ANGUILLA, THE MOUSE THAT ROARED
Anguilla is my favorite island in the Caribbean. Many reasons. It has the friendliest people. With thin soil Anguilla never had successful plantations and avoided the brutal slavery of other islands. The memory of past slavery doesn’t get in the way of friendliness. Beaches are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean, Shoal Bay Beach in particular is incomparable. Exceptional hotels and guest houses. Very special restaurants including Blanchard’s Restaurant, the subject of a marvelous book, “A Trip to the Beach.” No intrusion of crowds of tourists from massive cruise ships as there is no port. Weather is the best in the Caribbean because Anguilla has no mountains reaching up to gather in passing rain. And there is something else that truly delights. Anguilla is the mouse that roared.
Maybe you have seen Leonard Wibberly’s hilarious 1959 movie, “The Mouse that Roared.” The tiny tatterdemalion Duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the US and surrenders post-haste with the purpose of getting the generous reconstruction money the US always provides to nations it defeats. The story is Anguilla in a nutshell.
In the 1960s Anguilla was the poorest island in the Caribbean, fifteen miles long and only two miles wide with less than 6,000 inhabitants scratching out a living mostly from the sea as the island had little to offer in the way of soil or rain. In the 1800s it had been lumped by the UK for administrative purposes with the larger islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Those on Anguilla hated those on St. Kitts and Nevis and the feeling was mutual. St. Kitts and Nevis denied a telephone system and electricity to Anguilla and posted their policemen on Anguilla to keep the peace. The Anguillan resentment came to a head in 1967 when as part of its general empire dismantling the UK set up St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla as a new country and gave the three island nation its independence. Those in Anguilla were having none of it. To be an administrative appendage of St. Kitts and Nevis was bad enough. To be linked with them permanently was a non-starter.
The Anguillans started a quiet revolt. Two referendums were held with the vote each time almost 2,000 in favor of succession from St. Kitts and Nevis and four against. St. Kitts and Nevis prepared to invade but in the middle of preparations someone discovered they couldn’t invade as they didn’t have a navy to carry their troops to Anguilla, a looney toons cartoon. Meanwhile the incipient independence of Anguilla brought in the scalawags and the dreamers. From the scalawags: “We will turn Anguilla into the tax free financial capital of the Caribbean, We will make Anguilla into an international tourist center, We will set up Anguilla as the center for the Caribbean construction industry,” and so on. All talk by people who in some cases turned out to be under indictment in the US.
The dreamers were more interesting. Scott Newhall, the San Francisco Chronicle’s buccaneering editor, wooden-legged, he’d lost a leg in Mexico, was gung ho for Anguillan independence. He and a number of other prominent San Francisco citizens had bought into the philosophies of Professor Leopold Kohr, known as “the professor of smallness.” Kohr believed that following his principles a small country could be turned into a city state in the mold of Greek antiquity, becoming a shining example to lead the world to a better future. Anguilla was a perfect opportunity to prove out his concepts. Newhall bought an antique coin press and had his Chronicle copy boys stamp out 10,000 “Anguilla Liberty Dollars.” (You can still sometimes find them on eBay). He created a snazzy Anguilla passport and designed an Anguilla flag—two comely mermaids on a field of blue—that first flew over the Saint Francis hotel when the “Anguillan Freedom Delegation” visited San Francisco in 1967. Eventually the San Francisco contingent provided substantial funds to Anguilla, bailing out the Anguilla treasury.
The Anguillans liked the money from San Francisco but had no interest in becoming a Greek city state. “What are we going to do? Wear Greek togas in this heat?" Rather their interest was in the opposite direction, to break away from St. Kitts and Nevis, and become a dependency of the U.K. with all the financial, health care, and welfare benefits dependency status would gain them. Britain was having none of this. Anguilla was part of a new three island nation and that was that. The Labor Party’s Junior Minister, William Whitlock, was dispatched to Anguilla with an entourage to set out the British decision. Anguilla lay in wait. A luncheon was held for the visitors immediately upon arrival. In the middle of the luncheon gun fire was heard on a nearby hill, and the head of the breakaway Anguilla government told Whitlock he could not guarantee Whitlock’s safety. Whitlock skedaddled back to London claiming the island was in the grips of gangsters and caches of arms were scattered around the villages. “After several threats, and the bringing of more and more nasty armed men I was hustled off the island.”
With the island in the grips of insurrectionists and the Mafia the Wilson Labor government decided to invade, and Operation Sheepskin was born. On March 19, 1969 almost 400 paratroopers together with Royal Marines and elements of the Metropolitan Police force came ashore in an amphibious landing. Those on the British navy ships anchored offshore saw the invasion beaches lit by flashes and thought the troops were under attack. It turned out to be the flash bulbs of some sixty news people gathered to film the invasion in response to leaked information. There was no leak to the Anguillians, who were mostly asleep in bed and knew nothing of the invasion in the absence of a telephone system. A search of the island revealed no caches of arms or Mafia. The British sheepishly departed.
Worldwide press dubbed the fiasco, “The Bay of Piglets.” Many editorials commented on how silly London looked. The stupidity of the whole thing helped bring down the Wilson government and caused the U.K. to grant Anguilla what it wanted. The New York Times summed it up. “Nobody seems to have noticed at the time but the instant the troops landed, Anguilla had won her rebellion. She had succeeded from St. Kitts to become a British colony, and she had just become a British colony." Financial and other support from Britain followed. The mouse of Anguilla had roared and showed that Leonard Wibberly's hilarious notion that a small country could get largess from a big country by going to war with it wasn’t so ridiculous after all.