The Church of the Africans

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.

HRH The Duke of Gloucester and Father Branche in the grounds of St Philip's Church in March 2012.

HRH The Duke of Gloucester and Father Branche inside St Philip’s Church in March 2012.

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!

5 Responses

  1. Tom Macan says:

    I have wonderful memories of the dawn eucharist held here each year on St Philip’s Day – I hope it still happens. Given that this building is one of very few – perhaps the only – ancient building in the BVI constructed by and for those of African origin, its preservation should be a top priority. I hope Government and the community can come together to get some action on this: I said in 2006 that I would be glad to lend a hand, and I still am.

    • Boyd McCleary says:

      Tom, interesting to hear of the Eucharist services at St Philip’s. I am sure the preservation project organisers would be delighted to hear that they can add another name to the volunteer list! Boyd.

  2. Many of the previous governors to the islands that did not realise that this was the First Church that was given or allowed to service the Africans. At least there is now a sign to indicate what it was, perhaps a brief history sign beside it would be a reminder to those who have the chance, tour operators and taxis alike, to visit.
    I hope the Duke had a chance to visit Fireproof building on Main Street which has a historical meaning to the island.

    • Boyd McCleary says:

      Margaret – many thanks for your comments. The Duke of Gloucester did indeed visit the Fireproof Building, as well as the Old Prison, during his walk down Main Street so managed to get a good sense of the Territory’s architectural heritage.

  3. Patricia G. Turnbull says:

    Thank you, Your Excellency, for the endorsement. I have not forgotten your invitation for a chat extended to me at the launching of “Can These Stones Talk?” My remembrance work on Kingstown continues. I am currently in discussions with other cultural workers (historians, preservationists, genealogists, artists, etc.) for the marking and beautification of the too-long neglected church cemetery – the sacred burial ground of the Kingstown Africans and several of their descendents.

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