Despite being out of the way, Anguilla has been inhabited, in some shape or form, for tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists recently discovered remains of the largest rodent known to have walked the earth – it was reckoned at about 3 feet (1 meters) high and weighing up to 350 pounds (160 kilos) and became extinct from Anguilla about 20,000 years ago. More recently the island was inhabited from about 2000 BC by the Arawak Indians who had gradually moved up through the Caribbean island chain from South America in their dugout canoes. 42 Amerindian archaeological sites of interest have been uncovered in Anguilla revealing many artifacts attesting to their presence and the richness of their culture. Many examples can now be seen at the National Trust Museum.
The English colonized the island in about 1650 but were themselves wiped out by the Caribs, a warrior people from South America, in 1656. The power struggle between the English and the French in the Caribbean dominated Anguilla’s history for the next 150 years and severely disrupted their basic cash crop economy. Anguillans experienced many hardships trying to eke out a living during political wrangling between these two powers.
The British Empire set up a new administrative framework for their territories in the region in 1824. In short, Anguilla was to be administered over by St. Kitts and lacked any real autonomy. Anguillans resented this as they felt those in St. Kitts were unaware and uninterested in the needs of Anguillans. These seeds of discontent were to come to a head some 145 years later.
The Emancipation Act of 1833 resulted in the end of slavery in Anguilla in 1838. Most of the white plantation owners returned to England and sold their land to former slaves. Anguilla developed into a society of independent peasants who settled all over the island to use any available fertile land. Living conditions were very hard indeed and over the next 70 years many Anguillans emigrated in order to find work in the sugar cane fields of surrounding islands. They refused, despite their poverty, to leave the island en masse and as a result Anguilla evolved as a separate and distinct society – deeply proud, resolute and industrious. Anguilla’s vital trade links to the rest of the Caribbean were maintained by boat; Anguillans became very skillful boat-builders and have a particular design style recognized throughout the Caribbean. They often built wooden trading vessels weighing up to 150 tons. These boat-building skills are still present today and Anguilla still takes custom orders for boats from surrounding islands.
Throughout the first half 20th Century Anguilla found that, despite all the political upheaval in the British West Indies, they could not shake the administrative noose that had collared them under the hand of St. Kitts in 1824. Despite numerous entreaties to the British government from as far back as 1872 for direct administration from Britain, Anguilla’s calls went unheeded. Anguilla did not fit the political tide, and was dealt with quite inappropriately by Britain. Tensions mounted between Anguilla and St. Kitts in the late 1950’s and throughout the 1960’s, helped along by the highly destructive nature of the threats made by the eccentric Chief Minister of St. Kitts, Robert Bradshaw.
Union with St. Kitts had done nothing for Anguilla’s infrastructure; up to 1967 there were no paved roads, no industries, no electricity, no pipe-borne water, no telephones and no proper port facilities. Anguilla decided that it must sever any constitutional links with St. Kitts and even resorted to invading St. Kitts in 1967 to show they meant business. They disarmed and sent all the St. Kitts policemen stationed in Anguilla back home. The British finally intervened in 1969 and sent 400 soldiers from the Paratroop Regiment to restore order to a population that, rather oddly, welcomed them when they arrived. This event was later dubbed the ‘Bay of Piglets’. Anguilla made sure that the political and administrative solution adopted had their interests, for once, at heart. It took until 1980 before Anguilla got what it felt it needed in order to have a reasonable chance of development: On 19th December 1980 Anguilla finally became a separate British Dependent Territory and ended a long and difficult chapter in its history.
Anguilla now has a Westminster-style system of government with a Governor, an Executive Council and a House of Assembly and enjoys peace and ever increasing prosperity.