Odd this day

29 May 1967

6 min readMay 29, 2024

The start — or at least the first big skirmish — of the Anguillan ‘mouse that roared’ revolution.

Ronald Webster leading a protest — image shows men with placards and flags marching towards the camera. Webster, in shirt and tie, is front and centre, looking directly at camera

Anguilla is not a large place — about 16 miles long and (up to) three wide, it sits in the eastern Caribbean, approximately 65 miles from St Kitts and Nevis — and pretty much everything that follows goes back to Britain’s 1825 decision to administrate this tiny overseas territory from these two slightly larger islands to its south.

To this day, not much will grow on Anguilla, and its main income comes from tourism and offshore banking. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it suffered (as did much of the Caribbean) from economic downturns, not least the Great Depression. By 1956, when Saint Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla was designated a crown colony, they wanted freedom from their larger neighbours. Curiously, though, they didn’t want independence from Britain — just from those bastards in St Kitts.

Enter stage left Ronald Webster. Born in Anguilla, he had left to work in nearby St Martin, where he found himself suddenly inheriting about $1.5m (from his childless employers who had treated him like a son, according to Vincent Hubbard’s A History of St Kitts — the sweet trade). He went home, found his birthplace still impoverished, and decided to act. He set up a power plant in 1966, but felt he hadn’t been treated well by Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, Chief Minister of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla — and when the three lumped-together islands became an associated state of the UK in 1967, he and his fellow disgruntled Anguillans began disrupting meetings and generally getting up to shenanigans.

In February 1967, they disrupted a beauty pageant, throwing stones and causing panic. Armed St Kitts police on the island tear gassed and shot at them. Two days later, 40 members of the St Kitts defence force arrived — but were greeted at the airport by the also-armed Webster and friends, so they legged it to the Anguilla police station in such a hurry they left their weapons behind in the plane. The rebels nicked the lot and then blocked the airstrip.

Bradshaw asked the British to send an armed frigate. This duly arrived on Valentine’s Day, and was met by a happy crowd of people waving Union Jacks they’d made themselves and singing the British national anthem. Deciding there was no riot to suppress, the frigate returned home without any troops so much as getting off the ship.

On Statehood Day (27 February 1967), the Anguillans tore down the new flag and held a procession with an empty coffin to represent the death of the link with St Kitts. It was on 29 May that the ‘revolution’ (although that’s still rather a strong word for something so small scale and bloodless) really kicked off. Police had apparently been firing in the air to break up another protest, and were surrounded in the station by an angry mob as a result. The police fled for St Kitts the next day — but not before the rebels had disarmed them at the airport, thus acquiring rifles, grenades and ammo.

To his credit, Webster next tried diplomacy, but a team of negotiators sent to St Kitts was not a success. So — expecting St Kitts to invade — he decided that they would, instead, invade their larger neighbour. An 18-strong team in a 35-foot boat set out, got lost, landed on the wrong island, set out again, were met by police and troops on St Kitts (but largely escaped), left for home, found the engine was knackered, and had to row the rest of the way.

In the face of this farcical invasion, Chief Minister Bradshaw showed his mettle — that of a burgeoning autocrat — and declared a national emergency. He had to devote a fair amount of his energy putting down revolt in the rather-more-nearby Nevis, though, because they agreed with the Anguillans. (Also, the few Anguillans they’d captured were released, because the court said Bradshaw’s government hadn’t proved its case.)

Negotiations continued — and continued to fail. An Anguillan referendum voted by 1,813 votes to five for independence, and Anguilla declared itself a republic. A British envoy was sent, and (by this stage, unsurprisingly) did not convince the Anguillans that they were mistaken and surely wanted to be part of St Kitts-Nevis. They put their views to him with some force, and headlines in Britain began suggesting that Anguilla was overrun by criminals and gunmen.

In the words of Donald Westlake, who wrote a whole book about the affair

My personal favorite is from the Evening Standard on March 14: “There are about 6000 people on the island. Most of them are believed to have guns.” If we remember that thirty-five hundred of the six thousand are children and two thousand of the remainder are women — if, in fact, we remember that … most able-bodied men must spend years in exile to send money home for their families to live on — that particular line becomes first funny and then merely stupid.

I have reproduced Westlake’s book cover here for no particular reason.

Front cover: Under an English Heaven — being a true recital of the events leading up to and down from the British invasion of Anguilla on March 19th, 1969, in which nobody was killed by many people were embarrassed, by Donald Westlake. Illustrated by two naked white men walking on a beach — mercifully away from camera

So, the stories being told in Britain were — at the very least — exaggerated, but troops went in anyway.

According to an Airborne Regiment history site, Operation Sheepskin saw 2 PARA (that is, the Second Battalion of the Parachute Regiment) and a number of Met Police deciding

not to conduct an airborne assault but instead land with Gemini assault craft from two Royal Navy frigates to soften the political profile of the intervention.

Of course, they didn’t need to worry. The Anguillans wanted the British there, just not the government of St Kitts and Nevis. Indeed, the ParaData site continues:

Flashes around the beach landing area proved to be from a large contingent of the World’s Press waiting to record the landing, rather than hostile fire Royal Navy gunners were assuming they may have to silence.

Law and order was rapidly restored by the Metropolitan police, while 2 PARA concentrated on ‘hearts and minds’ to win over the Islanders. B Company was flown in six weeks later while the rest of the battalion returned to the UK.

B Company participated in the ‘Grass Roots’ population census that followed and won over the inhabitants by their friendly and tolerant approach to maintaining the Island’s security; visiting all parts of the Island*.

(* which would not have taken long)

Webster addressed the United Nations, and in a moment of supreme irony, as he made a plea for outlying places to have the right to self-determination, “Even the Soviet Union’s delegate agreed with him” — which would have bitterly amused the people of Hungary, had they been allowed to know about it at the time.

Anyway, peace was restored, even though it hadn’t ever really gone away, and Anguilla got what it wanted — although it took a while. It only officially seceded from St Kitts on 19 December 1980, but remains an apparently contented self-governing British Overseas Territory to this day.

Coda — the downfall of Harold Wilson

But… even if they ultimately succeeded in having that rare thing: a revolution to keep things more or less the same, did they also succeed in an unexpected way — by changing the government of the United Kingdom? The jury is out on this, but there were certainly rumblings in the House of Commons when it seemed that military action was being taken before they had been informed.

Conservative leader Edward Heath made capital out of it, as you would expect, and even former Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown muttered about “gunboat diplomacy”. The funniest intervention, though, was probably that of Tory Nigel Birch, who asked the (then current) Foreign Secretary to “convey to the Prime Minister the congratulations of the House on at last taking on somebody of his own size”. Ronald Webster’s later book, Scrapbook of Anguilla’s Revolution, says the press dubbed the military intervention ‘The Bay of Piglets’.

The Wikipedia page about Operation Sheepskin says

The invasion was a global public-relations embarrassment, contributing to the defeat of Harold Wilson at the 1970 general elections

…but then adds:

[citation needed]

I have not found any such citation, but… well, it can’t have helped, and in June 1970, Mr Heath ceased to be The Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.




Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries