The Island of St. Gilbert, St. Gilbert’s Isle or, more commonly, just St. Gilbert’s is a small volcanic Caribbean island, situated approximately halfway between the territories of the British Virgin Islands and the island of Anguilla. As such, it belongs to both the Lesser Antilles and Leeward Islands.
Unlike the other islands in this chain, whilst both the Arawak and Carib indians were aware of the island, neither settled it, as the lack of natural harbour and sheer rocky coastline made it difficult to access. As those native explorers that did ascend the black cliffs never returned, the island was considered taboo by both peoples.
When Columbus ventured forth on his voyage of exploration, he felt that the inaccessible nature of the island made it more trouble than it was worth to explore, and merely recorded the island on his charts as Roccia nera, for that was all it appeared to be.
The first actual settlers were members of the Order of St. Gilbert, a Roman Catholic order founded in Britain in 1130. Whilst it was believed that the order came to an end in the 16th century, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it had survived in splinter form and the remaining adherents took ship and sailed for the West Indies in the early 17th century.
Whilst the other islands of the Lesser Antilles offered greater scope for settlement, the inaccessibility of Roccia nera, and the fact that no nation seemed to want to claim it made it an ideal refuge for the order.
Over the next couple of decades, work began on construction of both the convent and monastery, as the Order of St. GIilbert was fairly unique at the time in allowing both male and female lay members to worship and live together in harmony.
Utilising the natural basalt that made up the majority of the island’s composition , the order constructed their compound high above sea level. The quarrying of the stone for these buildings had the added benefit of creating an artificial cove, that made the island more accessible for supply ships from the neighbouring islands.
Whilst life was fairly harsh on the newly renamed Island of St. Gilbert, the order appeared to flourish, subsisting on locally cultivated crops and regular supply drops from British owned Anguilla.
This came to an end in 1666. The French had occupied Anguilla and sought to extend their holdings in the Caribbean, so sent a warship to St. Gilbert’s with the intention of securing it for the King. However, the marines sent to occupy the island were met with a scene of carnage. The monastery grounds were littered with slaughtered bodies of the lay brothers and canons regular. Of the lay sisters there was no trace, other than a few blood-stained and torn habits.
Whilst they had not formally occupied St. Gilbert’s, the French insisted that it be ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Breda in 1667. All record of their discoveries the previous year were suppressed, other than veiled references to St. Gilbet’s as Île des Mortes.
The island has remained a British territory ever since.