A HEN AND HER CHICKENS by Colville Petty

By anguillian February 29, 2016 11:07 Updated





(This tribute to the Father of the Nation, James Ronald Webster, was first published in The Anguillian newspaper in 2002, and it is now republished in honour of his 90 birthday on 2nd March 2016.)

“Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the sheep to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain . . . ” (Exodus 3:1). It was while he was in the bush tending his sheep that God called on Moses to take his people out of Egypt.

Thousands of years later Ronald Webster, the son of a fisherman and a seamstress, was in the hills in neighbouring St Marteen tending cows and sheep for a wealthy couple. It was then and there that a vision of a better Anguilla came to him. It was as though a voice told him (along the lines of Exodus 3:7-8): “I have seen the affliction of my people which are in Anguilla, and I have heard their cry . . . I know their sorrows; . . . deliver them out of the hands of the Kittitians”. That vision led Webster back home in 1960 and a few years later he became actively involved in a movement for the separation of Anguilla from St Kitts.

Like Jesus’ apostles, Webster was no political scientist, no accountant, no lawyer, no doctor and so forth. Like Moses, he was a cowherd and shepherd. Born on 2nd March 1926, in a small wooden house in the humble fishing village of Island Harbour, he attended the East End Primary School but harsh conditions on the island forced him to leave at the age of ten for St Marteen. The only certificate he had was his birth certificate. As the Honourable Kenneth Harrigan would put it, he had “no O’levels; only spirit levels”.

Webster was firstly a good shepherd who was willing to give his life for his sheep. Secondly, he was a visionary, a man with a mission: a burning desire to see Anguilla go forward. Thirdly, he was a man of steel. All these qualities contributed significantly to his emergence as leader of the Anguilla Revolution of 1967. (Others in the vanguard included men like Atlin Harrigan, Wallace Rey, Walter Hodge, Collins O. Hodge, Bob Rogers and Winston Harrigan.)

The history of Caribbean people will record that Webster was the leader of the first bloodless Revolution in the region. The history of Anguilla will treat him as the greatest of Anguilla’s revolutionary leaders. Without him there would have been no Revolution. Without him the Revolution would have collapsed. Webster gave courageous leadership and had instilled in the minds of the people that their goals were achievable whatever the odds. He advised them: “Our battle will not be won by force but by your support under the almighty hand of God”.

Webster was a charismatic leader. He was revered by most. In the words of Emmanuel Webster (1994): “I sat down with Mr Webster, and I talked to him, and I found out that the man has wisdom in his very toes”. Webster was the light of the Revolution and people followed him without question. To quote Jeremiah Gumbs: “When Mr Webster says act, do not question him!” And the late John Thomas: “When Mr Webster is wrong he is right. And when he is right he is double right”.

When the going got really rough Webster was able to calm the people’s fears by resorting to the Holy Scriptures. I recall him telling them on numerous occasions: “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me”. “I will never leave you nor forsake you”. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid”. There was one occasion when he observed: “I know that some in this crowd have their fears and doubts but this is because they lack faith. Fears and doubts only overshadow a man when he lacks confidence”. Webster enkindled hope in the people’s hearts and under his stubborn leadership they refused to succumb to the myriad obstacles which confronted them in their struggle for self-determination.

While some of his closest associates were inclined to give up the struggle, and seek a compromise, Webster’s will of steel told him otherwise. He stubbornly resisted any proposal that would have given St Kitts even the semblance of control over Anguilla. He refused to bend despite the odds. When some Anguillian leaders signed the 1967 Barbados Agreement, which would have put Anguilla back under the umbrella of the St Kitts Government, Webster refused to sign it despite open threats from the British officials who were present. Like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Webster wouldn’t bend, he wouldn’t bow, to Robert Bradshaw nor the British. They bowed to him.

On 11th March 1969, the British Government dispatched William Whitlock, a Junior Minister, to Anguilla with proposals for an interim settlement of the Anguilla situation. The proposals were unacceptable to the Anguillian leadership and Webster went to the house, at Sandy Hill, where Whitlock was staying to advise him accordingly. He told Whitlock:

“Sit down, I have something to say to you!”

Whitlock responded:

Don’t tell me to sit down! I have something to say to you! Listen to me! I am, after all, a Minister of the British Crown”.

Well who tell Whitlock to talk to Webster like dat? Shortly after, he was expelled from the island. In explaining the situation to the people, Webster said: “Whitlock . . . brought his proposals and gave us the bait like a fish, but what he did not realise was that we ourselves were fishermen”.

Whitlock’s expulsion brought about the British invasion of Anguilla on 19th March 1969 and Webster was deposed as President, a position he held following the island’s unilateral declaration of independence as a Republic, in February 1969. However, he was made Leader of the Anguilla Council under the new British Administration. From that position he continued to agitate for constitutional change. He gave the British Government no rest, no peace. He was a bug in their collar and cow itch in their pants. The constant pressure worked and when the island was given a ministerial system of government, in 1976, Webster became Anguilla’s first Chief Minister. He was appointed Chief Minister on two other occasions, in 1980 and 1981, following his party’s victories at the polls.

Surely, it was Webster’s vision, determination, courage and raw guts, coupled with the resolve of the Anguillian people, which saw the struggle through to a successful conclusion. Once it was over, with the achievement of formal separation from St Kitts-Nevis, on 19th December 1980, Anguilla underwent a complete social, economic and political metamorphosis. The removal of St. Kitts’ chokehold allowed the laying of the launch pad for its economic take-off. History, therefore, will remember Webster as the Father of the Anguillian nation who contributed immeasurably to the creation of the environment which eventually allowed the Anguillian people to participate in the charting and control of their own destiny. Webster harnessed the energies of the people with whom he laid the foundation on which all of them could now build. Cuthwin Webster was of this view when he told a political meeting that “Ronald Webster was a hero for Anguilla [because] he made it possible for everybody to have an opportunity”.

Among Webster’s most significant contributions to Anguilla during his tenure as Chief Minister was the introduction of the Social Security Scheme in 1982. It was born in a hostile environment and was viewed by many as the dream of a mad man. Webster spurned all opposition and imposed the Scheme on the Anguillian people, come hell or high water. In the social and political climate of the early 1980s only he could have achieved that feat. In fact, only he had the vision. The Scheme has since mushroomed into a developmental showpiece.

Webster’s contribution to this country is indeed phenomenal. No other Anguillian has contributed so much, and, in so short a time. He pitchforked Anguilla from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. It was this realisation which caused Victor Banks to tell a political meeting at Stoney Ground (1981) that “it takes a man with a university degree to understand what James Ronald Webster means to Anguilla. It takes a man with a university degree to understand that James Ronald Webster is no fool”.

Certainly, without Webster, Anguilla would still have been a Caribbean backwater. As Emmanuel Webster put it (1994): “When there were no roads in Anguilla, Ronald said ‘let there be roads’ and there were roads. When there were no lights . . . Ronald said ‘let there be light’ and there was light”.

Webster was a genuine revolutionary leader whose primary objective was the advancement of the wellbeing of the Anguilla people. In his own words (1988):

“When I take up this struggle in Anguilla, some years ago, I got involved deeply seeking a better way for Anguillians. It was like a hen trying to protect her chickens”. He certainly protected the chickens.

During the 1989 election campaign, Lolita Davis-Ifill told her listeners that “Webster is our national hero. Nobody can take that away from him [for] he was the leader of the Revolution”. The 35th Anniversary of that watershed in the lives of all Anguillians is a fitting occasion to remind ourselves of the part he played and to give him thanks. Ronald Webster brought Anguilla through the wilderness and across the Red Sea. The present and future generations must take it to the Promised Land.

By anguillian February 29, 2016 11:07 Updated


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