The running-down machinery of colonial government worked slowly at the end of the sixties, and the Positive Action Movement had to be patient. Batehill, meanwhile, continued with its airstrip on Anegada, and the reclamation works at Wickham’s Cay. In October 1968 an advert by Batehill’s agents Smiths Gore offered investment opportunities to readers of The London Times, and Ken Bates himself gave interviews in London promoting the development. An advert by Bovis Construction in The Times in April 1969 declared: ‘We have three developments at present on Tortola … and we hope that our schemes will prove as beneficial to the islanders as to the Company. Our reception by the Virgin Islanders has been most cordial and helpful.’
The real situation on Tortola was somewhat different. Bates and his partnet, Torquil Norman, faced an angry public meeting in the Council Chamber in May 1968. The Island Sun reported: “It was a free for all expression of views which gyrated and escalated with heated exchanges and after more than two and a half hours came to an unsatisfactory end … there was a large overflow of spectators on the spacious porch and in the yard who acted with exuberance. Several persons carried Positive Action posters and a drum beat was occasionally heard.”
Noel Lloyd was still recuperating in Jamaica, so Lindy de Castro questioned Bates and Norman. Bates stated that the price for land on Wickham’s Cay was to be $160,000 per acre, and de Castro challenged him, “How can B.V. Islanders who may want to own a lot on Wickham’s Cay afford to buy at your price? Please tell us what area is specifically designated to Virgin Islanders? Since you expect to pay the Government $30,000 in your 199 years lease on three-fourths of Anegada, you are telling us you’ll be selling one acre of land on Wickham’s Cay for four to five times what you will pay for [all of] Anegada. How do you justify that?”
Bates and Norman said that no specific areas were allotted to B.V. Islanders as this would be segregation, and that “there is a plan to assist B.V. Islanders who wish to participate in the development of Wickham’s Cay and have the means” by breaking down parcels of land into smaller units. They also stressed the benefits that would come to public services, but it was clear that they had failed to convince the crowd.
Anger at the developers grew when Roadtown flooded in November 1968 and May 1968, apparently as a result of the reclamation works. By the time Noel Lloyd returned in August, Positive Action Movement had become the active ‘Watch-Dog of the BVI Government’, putting pressure on the government not just over the Batehill schemes, but demanding a native police force and integrated schools. PAM made regular radio broadcasts and positioned itself as a safeguard for the interests of Virgin Islanders, rather than as a political party.
In autumn 1969, the British Government finally agreed to PAM’s demands and sent a Commission of Enquiry to Tortola to hear the islanders’ grievances and review the Batehill agreements. The Commission was led by Sir Derek Jakeway, former Governor of Fiji, and announced on 9th September; the first meeting was held nine days later, where it was announced that interested parties had three days to submit their evidence for consideration; four copies of any such evidence would be required. With so little time to prepare the Islanders feared a white-wash, but at the hearings they found they had a new ally.
Led by Lavity Stoutt, the local government, formerly supportive of Batehill’s scheme, changed tack and in its submission requested that the agreements be renegotiated to the benefit of Virgin Islanders. The government felt that land and tax incentives as required for a viable scheme were reasonable to kickstart development, but that a kickstart ought not to last for 199 years. They recommended that the length of the lease be halved and the area involved reduced, that rental payable on sub-leases be increased and subject to regular review, and that tax exemptions should end after thirty-five years. Stoutt was loudly applauded by the people packed into the Council Chambers for the hearing.
Noel Lloyd and the Positive Action Movement submitted two pieces of written evidence, and Lloyd and de Castro both appeared before the committee in person. Noel broke down while making his emotional presentation; Lindy de Castro spoke of the need to retain control of the islands for its own people. He demanded that all potential investors be carefully screened as he suspected the tax haven status of Anegada might attract criminal elements, and called on the government “to see that “no white Africans or Rhodesians’ set foot on the island … and that no imports [of goods] from Rhodesia or any part of ‘white Africa’ be allowed to enter Anegada.” PAM’s written evidence called on the commission to reject the Batehill agreements as illegal, as PAM believed “Martin Staveley, the Administrator … felt that the Virgin Islands were too good for the people … he looked down on the people of the Virgin Islands. He used the dictatorial powers given him by the constitution, and pushed through an agreement.”
Ken Bates testified on 26th September, and was pictured in the Virgin Islands Daily News, bearded and in a light short sleeved shirt, while Ira Smith of the ‘Watchful Eye Committee of Anegada’ looked on. In evidence, Bates described the history of his interests in Tortola and Anegada and the process of negotiations that had led to the agreements; but by now Bates had become largely irrelevant to the process that was going on around him. The people’s grievance was with the government that signed their islands away, and now the government had taken their side and recommended the agreements should be renegotiated, it was difficult to see how Batehill could continue to carry out their plans for the islands.
The Commission of Enquiry’s report, when it came in January 1970, actually found broadly in favour of Batehill. Sir Jakeway considered that, despite the apparent haste and the lack of official minutes, the process that led to the agreements of January 1967 had been constitutional and valid. “Mr Bates and his associates took the risks and are entitled to reap the benefits,” wrote Jakeway in his conclusion. But the report went on: “Equally, however, we believe that no government should surrender its control over the land and destiny of its citizens to quite the extent that these agreements do.” It ended: “Our hope is that the findings in this report will assist in producing a solution to the problems which have arisen.” It did no such thing. The BVI government rejected the report and continued to demand that the agreements be renegotiated.
Opinion at the Foreign Office differed from that of Derek Jakeway. The British government was nervous of a repeat of the recent revolution on the nearby island of Anguilla, and feared what might happen should Bates press ahead with his development. A Foreign Office official concluded in a memo that Bates was “totally unfit for these islands, and I don’t think that things will get any better until he either changes his attitudes or he gets out altogether.” Delegations from the BVI travelled to London in June and November 1970 and attempted to buy Batehill out of their leases, but the matter remained unsettled in the spring of 1971.
The situation was even raised in the House of Lords; Lord Brockway said of the Batehill agreements that, “With knowledge of some of these contracts, I do not think I have ever read a contract [the 1967 agreements] which was so unfair as that.” Lord Brockway noted that compensation offers had been rebuffed by Batehill, and warned: “Inevitably, under the conditions which I have described, there is now arising in these islands a militant movement; one can hardly go to a Caribbean island to-day without seeing Black Panther emerging. And unless we are able to deal generously and justly with this problem of the exploitation of these peoples by these external financial corporations, there will be movements arising where compensation will not be considered at all.”
Bates had apparently demanded $10million in compensation, and threatened to ruin the reputation of the British Virgin Islands if his demand wasn’t met. He dismissed the government’s offer of $6million as “a blatant piece of theft.” Torquil Norman, however, was less disposed to argue, and when Barclay’s Bank demanded immediate repayment of a $1.5million loan in March 1971, Bates contact the Foreign Office to settle. The Foreign Office had privately decided upon $6.8million as a reasonable price to buy Bates out, but in his haste Bates accepted just $5.8million – still describing this figure as “grossly unfair.” The British government loaned that sum to the BVI government, which finally bought Batehill out of the Anegada and Wickham’s Cay agreements on 21st April 1971.