St. Phillip's Church
St. Phillip's Anglican Church in the Kingstown area of Tortola in British Virgin Islands is claimed by local historians to be the oldest free black church in the Americas. It was built for a community of freed slaves during the early nineteenth century. Despite the historical and cultural importance of the building, it has fallen into dilapidation and near ruin in recent times. It is sometimes referred to locally as the African Church.
The African slave trade had been abolished in 1807 pursuant to the Slave Trade Act 1807, and the Royal Navy patrolled the high seas to attack foreign ships carrying slaves to the Americas. In January 1808, HMS Cerberus seized the American schooner, the Nancy with a cargo of enslaved Senegalese Africans in the Territory's waters. Between August 1814 and February 1815 a further four ships' slave cargoes were seized from the Venus, the Manuella, the Atrevido and the Candelaria and a further 1,318 liberated slaves were deposited on Tortola's shores. In 1819, a Portuguese slave ship, the Donna Paula, was wrecked upon the reef at Anegada. The ship's crew and 235 slaves were saved from the wreckage. Other shipwrecks off Anegada were reported in 1817 and 1824. Many of the slaves died due to the appalling conditions that they were kept in during the transatlantic crossing.
The liberated Africans were offered the opportunity to serve in the military on larger islands; an opportunity that many accepted. However, a number stayed and settled in the Territory. They were made to serve an "apprenticeship" of 14 years, after which they were absolutely free. In 1828 they were given certificates of freedom, so as not to be confused with enslaved Africans.
However, the problem of relocating the new arrivals arose and a decision had to be made as to where to settle them. In 1831 the area now known as King's Town (not to be confused with Kingston which is in Jamaica), on Tortola, which was then uninhabited, was put aside and subdivided, and each newly freed African was allocated a plot of land where they could build a house and grow provision crops. Many converted to Christianity and in response to their embracing a new religion, the church was built for them close to the shore of the Kingstown area. The church was christened St Phillip's.
The free Africans were widely disliked by both whites (who saw them as a burden) and slaves, and their lot was not an easy one, which in turn bred both solidarity and a sense of isolationism.
The church is presently in ruins and has not been in active use for decades, except for occasional civil marriage ceremonies which are conducted within its walls (technically as open air ceremonies). The church is in an appalling state of disrepair, and even has graffiti daubed on some of the walls. The church is presently on private land. Periodically talk appears in the local newspapers about the Government or the National Parks Trust purchasing the site, but the current landowner is quite relaxed about locals and tourists alike stopping to photograph and inspect the ruins.
A restoration project is presently underway to solidify the remains, and to turn the site into a historical tourist attraction, and to recognise its unique historical status in the story of emancipation, and the history of the Territory's religious heritage.
- Isaac Dookhan, History of the British Virgin Islands, ISBN 0-85935-027-4
- Vernon Pickering, A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands, ISBN 0-934139-05-9
- The Slave Trade Act 1807 only prohibited the trade in slaves; it did not free existing slave. This would not subsequently happen until the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.