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Virgin Islands education state, economy & above round rock culture

February 17th, 2022 | Tags: Edgar Leonard Virgin Islands economics education
Edgar Leonard. Photo: Provided
Edgar Leonard

Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in 1493, sailing west on the Atlantic Ocean, stumbled upon the Virgin Islands archipelago, renaming them St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins (Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes).

Currently, the islands comprise two groups, viz, Virgin Islands (VI) (British) and its friendly, western neighbor, the United States Virgin Islands (USVI). Another presumably interesting group of Virgin Islands is the Spanish Virgin Islands, viz, Culebra and Vieques; they are an integral part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Moreover, the VI, to distinguish between it and the USVI, commonly call itself the BVI (British Virgin Islands); the VI is the BVI's legal name. Nonetheless, this commentary will be about the VI (British). The VI is a small, 59 square miles, 36 island chain (15 of which is populated) with a population of approximately 30,000 (approximately 60-70% are expatriates).

The twin pillars of its economy are tourism and financial services; financial services provides an estimated 60% of government revenue; however, tourism generates more direct, indirect, and induced employment. Additionally, it promotes having one of the highest living standards, quality of life, per capita income, and human development index in the Caribbean/West Indies region.

Slavery and Colonialism

Like the rest of its sister regional sister anglophone countries, the institution of slavery, a brutalizing, dehumanizing, exploitative, extractive, slave owners enriching and wealth building, national economic growth agency, etc., is an integral part of VI history. Colonialists introduced slavery in the VI on or around 1655. However, due to some agitation from abolitionists but primarily from its declining profitability, England abolished slavery in its colonies. Emancipation occurred in the VI on August 01, 1834; slave owners delivering the word of their being manumitted given, slaves elated cut loose into a celebration of their freedom. The first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of August are official holidays celebrating emancipation.

Nevertheless, emancipation did not mean that the slaves were free, for they still had to serve four (4) years of free apprenticeship with their former enslavers. Some sources indicate that former slaves provided approximately 45 hours of free labour weekly to former slave masters. In addition to this free labour, under the UK's 1833 Abolition Act (UK borrowed £20M, 40% of its budget at the time, to compensate slave owners, loan paid off in 2015), slave owners received compensation for the supposed loss of their human chattel property. However, to date, neither the slaves nor their descendants have yet to receive a farthing for their free and exploitive labour and sale of family members. Free slave labour built the UK's economy, generate individual wealth, and financed the industrial revolution.

Post-Slavery Economy

A series of events, viz, drop in sugar prices, revolts, hurricanes, etc., hampered the profitability of local plantations. In response and to cut losses, plantation owners sold their land to former slaves and beat feet and took flight out of the colony, supposedly leaving the poverty-stricken place as only good as a bird sanctuary. Nevertheless, a concerning trend is occurring, i.e., gentrification/regentrification of the bird sanctuary is increasing.

Peasant Economy

The collapse of the plantation economy presented challenging economic times for the VI. The VI was neglected and almost forgotten by the UK and Leeward Islands Federation and viewed as a little sleepy hollow, poverty-stricken place, the poor house of the West Indies, etc. Its Legislature was suspended in 1902. Nevertheless, with the land purchased from slave owners, slaves and their descendants developed a peasant economy, performing subsistence agriculture, cattle and small stock rearing, etc. In addition to subsistence agriculture, Virgin Islanders engaged in fishing, sailing, coal burning, etc. Further, they also emigrated to Cuba, Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo), Puerto Rico, Aruba, and USVI for employment. Remittances were a part of family(s) income.


During slavery, the slave owners had little interest in teaching slaves how to read and write. This action was a deliberate act by slave masters, for if slaves were kept illiterate, they were easier to control. It was illegal, a cardinal sin, in some locales, to teach slaves how to read and write. There was a cost to teaching a slave(s) reading, writing, and arithmetic. Literate slaves were of little to no value to slave masters. A slave value was producing agricultural commodities and being a valuable asset on the auction block. Pulitzer prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project, which is an uncomfortable read for many people, wrote, "But newly freed Black people, who had been prohibited from learning to read and write during slavery, were desperate for an education, which they saw as integral to true liberty." Virgin Islanders, too, viewed being educated as true liberty.

However, education from the onset has always been a challenge for Virgin Islanders. The Anglican and Methodist churches were instrumental in initially teaching Virgin Islanders how to read and write and do arithmetic, much to the chagrin of the colonialists. Primary education introduced; Virgin Islanders yearned for access to secondary education plus.

The VI was an agricultural society and lagged behind its sister regional countries to access secondary education. Neither the UK government nor the Federal government of the Leeward Islands Federation viewed it as a top priority. The VI was the last of Leeward Islands Federation presidencies to gain access to secondary education. Further, the VI lack of a market economy dampened the enthusiasm somewhat for secondary education. Nevertheless, after relentless Virgin Islanders agitation, a small secondary school (Virgin Islands High School) was opened in 1943. The school only accepted 25 new students annually; selection to attend the school was highly targeted and very selective. The majority of slots were reserved for the children of the elite class, and selection was not always merit-based. Education progress grew little during the late 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century. Most of the gain was noted after the Great March of November 24, 1949, the reinstating of the Legislature in 1950, and the rollout of a new constitution in 1950. The need for secondary education became a uniting elixir for a cross-section of Virgin Islanders.

Moreover, with the rollout of the BVI High School (now Elmore Stoutt High School) on Tortola in 1968, every eligible VI student now has reasonable access to secondary education. Other public secondary schools in the territory include Bregado Fax Educational Centre, Virgin Gorda; Claudia Creque Educational Centre, Anegada. Virgin Islands residents now have tertiary education opportunity(s): H. L. Stout Community College. This is an improvement and progress, for all Virgin Islanders didn't always have the opportunity and easy access to education, i.e., children from the Southern Cays. Additionally, in the 50s, government assume full responsibility for public education; a major Public Education Act enacted in 1955.

Economic Transition

Post slavery, the VI, resource-poor, had a primary subsistence agricultural economy, i.e., agricultural production, coal burning, fishing, cattle, and small stock rearing, etc. It was relatively self-sufficient (organic) with food security; it exported food surplus to the USVI. Today, it imports over 70% of its food (high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium) and is food insecure. Moreover, in the mid-60s, the VI started transitioning from subsistence agriculture to tourism. Financial Services in the 1980s joined tourism as the twin pillars and the mainstay of the service economy. The twin pillars of the economy improved the quality of life and standard of living, i.e., education, healthcare, utilities, infrastructure, telecommunications, housing, leisure and recreation, material abundance, etc. The improved economy provided more job opportunities, more job titles, and increased demand for labour. An improved economy, albeit fragile, created an explosion of job opportunities; this explosion, coupled with a small local population, pushed the need to import skilled and unskilled labour. Further, universally, as is the case in the VI and as the standard of living and quality of life in a 'community' improve, locals transition from performing specific jobs, necessitating importing labour.

Human Capital Investment

Human capital is the most crucial factor in economic growth and development. Despite the VI claim of having one of the highest living standards, quality of life, and per capita income in the region, it is resource-poor, and human capital is its prime resource. Consequently, it must be adequately and efficiently invested in and on human capital. Effective education is a crucial investment in human capital. Nevertheless, the improved economy with new job opportunities and new job skills did not provide the effective and practical education and training to meet the new labour needs. Locals were/are concentrated in the public sector and in administrative jobs, while expatriates are concentrated in the construction skills area and other technical areas. This lack of practical education is evident by importing labour to fill key positions that Virgin Islanders have the talent and skill to perform but may lack the training and education.

Moreover, some improvements have been made in education; a few Virgin Islanders are competing and doing well, holding their own locally and internationally. Nevertheless, the educational rate/level of the many have not yet reached a desired critical mass. Consequently, a new economic and educational approach is needed.

Economic Diversification and Education

The VI (British) is a resource-poor, small locale that is remotely located from major markets with a small population (~30,000), a fragile service economy (tourism and financial services), and with many of the same challenges of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Its primary resource is human capital, and its primary economy is the tourism and financial services twin pillars, two fragile economic sectors. To build resiliency and sustainability into its economy, the VI has to diversify its economy.

Two critical tools in diversifying its economy are education and technology. To leverage education and technology to diversify the economy, I suggest the following actions; the suggestions are not in priority  order: a)commission and conduct an urgent comprehensive education assessment, b)develop, codify (House of Assembly approved), and implement an education master plan, c)commission an education improvement ad hoc committee, d)establish a school board, e)embrace an education Iron Triangle (Ministry of Education, School Board, Public) tool,  f)invest in the physical infrastructure to support education, g)mandate a minimum of 12 years of education for VI students, h)launch a strong STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) programme, i)benchmark the educational success of other small locales, i.e., Singapore, j)review teaching methodology, i.e., teaching knowledge and using knowledge, k)introduce shop/craft into primary and secondary schools,  l)improve technology school and focus heavily on IT (Information Technology),  and m)devise plans and programmes to incentivize locals to join the teaching profession. Further, Dr. Charles H. Wheatley, OBE, book, Voices, and Visions of Education Heroes, Leaders, and Elders--- A History of Education in the British Virgin Islands is a viable blueprint/source on past education initiatives and the way forward.

Moreover, education is foundational and crucial to the VI's future economic growth, development, sustainability, and resiliency of the territory. It should be the top national priority behind health. The VI must aim to become a healthy and well-educated territory. Its vision and mission should be at the top or near the top in educational attainment. Further, education is too critical to be a partisan political football, receive lip service, etc. The electorate must deploy its true power to ensure that it is a non-partisan issue and a top national issue.

Above Round Rock Mentality

Many VI residents may not be familiar with the phrase "Above Round Rock." Dr. Charles H. Wheatley, OBE, the preeminent VI educator, in his latest must-read book, Heritage & Hope Finding My Purpose in Virgin Islands Culture 1938-1963, provides some insight into the phrase: "Round Rock was the last island in the British Virgin Islands archipelago that the boats passed on their way to the more southerly Leeward Islands. It referred to the last visible sight of the boat as it sailed beyond the horizon into the Caribbean Sea. Round Rock was, and still is, for people of Carlos' generation –those born during World War II and before—the dividing line between the cultures of the British Virgin Islands and the Leeward Islands. Round Rock had also become a symbol of division between the better-educated people from the Leeward Islands and the less-educated people of the British Virgin Islands. During the first half of the last Century, most senior civil servants and senior teachers, including principals, came from the Leeward Islands. Over time, the phrase "above Round Rock "signified superiority. Anyone or anything from "above Round Rock" was accepted without question."  By the way, it is a myth that one's intellectual capacity is a measure of his/her home island size.

Moreover, the "above Round Rock" attitude and behaviour, along with crab-in-the-bucket self-hatred (that was slave-era conditioning) and the only I can be King/Queen of the community, still exists. It is time to can the envy, greed, jealousy, and bad-mindedness. Back in the day, when most people were at the same economic level and when the community raised a child, "each one help one." It is time to shed the attitude and behaviour and work cooperatively and collaboratively to build and grow the VI. All Virgin Islanders must support and demonstrate confidence in the talent, skill, knowledge, and ability of other Virgin Islanders, albeit not blindly. Constructive criticism is above the line. Let's used the deep talent reservoir of Virgin Islanders to help move the VI forward.

For example, Dr. Charles H. Wheatley, OBE, is the preeminent educator in the VI. He served as a pupil-teacher, parent, principal, chief education officer, permanent secretary, and President of H.L. Stout Community College. The only education position he has not served in is the minister of education. President Emeritus Charles H. Wheatley and Jennie Wheatley, an educator and cultural icon, are a dynamic duo in education who are still on the education battlefield and are willing and ready to share their wealth of knowledge and experience, cleanly passing the education baton to the next generation(s) to continue the education race/journey. Education is a continuous race. Additionally, other local senior educators are also on the education battlefield and are ready to share their knowledge and experience.

Finally, Dr. Wheatley has contributed immensely to the growth of education in the VI. The VI should give him his flowers while he is here to cherish them. VI, recognize and reward him for his sterling effort and immeasurable contribution, i.e., name a facility, street, etc., in his honour. Dr. Wheatley is too humble and professional to agitate for or even talk about such honour(s). The preceding is my rant.

Edgar Leonard is a native Virgin Islander, an amateur freelance writer, and a Florida A & M University, graduate.



21 Responses to “Virgin Islands education state, economy & above round rock culture”

  • Old news (17/02/2022, 16:19) Like (0) Dislike (6) Reply
    Too much talk about slavery. Time to give slavery a rest; that happened hundred of years ago and no one who owned slaves is around to be held accountable. The current generation should be held responsible for the sins and bad behavior of long gone generations.
    • New news (17/02/2022, 18:56) Like (7) Dislike (0) Reply
      @Old News, here it is a tip. Old News is new news. Slavery was a dehumanizing, brutalizing, exploiting, etc, institution. Though centuries have passed since slavery may have been abolished on paper, its legacy lives on. The special privilege may not see or feel its sting but marginalized does. Slavery is history that may be uncomfortable to some, the privilege, and no amount of banning books, videos, songs, etc can wipe it or pain away. Let’s drop the old canard that no one alive owned slaves. True, they may not have owned slaves but they are enjoying benefits provided by the legacy of slavery. Slavery is an integral of education process for people of African descent who has had enslaved foreparents. Let’s not a bushel over the lamp; let the light shine. The humanity and labor of slaves was exploited for the benefit of Whites, so we should all advocate for making the slaves descendants whole.
  • pat (17/02/2022, 18:07) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
    Good read but to long!
  • SMITHIE (17/02/2022, 19:09) Like (4) Dislike (1) Reply
    Wow! I have term, “I didn’t come from above Round Rock.” But I didn’t know the full context. Thanks to you and Dr. Wheatley. More local history needs to be in the school curriculum. We go through 11/12 years of school and a lot of local things we are ignorant about. We need less about the Mother country and more about her history. Let’s fix our education system.
  • Ne Timeas (17/02/2022, 20:00) Like (5) Dislike (0) Reply
    Indeed, the BVI economy—Tourism and Financial Services—is fragile. It fragility was aptly demonstrated by Covid-19 pandemic. Economic diversification should have started decades ago. In any event, it needs to start today. Agree that education is a key component in the process. All education suggestions have value, but the comprehensive assessment should be the first out the shoot. Work on diversifying the economy cannot and should not wait. We cannot wait until one or both of economic twin pillars stumble and tumble to start thinking about what is next. That is economic planning malpractice and gross governance negligence. Let’s geh ah dun!
  • class mate (17/02/2022, 21:22) Like (5) Dislike (0) Reply
    Class Mate, good read, and good job weaving slavery, economics, local history, and education into a commentary. The importance of education to economic diversification was for me the key take away from the article. But what if anything is going to happen. Economic diversification has been given lip service for decades. As with every thing else, they will wait for a collapse to attempt any action. True, economic diversification will be challenging but we cannot just throw up our hands and hope that things are going to be ok. Without any action, they are going to be ok. Lavity Stoutt and early legislators built the foundation and address some of the low hanging fruit. Now, it is up to the current political leaders to climb the tall mango tree and pick the ripening fruit at the top. Our problems are going to be solved with magic or waving a magical wand; it will require hard work, effective planning and execution. The BVI has to much poor planning piss poor performance.
  • Eagle & Buffalo (18/02/2022, 10:26) Like (5) Dislike (0) Reply
    Yeah, mehson, Road Town, we have a problem, a big problem. The economy is fragile. Virgin Islanders, Countrymen, let’s ask the question that if either tourism or financial services falter how will the BVI and the economy recover? Will our lives move along seamlessly? No. Thus, the economy needs to be diversified. We know the What and the Why but the big question for the folks at Mount Olympus and at Sage Mountain is How? The hard truth is as that E. Leonard noted is that the BVI is resource-poor. Settle on that, chew on it and let it marinate. Picking the low hanging fruit is easy but the true worth of elected officials is how they tackle big problems. The BVI cannot raise the white flag on economic diversification.

    [let’s lead as eagles, not careen off the cliff like buffaloes]
  • UK Taxpayer (18/02/2022, 12:35) Like (0) Dislike (5) Reply
    What you not asking UK taxpayers to pay reparation to slave descendants. You getting the message. If the UK were to cave and pay reparation, then the local government should reimbursed the UK government for all the grant in aid, schooling, health, prison, defense and other services provided. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. And if the BVI and other Overseas Territories want direct representation in Parliament, start paying fair share of taxes.
    • laughable (18/02/2022, 18:02) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
      Get your head out of the sand. No amount of what the UK has done coupled with reparations can truly compensate for the pillaging, murdering, raping, torture, forced and free labour for hundreds of years. But Reparation will show that they are truly sorry to the point of putting the descendants of slaves in a better position. talk that
      • Political Observer (PO) (19/02/2022, 10:14) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
        This discussion/debate should be about the BVI stepping up the level up of its education to build and sustain its economic posture. But not surprisingly slavery and racism is seeping into the debate; slavery is an integral part of Caribbean/West Indian history. Many Britons and Americans want us to pretend that slavery was a mirage of long ago so move on nothing see here. Well, slavery was real and the legacies of the institution of slavery are still with us, ie, poverty, inequitable access to and racial test for health, education, housing, employment, transportation, banking, sports and entertainment, justice and law, nutrition, immigration and labour, social services, etc. The slave trade, slavery and colonialism/imperialism built Britain and America’s economy. The US separated from the British Empire and fought a civil war to retain the institution of slavery. Slave labour built the economy and personal wealth of White Britons and Americans. In addition to building the economy and personal wealth, slavery give birth to a caste system with White at the top and Black dragging the bottom, serving in a subservient role as a mentally deficient race. It created special privileges that persists and are still expected today.

        The White descendants of slave masters like to wax and rationalize that they have not owned any slaves nor did no one alive today own any slaves and that they should not be burdened with the sins of their forefathers. However, what they pretend and conveniently want to forget are that they benefited immensely and continue to benefit tremendously from the spoils of slavery. Can they deny this? No.

        Nevertheless, the only people that have not benefited from the fruits of slave labor are Slaves (producers) and their Descendants. Slave Descendants need to be made somewhat whole; the brutality, dehumanizing, exploitation, subjugation, demoralizing, etc, can never be made fully whole. Sir Hilary M. Beckles, chancellor of UWI and lead person on Caricom Commission on Reparation need to ramp up the effort on reparation. Dr. Beckles is the leader of the commission but the whole region needs to actively weigh in. Indeed, the UK, US, France, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Denmark, etc, owe Caribbean/West Indies Slaves descendants a huge debt. It is way past time they pay up. Reparation is not new, for other brutalized and dehumanized people have received reparation, ie, Jews, Japanese, etc.
        • UK Taxpayer (19/02/2022, 15:38) Like (0) Dislike (4) Reply
          Another bloke being led off the cliff like sheep talking about reparation and looking for a free handout. The industrious plantation owners risk their capital to make the profitable profitable and absorbed the losses when the plantations failed.
      • Quiet Warrior (19/02/2022, 12:25) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
        It is a false equivalence and disturbingly self-serving to compare the brutality, subjugation, dehumanizing, exploiting, etc, experience of slaves to the nonsense being served up by UK Tayer. The sad thing is that millions subscribe to the same crap. The sad thing is the warped attitude may be sincere ignorance. MLK: Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.
  • Fam (18/02/2022, 18:48) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
    Good read. But you only mention the names of fam and retired educators Dr. Wheatley and Teacher Jennie Wheatley. The oversight might have been inadvertent. Nonetheless, there are other retired educators of note, viz, Dr. Quincy Lettsome, Elmore Stoutt, etc.
  • Newbie (19/02/2022, 12:53) Like (4) Dislike (0) Reply
    I read the eNews blogs religiously and find some are entertaining and some substantial. This commentary was long but I find it touched on a core issue, ie, the fragility of the economy and the need for economic diversification and the level and quality of education in strengthening and deepening the economy for national security. This is an urgent concern and hope that the serious concern is being taken seriously.
  • Disinterested (19/02/2022, 18:27) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
    Chups!!! Tired hearing about the need to diversify the BVI economy. I have been hearing about since Martulusa was a young lad. But to date, not a manjack has lift a pinkey finger to do a ting about it. BVI politicians are intellectually lazy and don’t want to do the heavy lifting to address the big complex problems. They need to do the people and territory dem wuk. Tiring also hearing about reparations. Again, it just tark, no wuk and no positive outcome. BVI people are short term thinkers, not long/term thinkers, and like quantity over quality. For example, we like a smooth road done hurriedly over one that will take longer and done properly.
  • Sage Mountain Town Crier (20/02/2022, 01:10) Like (4) Dislike (0) Reply
    “The VI was neglected and almost forgotten by the UK and Leeward Islands Federation and viewed as a little sleepy hollow, poverty-stricken place, the poor house of the West Indies, etc.” The BVI small size, its economy (agricultural subsidence), etc, was a contributing factor in the lack of robust investment in education and its lag behind other regional countries. Though short sighted, the outlook was no advanced education was needed for agricultural production (working ground in local lingo). The “above Round Rock” mentality and its continuing legacy is/was divisive, belittling, a put down, etc, was an indicator of under education of Virgin Islanders and a hindrance of BVI progress. If education is integral to true liberty as noted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, well, true liberty did not come to a majority of Virgin Islanders starting in 1968. It has been only 54 years since a majority of Virgin Islanders have had full access to secondary education. Nevertheless, education as indicated was done with a scatter shot approach without a definite plan of action. I strongly support the suggestion for an education master plan that is codified into law. I also agree that the economy is fragile and needs to diversified and that education is a major in the diversification effort. Further, the BVI has done relatively well in the short time it that the majority of the population has had the opportunity for secondary education. But relatively well clearly is not good enough. Education is the path to a brighter and more progressive future.
  • NY BVI Diaspora (20/02/2022, 10:33) Like (3) Dislike (0) Reply
    Clearly, economic diversification is a major problem begging and pleading for a solution. What is the BVI doing about it? Are going to wait until the BVI returns to being the poor house of the West Indies to before trying to act? The BVI is stagnating. Politicians in the Hon HL Stoutt era have made more progress with less resources and opportunities than the current guava crop. The baton has been past to them with a sizeable lead that is fumbled and squandered. I cry for my BVI. Where is the BVI Love.
  • Change and Action (21/02/2022, 06:52) Like (2) Dislike (0) Reply
    Road Town. we have a problem; Road Town, we have an economic diversification problem. Face it head on or the BVI die slow painful death. And it will be back to being the poor house of the West Indies. This is not a Chicken Little cry of the sky is falling; it is real. Face it. James Baldwin: “ Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” The BVI ignore this problem to its peril.
  • Regional Wall Street (21/02/2022, 10:53) Like (0) Dislike (2) Reply
    Poor house of the West Indies? Go siddung somewhere from talking bull..t. The BVI is one of richest countries in the region. It is the Regional Wall Street with all the money flowing through this place.
  • Nuts (22/02/2022, 04:55) Like (1) Dislike (0) Reply
    Regional Wall Street. What are you smoking? You are misinformed.
  • Stealth (22/02/2022, 20:27) Like (0) Dislike (0) Reply
    Investing in education, technology and economic diversification is a much needed sunk cost and can become a revenue center. The sunk cost would be peanuts in comparison to the impact of the economy of either tourism or financial services or both. The country will suffer immensely is in continues to ignore the problem in a stealth manner.

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