Like many other people, I regularly pass by the little ruined church with no roof, on the other side of the road from Cedar School, in an area called Kingstown or Kingston. If you slow down or stop at the site, you will notice a BVI Tourist Board sign that this is “St Philip’s Anglican Church Ruins, the Church of the Africans”. But what is the story behind this church?
I found out some time ago that the church was built on land made available, by the Crown (hence Kingstown), for Africans who had been freed by the Royal Navy from ships still engaged in the slave trade. This trade had been outlawed by the British parliament in 1807 following years of pressure by men like William Wilberforce, who wanted to abolish slavery. Slavery itself was not abolished until 1834, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was read out in the Virgin Islands and other parts of the British Empire.
When we were preparing for last year’s visit by HRH The Duke of Gloucester to the Territory to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we discovered that the Duke was an architect, who was interested in old buildings. So it did not take a huge amount of imagination to conclude that he might like to visit St Philip’s. One of my motives for suggesting this was to draw attention to the church. The Duke readily agreed and very much enjoyed his visit, taking time to meet not only the Anglican Minister, but also children from the school across the road. One of the main impressions he came away with was that, if nothing was done, St Philip’s was likely soon to collapse and be lost.
Two things that have happened recently give me hope that the church may after all be saved and that more people will learn the story of those Africans:
- the news that a project is underway to stabilise St Philip’s and ensure that it does not fall into further disrepair;
- the launch by local author Patricia Turnbull of a wonderful book “Can These Stones Talk?”, which provides a full account of the origins and history of the church.
I wish the preservation project and the book well and can only hope that the Duke’s visit played a small part in raising awareness of the significance of this bit of Virgin Islands history. Those who want to know more should definitely read the book!