Founded in the City of London in 1735, the West India Committee is the oldest body representative of the Commonwealth. This venerable Caribbean institution commenced life as a trade association during the infamous era of slavery. The original members of WIC were the sugar merchants of London and the planters of the Caribbean whose interests were largely aligned with the pro-slavery movement that prevailed at the time. They were two opposing groups forced together by the prevailing political unrest in America upon which they were dependent for supplies and regional commerce. After securing compensation for its members at the time of abolition, the West India Committee was instrumental in instigating the British campaign to end slavery throughout the world, thereby creating a level playing field for international trade. Initiatives such as the policing of the African coastline by the Royal Navy and the offer of asylum to slaves from Spanish and Portuguese territories illustrate the extent to which the Committee pursued this cause.
The West India Committee was an innovative entrepreneurial organization that was responsible for many milestones in the commercial and social heritage of both the Caribbean and Britain. These include:
THE BOUNTY EXPEDITION 1787,
The West India Committee’s Bounty expedition is one of the first examples of the use of British armed forces for humanitarian purposes. The West India Committee successfully petitioned King George III to commission the remarkable Captain Bligh to lead an expedition to the pacific in order to introduce new food sources to the Caribbean as recommended by Sir Joseph Banks founder of the Horticultural Society. The mission resulted in the mutiny made famous by Hollywood’s Charles Laughton and latterly Marlon Brando. The Breadfruit was ultimately introduced by Bligh to the Caribbean and St. Helena by a subsequent expedition, whilst the Pitcairns were inhabited by the mutineers, including Fletcher Christian whose descendants remain there today. Meanwhile Bligh found time during his epic 3,600 mile voyage to ‘discover’ and map all 39 islands of Fiji whilst cast adrift in an open boat.
WORLD’S FIRST POLICE FORCE IN LONDON 1798.
The West India Committee founded the first constabulary in the world, the Thames Police. Still an active force today, their boats continue to patrol the London reaches of the river, operating out of Wapping, the world’s first Police station. West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force, with various accounts of their bravery and the valuable contribution to the safety of London bearing testimony to the importance of this new institution. In 1839 it merged with the subsequently formed ‘Peelers’, creating London’s Metropolitan Police. Sadly, this important contribution made by West Indians and the West India Committee is long forgotten and is currently being used to improve the problematic relations between the police and the Caribbean community.
LONDON'S FIRST PURPOSE BUILT DOCK 1802
The Committee founded the West India Dock Company that established London’s first purpose built dock, West India Quay, opened by William Pitt in 1802. At one mile in length, it was the largest brick building in the world and a testament to British engineering. It is now home to the Museum of London, Docklands with whom the West India Committee enjoys a close working relationship.
The West India Committee was active in British politics, at one time boasting over 45 Members of Parliament in its membership. Senior members of the Committee also worked closely with the City of London and its liveries on many levels, including the Jamaican, Sir William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London, whose monument in the Guildhall (that includes a life size allegory of the Caribbean representing trade resting at his feet), is found beside that of his colleagues and friends and peer, William Pitt the Elder and his son. Beeston Long, Governor of the Bank of England and Alderman George Hibbert, Chairman of the West India Dock Company, were both former chairmen of the West India Committee, and were founder patrons of the London Institute. Other chairmen include Viscount Lascelles and the Caribbean’s elder statesman Sir Sonny Ramphal, Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
THE ROYAL CHARTER
In 1904 the West India Committee was granted a Royal Charter by Edward VII in recognition of the importance of this work in providing for the welfare of the Caribbean and its peoples. The Royal family were particularly active in supporting the charity, Queen Mary and her daughter Viscountess Lascelles personally presiding over West India Committee knitting circles organized to provide warm clothing for the 16,000 West Indian Soldiers who fought in the Great War, and later the 10,000 men and women who took part in the Second World War on behalf of their ‘Noble King and Country’- Britain. In each world conflict the British government’s West Indian Contingent Committee was administered by the West India Committee who addressed the needs of the British west India Regiments.
Since the 18th century, disaster relief funds have been raised by the charity to address the annual hurricane seasons that often devastate the region. In the 1940’s and 50’s film and theatre nights were organized with contributors such as Noel Coward and Danny Kaye who, together with much of Fleet Street, joined Princess Margaret at one time raising over a quarter of a million pounds for the West India Committee’s disaster relief programs.