I grew up with a legend, the story of the remote tropical island that belonged to my family, but of which we were cheated, and as a consequence we remained poor and unimportant. According to great aunts and my grandfather it was an island of guano, seabird droppings, and would have been worth a fortune mined as fertiliser. Perhaps there was a poetic justice in the misunderstandings about bird manure. We certainly had owned an island. Dr John Gent had practised on the island of Tortola from about 1810 until his death in 1816. According to one of his letters he bought Necker Island as the result of 'a foolish bid.' When he died he appointed his brother Henry as executor. Henry did go out to Tortola, a slow journey under sail in those days, but he did not stay on the island, preferring to travel on to America to try to set up in practice as a doctor there.
There was some tangible evidence of this Caribbean escapade. We still have Henry Gent's walking stick. My grandfather told me that he used to suck the handle as a boy. The reason: it was a piece of sugar cane, cut by Henry Gent in Tortola in 1818, and still retained its sweetness. It also provides a clue to the real reasons for the failure of the Tortola adventure, the failure of sugar cane as a crop with the abolition of slavery and eventually the introduction of sugar beet in Europe. During the nineteenth century Tortola was abandoned by the plantation owners who gave the land to their emancipated slaves and left the island. For over a hundred years the Virgin Islands were forgotten, no longer of economic significance, until tourism began to gain importance in very recent years. This was the true reason for Arthur Belisario's failure and bankruptcy: the economic collapse of the islands. Dr John Gent did amass a considerable fortune, tending to the medical needs of the plantation owners, the colonial administrators, and their families, and their many slaves, but he did so just before the whole system collapsed. There were also the natural disasters, tropical hurricanes that devastated Tortola, including John Gent's house.
As a child I found it hard to imagine these places. As well as the sugar-cane walking stick, there was also a bag of seashells from the island. I remember they were of a bleached whiteness, and they ended up, after a hundred years in the bottom draw of the small mahogany chest of drawers, in our fish bowls. We had no idea where they had come from, or how old they were. Then there were the letters that Auntie Dora gave to me in the 1960s, which told a little more, but gave no idea of what Tortola was like. When I was about twelve I did buy a postage stamp from Tortola, with its map on it, the first clue of what this place could be like, and it's still the best map I have seen. And then, in recent years, have appeared the travel articles in colour supplements, showing what a tropical paradise really looks like, white beaches, deep blue skies, palm trees, coral reefs, and heavenly climates. The islands really are beautiful, but the guano was probably a reference to Guana Island, now a naturalist's paradise of about 850 acres. And Necker Island is the ultimate playboy's paradise, purchased by Richard Branson for a reputed £200,000, and given a huge cash injection, including a helipad for the wealthy. Till then it was a seventy-four acre patch of uninhabitable scrub, blessed by its isolation and its own unique species of lizard.