At 5:30am on the 19th of March 1969 Anguillans awoke to an astonishing site: a British military invasion of their idyllic, and tiny, Caribbean island.
There was no real local resistance – bar an excited crowd of reporters there to witness what was dubbed the “Bay of Piglets” – as Anguilla was not, at that time or ever since, in revolt against Her Majesty’s Government.
There had however been a quiet political revolution on the island, and a tenuous link between the Anguillan revolutionaries and the US mafia was enough for the British military and Metropolitan Police officers (yes, really) to launch a full-scale amphibious and aerial invasion.
The international community was horrified, and the landing was disastrous for British prestige on the world stage. It would serve as one of the final nails in the coffin of the rapidly dissolving British Empire.
Anguilla is a self-governing British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean. The island has a population of less than 20,000 people, the majority of whom are of African descent.
As colonialism collapsed in the 1950s, the island (which was until 1959 part of the British Leeward Islands) joined the short-lived West Indies Federation; a British colony.
When that federation then collapsed, Anguilla became part of the imaginatively named British Colony of Saint Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.
As the association’s smallest territory, Anguilla was consistently dealt a rough hand. In one incident, Canadian funds donated in order to build a pier on Anguilla were redirected to the government on Saint Kitts, who went on to build a pier…on Saint Kitts.
This sparked the 1967 Anguillan Revolution, when islanders led by Ronald Webster declared their independence from the associated state and forced the central government’s police force off of the island.
A referendum was held, and Anguillans voted overwhelmingly to become a separate colony of Britain. This is an important point given the invasion to come: Anguillans wanted separation from St Kitts, not Britain.
British adviser Tony Lee agreed upon an interim administration with Webster and the government in St Kitts, which ran from January ‘68 to January ‘69.
The British failed to negotiate the separation of Anguilla from the associated state during the interim administration. When Saint Kitts failed to extend the agreement, Anguillans again declared their independence, introducing a US-style Constitution authored by American professor of law Roger D. Fisher.
The Sarajevo/Fort Sumter moment came in March 1969, when British envoy Charley Whitlock was expelled from the island at gunpoint – ostensibly because of his refusal to acknowledge Webster as the president of the new Anguillan republic.
At that point, few Anguillans would have predicted that they were about to be invaded by one of the world’s greatest military powers.
Shortly after Whitlock was forced from the island, the British dropped leaflets around the island explaining that Mr Lee was to return as commissioner, and that islanders should ‘cooperate with the Police and Armed forces who have come to assist him’ (note that the scale of the police/military force is unspecified).
The leaflet seeked to premeditatively justify the forthcoming British actions, reading:
Mr Whitlock came unarmed and was forced to leave the island by a small group of people who used the threat of weapons to prevent him from discussing his proposals with you. It is not our purpose to force you to return to an administration you do not want. Our purpose is to end intimidation so that you can live in peace and express your opinions without fear.
The following day, 300 British marines and paratroopers aerially and amphibiously invaded the island, accompanied by 46 members of the Metropolitan Police service – which seems like a funny way to end intimidation.
The force ‘secured’ the island’s airstrip and established control points along its road network.
News footage shows the aftermath of the landing, with British forces surrounded by islanders who look they cannot quite believe what had just taken place.
One of the more bizarre sights of the day was the arrival of Scotland Yard Inspector Andrew Way, who was so large that he could not fit in the tropical uniforms which had been provided. Instead, he wore a full 16-ounce uniform made for use around the streets of London.
The military presence, with no real threat to contend with, only served to undermine the The British and Tony Lee.
Webster toured the island to assure the locals that the invasion does not change the Anguillan right to self-determination. Lee followed in a Union Jack waving Land Rover, to explain that, despite the military invasion, the British were there to support that right to self-determination.
On the day of the invasion as the episode was brought up in the House of Lords, WWII-war hero Lord Carrington summarised the general reaction of all those who had not been part of the invasion planning process: “I am bound to say that the whole episode has been a dreadful example of Government bungling. Really none of it should have been allowed to happen.
The first thing, I should have thought, is to reassure the islanders as to why the troops are there.”
Anti-war advocate and future chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom Lord Brockway went further, saying: “Many of us are shocked by the action which has been taken by Her Majesty’s Government in the use of troops. Many of us are shocked and are very disturbed by the effect this will have upon peoples in ex-colonial territories throughout the world.”
The ex-colonial territory that London would have been keenest not to disturb was the United States, whose Monroe Doctrine specified that European powers were not to interfere militarily in the Americas.
The State Department were quick to announce that in this case “the Monroe Doctrine does not apply”, and that Washington supported Britain’s goal of stability in the Caribbean. It is worth noting that at this time the USA was caught up in its own disastrous and increasingly embarrassing military intervention in Vietnam.
The Stateside press were far less pandering. The Washington Post wrote: “London looks silly.”
The Chicago Tribune took a wonderfully sarcastic approach: “British valour has at one stroke wiped out the stain od Dunkirk, Singapore and other debacles of British arms in recent memory.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times reacted with disbelief: “The lack of bloodshed was one of the few credit marks earned by any of the parties and outsiders will expect early evidence to support the notion that the real enemy here is some mafioso descendent of Captain Kidd.”
A reason to invade?
The ‘mafioso’ referred to there is one Jack Holcomb, an American from Florida. When Mr. Whitlock was expelled from Anguilla at gunpoint, he quipped that Anguilla was: “completely dominated by a gangster-type element…somehow like the Mafia.”
While Holcomb’s links to the mafia were never directly proven, he did hold significant influence over Ronald Webster. He had been appointed Webster’s legal adviser, despite having no background in law, and was due to become the island’s only magistrate prior to the British invasion. Holcomb was a tycoon of some sorts, and the fear was that he would use his judicial powers to push through large money-making development projects.
Reports suggested that six thousand dollars worth of arms had been shipped into Anguilla from Chicago, brokered by Holcomb and another American in David Bergland, who had recently moved to Anguilla.
Webster and the Anguillans have consistently denied the existence of a large cache of weaponry, or of any American influence on the island. British patrols failed to locate any significant stashes, bar 20 rifles and one anti-tank weapon.
The British Government has never stated explicitly that the suspected rogue faction on Anguilla precipitated the use of force, and instead explain that the force was there simply to accompany Mr Lee.
Suspicions of a link to the criminal underworld would however provide a logical link to the use of Metropolitan Police sergeants. If there was no suspicion of criminal activity, why were the Metropolitan Police there at all?
The precise British motive for the invasion therefore remains unclear, and perhaps Lord Carrington gave the best explanation when he said it was, simply, a ‘dreadful example of government bungling.’
Luckily, the invasion did not turn violent, and Anguilla went on to formalise its independence from St Kitts in 1980. It remains a British Overseas territory, and is famous for its lax taxation and white sandy beaches.
For Britain, Anguilla was one of a series of embarrassing nails in the imperial coffin, and another blow to the nation’s standing on the world stage as it declined from a global to a second rate power.