Dr. Harrigan’s Memorial Lecture focuses on the 1853 Riot


The 12th Annual Dr. Norwell Harrigan Memorial Lecture was held at Maria’s by the Sea on 25 July under theme “Celebrating Freedom With Fire: The Importance of August 1st”.  This year’s presenter was Dr. Angel Smith.

Rector of the St George’s Episcopal Anglican Church, Fr. Ronald Branche explained the origin of the annual lecture in his welcome remarks. He spoke fondly of Dr. Norwell Harrigan and explained that when the time came to name the annual event, it was decided that it should be named after Dr. Harrigan, who Fr. Branche said displayed a keen interest in history.

The Rector noted that the event has grown over the years from a speech presented in the St George’s Church to a dinner event in an effort to take the lecture a notch higher.

This year’s lecture focused on the 1853 cattle tax riot, and the historical significance of the date 1 August. In fact the lecturer noted that 1 August is celebrated as Emancipation Day not only in the BVI but in the region as well.

Dr. Smith explained that unfortunately for the freed Virgin Islanders emancipation came with some unforeseen limitations. He explained that while planters were compensated the enslaved walked away empty handed, and in exchange for their homes and pastures they had to accept work with unfavourable returns for their labour.

The lecturer pointed out that after emancipation took place the level of taxation in the colonies continued to increase making it difficult for the labour population. In fact, Hon. Smith explained that for the former slaves the new freedom fast became a new form of enslavement.

Still, he said that Virgin Islanders persevered despite their hardships. However, the quiet murmuring soon became an outcry following the 5 June, 1853 Legislative Council formal endorsement of an Act that raised the cattle tax by 50 percent.

Dr. Smith explained that the people of the day were unable to pay what was deemed a hefty tax on such short notice, and in consideration of what actions they should take held a meeting at Chateau Belair in July, 1853. The meeting was chaired by a member of the Privy Council Thomas Cooke and Augustus McCleverty. Among the decisions made was for a petition to be prepared. However it was announced that the petition was not done because Cooke was threatened with legal actions.

The people resorted to demonstrating passively, and did so on 1 August 1853 when  they turned up at the Treasurer’s office to pay their tax, but they only paid the previous amount and not the new demand. The Treasurer reportedly turned them away and a commotion ensued resulting in group leader, Obadiah Dawson being arrested and taken to court. Dawson was tried while the other labourers stood outside protesting. It was stated that Henry Garnett a labourer from Lower Estate was quite vocal. Nonetheless Obadiah was found guilty and fined one shilling which he refused to pay and was jailed as a result. Garnett was also imprisoned.

The jailing of the two men incensed the crowd who retaliated against the 24 constables who were there. As a result, the Riot Act was read by a Justice of the Peace. It was stated that the men after beating the constables went to their homes and vowed to return the next day.

It was stated that the next morning the people armed with sticks headed to town, they were intercepted along the way by John Haddock, a Methodist preacher who asked them to keep the peace. However the people explained that they wanted the increased tax to be removed and Garnett and Dawson to be freed. After discussing the matter the group of labourers decided that Haddock would take their grievances to the President and negotiate on their behalf. This was done but although President Chad agreed to free the men he didn’t state that the tax would be reduced but rather told the group that the Legislative Council would decide, and from all accounts the group seemed satisfied.

It was stated that the peace was interrupted after a group of young men ended up in a confrontation with armed constables and James Rymer was shot. This was said to have riled the labourers to a point where a full-scale riot erupted.  Reportedly, the labourers set ablaze many properties, and caused many to flee leaving the President to fend for himself.

The riot was contained when a contingent of 30 Danish soldiers arrived on Tortola to help restore law and order, and the later arrival of two contingents of British soldiers from the 2nd and the 67th West India Regiment.

As a result of the riot some persons were sentenced to death — four men, and three women.

In the end the lecturer stated that the cattle tax was repealed and from then on the Legislative Council was cautious when passing tax related matters.

“The 1853 cattle tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back; they endured until they could no longer, August 1 was very important for our ancestors and us today,” Dr. Smith said in closing.