Restoration Works Begin At St. Philips Church

St. Philip's a few years ago before some emergency work was done [photo by Giorgio Migliavacca - copyright]

St. Philip’s a few years ago before some emergency work was done [photo by Giorgio Migliavacca – copyright]

The historic St. Philip’s Church built 175 years ago for the Liberated Africans is finally undergoing restoration works. Located at Kingstown on Tortola’s East End, the Church has been neglected for almost 150 years.

The announcement of the restoration works came on 12 November 2014 during an introductory event hosted by the newly formed Association for the Preservation of the Virgin Islands Heritage (APVIH). At that time, it was mentioned that restoration will include the installation of over 100 stone markers, log wood or stone benches, and a stone tiled walkway.

The ground breaking ceremony for the project took place on 2 May and the actual work commenced a few days ago. The restoration is being done by Newton Construction and it is expected to span six to eight weeks.

It was stated that the initial tasks would include the construction of a stone fence/wall at the front of the Church/Burial ground. The fence/wall is being done in the traditional Virgin Islands stone work style and it was noted that it would take a little longer than other regular work.

During the coming weeks it is expected that the landscaping and marking of some of the graves would also be done.

The Historian’s View

According to local historian, Vernon W. Pickering “the story of the long campaign to end the slave trade began in 1787 with the founding of the Society for Effecting The Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Finally, in February 1807, the British Parliament voted in favour of abolition and the last slave ship sailed from Liverpool in July. Britain then became a major campaigner to end the trade by other nations and the Royal Navy established a West Africa squadron to seize slavers and stamp out the trade.

“Such operations were also carried out in the Caribbean and slavers were seized in and around Virgin Islands waters. In January 1808, the ship Cerberus seized the American schooner Nancy with a cargo of black slaves from Senegal. The Africans were eventually liberated and placed under the protection of the Crown. In due course they were apprenticed to resident officials, white planters, and free blacks of Tortola.”

“But that was not all; between August 1814 and February 1815, a total of 1,318 slaves were liberated from four foreign ships:Manuella, Venus, Atrevido and Candelaria. Many of the liberated Africans were in poor health due to the cruel conditions under which they were kept during the transatlantic crossing. As a result some 248 Africans died. The remaining 1,070 liberated Africans were offered to go to larger islands and enroll into the military service; eventually 350 of them accepted the offer,” Pickering says.

“More slaves were liberated in 1817 when a Spanish ship ran aground on the Horseshoe Reef of Anegada unloading a cargo of 300 slaves. The same happened in 1819 when a Portuguese ship, Dona Paula, was wrecked on the Anegada shoals and unloaded a cargo of 253 Africans. These occurrences continued during the ensuing years and in the mid-1820s some form of social assistance for the free Africans was arranged, but it was limited to the minimum of human decency. In 1828, certificates of freedom were issued to the majority of liberated Africans,” the local historian added.

“In an attempt to solve some of the problems affecting the liberated Africans, in 1831, the government gave grants of land at Kingstown (not Kingston as some would have us believe). On the site they created a settlement assisted in a supervisory manner by Methodist missionaries and the Collector of Customs. The place became know as “The African Location” and was given a decent appearance. An architectural sketch taken from a watercolour painted on a contemporary map can be seen on the cover of Vernon Pickering’s “Concise History of the British Virgin Islands”.  The unspoken policy of isolating the liberated Africans was fulfilled a few years later when a church, St. Philip’s, serving also as a school, was established at Kingstown. In spite of the Abolition Act, privateers from St. Thomas continued to trade slaves in the BVI. When illegal slave-ships were seized in BVI waters their cargo was sometimes brought to quiet spots at Spanish Town (Virgin Gorda) or more often to Jost Van Dyke where the Africans were sold to St. Thomian planters,” Pickering said. “In 1861 the Liberated Africans at Kingstown unsuccessfully petitioned the Monarch for her support for much needed repairs to the church. The ruins we see now are the only reminders of Kingstown’s past. Nothing remains of all the homes built in the area.

“After years of neglect the church was badly damaged by the 1916 hurricane; a statue of Queen Victoria was also lost because of the inclement weather. St. Philip’s bell was removed and used at St. Paul’s Church (Seacows Bay) where the bell had been lost during the 1916 hurricane. In the late 1930s the Royal Navy donated a bell to St. Paul’s Church, St. Philip’s bell was returned to its original location.  The whereabouts of the bell are not known,” Pickering said.

In the late 1930s, St. Philip’s bell was returned to its original location where it remained “hanging in a window frame”, possibly until the late 1970s. Apparently, there remains no trace of it now. This is confirmed by the memoirs of the late Reverend Ralph Perry-Gore published in 1984 under the supervision of BVI Philatelic Society president Dr. Giorgio Migliavacca.