun with the Wickams Cay reclamation project in the 1960’s and more recently, financial services and mass tourism. Although Virgin Islanders are undoubtedly financially better off than when I first knew the islands, in the process of acquiring that wealth, they lost more than they gained.

My disillusionment of what was perceived as progress became even more acute in the year that I travelled the region in search of material for my book “Caribbean Sketches”. As with my earlier book, I was working against the clock in attempting to capture each island before it degenerated into being the same as everywhere else. Cruise ship passengers step ashore to the same spurious scene as at every port of call. We tend to forget that the individuality of places reflects the individuality of ourselves.

As my journey through the region progressed, I realised that the fundamental problem faced by Caribbean small island states was not one of self-governance, but one of self-sufficiency. Even on islands that have claimed independence and are rich in natural resources, the islanders themselves have not benefitted. Rather than farming the land, the present generation prefers to sit at a desk or serve tourists. To finance an alien lifestyle, their governments sell passports to foreigners and become deeply beholden to the People’s Republic of China. In real terms, those islands are less independent now than they were a hundred and fifty years ago.

Self-sufficiency for small island states relates to lifestyle expectations. Three generations ago hard work was the order of the day and the islanders lived within their means. Since then, there has been a hankering for a westernized lifestyle and a reliance on wealth generated by foreign economies. The fundamental challenge at this point in time is to seriously question the direction that the British Virgin Islands and the region in general has taken. We need to re-evaluate the past in order to determine if, what was originally perceived as “development”, has in fact been in the best long-term interest of the islanders.

To correct mistakes of the past and to start all over again verges on the impossible. In more ways than one, the past is set in concrete, and concrete is a difficult material to break down. Nevertheless, a re-assessment of values is a necessary first step towards rediscovering a paradise lost. For otherwise, as Sheila wrote: “…all that’s left of your true self will be an old and forgotten poem like mine.”

The above commentary is taken from my book Caribbean Insights. The book is available, along with my other books about the Caribbean, at:

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  1. We Know Better
    January 22, 2024

    Nice novel. I read halfway through and quickly realized that we are today better off with 20 years of China’s assistance than 400 years of Brutish theft, kidnappings, massacre, dependence and mayhem. But I like reading your stories.

    • We the People
      January 22, 2024

      Really? All those old crappy, leaking buildings the Chinese putting up

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  2. January 21, 2024

    Mr Roger Burnett—You found your peace —not many do —–cherish it .

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  3. Jack Charlton
    January 21, 2024

    Beautifully expressed Mr. Burnett…. thank-you. The “deeper sense of belonging” you refer to is precisely what happened to me here in Dominica many years ago. However, it is now being steadily eroded by the increasing lack of self-sufficiency combined with the perverse desire to be just like everywhere else, as you observe. As I watch my local friends and neighbours be sucked helplessly into this twisted vortex mislabelled as progress, sadness creeps over me.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

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