Jan. 3, 2005 – British Virgin Islands' entrepreneur and early conservationist J.R. O'Neal has written "Life Notes: Reflections of a British Virgin Islander," a memoir of his life through his eyes.
According to his son, Michael E. O'Neal, the book was published by XLibris, an imprint-affiliate of Random House (USA), and is currently available from local BVI bookstores, Dockside Books on St. Thomsa, and from the publisher. In March 2005, when 90 days have elapsed after first-run, the book will become available from online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders.
The book is published in both hardback and trade paperback, and contains 180 pages. Joseph Reynold O'Neal was born on Virgin Gorda in 1911 and has led "a rich and varied life since," according to the publisher's Web site. As chairman of the National Parks Trust for 30 years, he spearheaded the reforestation of Sage Mountain and Gorda Peak. In 1988 the Botanic Gardens in Road Town were named for him. He has a number of honors bestowed by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth for his contributions.
Dr. Edward L. Towle, founder and current chairman of Island Resources Foundation and a longtime resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands until recently, has provided this review:
Review by Dr. Edward L. Towle
Founder and Current Chairman of Island Resources Foundation
This incomparable memoir is a straight-forward retrospective overview of the nuances and highlights comprising the long and successful life of Joseph Reynold (J.R.) O'Neal, a true native son of the Caribbean, a notable citizen, a dedicated family leader, and a successful entrepreneur and conservationist in the Eastern Caribbean Territory of the British Virgin Islands.
His memoir, subtitled "reflections", is a charming blend of history and au courant observations touching a wide spectrum of the author's affairs that reach beyond the world of business and family life in Tortola to the broader dimensions of domestic politics, public service, community health, and national parks.
J.R. O'Neal was educated at the secondary level off-island in Antigua, after which he earned certification as a pharmacist. His return to Tortola as a young man was followed by a parental tutorial first on cattle raising and later on the merchandising of food stuffs and dry goods. This knowledge he expanded into development of a combined pharmacy, dental service, and photo shop and ultimately a hardware import and export trade, inter-island shipping firm, and larger scale general merchandising enterprise.
Itemizing the components of Mr. O'Neal's successful entrepreneurship would generate a long list, as his basic business strategy was both opportunistic and experimental.
With both humility and generosity, J.R. O'Neal manages to build into his narrative (which spans most of the century just past) very human, sometimes wry profiles of family members, politicians, neighbors, staff, community leaders, and, of course, assorted governors, ministers, jailers and the even the "receiver of wrecks" who sometimes stood in the way of timely transactions in marginal contraband. Fortunately, this somewhat nostalgic memoir includes a good index which lists, among other things, over 50 boat names, mostly vessels he had built or bought or chartered or had occasion to use over the years in his numerous businesses. No wonder he refers to British Virgin Islanders as a "people whose heritage was the sea" (see pages 10-11).
How singularly apt is the comment on this book by The Honorable Elton Georges, who employs the shimmering metaphor of "pure gold" to suggest that the memoir offers a greater reward to the reader as a consequence of subtle historical nuggets, which add a new dimension to the narrative to come.
In fact, in this regard, O'Neal's nicely packaged snippet of West Indian island history is not quite what it seems at first glance, although the title is nonetheless accurate. Let me provide two examples of "buried treasure".
First, J.R.'s modesty is excessive when it comes to his almost casual and brief reportage on his 30 consecutive years of unpaid, volunteer service as chairman of the board of the BVI National Parks Trust. This important local institution presumably met several times each year and thus consumed perhaps a thousand donated hours of J.R.'s busy and productive life. It was an extraordinarily valuable service to the community. The Trust's example – and, by extension, J.R.'s – has been a model for other conservation organizations throughout the Eastern Caribbean.
Additionally, on occasion, Mr. O'Neal served as a nominated member of the Legislative Council and on various other statutory boards and a dozen or so ad hoc committees and civic groups. For many years he supervised the Trust-sponsored mahogany reforestation project funded by Laurance S. Rockefeller at Sage Mountain and Virgin Gorda Peak.
But there is more! It was an astute geographer, I believe, who warned about the risk of standing too close to an area – or object or island or person or set of events – under study. One cannot, for example, see or appreciate the full dimensions of a given field while standing in it or even too close to it. Content, substance and history are not easily separated from contextual surroundings, e.g., the larger settings "next door" including, in the case of this memoir, neighboring islands, territories and oceanic reaches.
It is for these reasons that this unusual story of one branch of the O'Neal family of the British Virgin Islands shares a much larger landscape (in fact, a seascape) that extends over 900 miles along the northeasterly Caribbean archipelago from Antigua, St. Kitts and Anguilla in the east to the U.S. Virgins, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba in the west. The author was at home in all these places – he had lived in virtually all of them!
The reader is asked to remember that J.R. O' Neal's maritime world encompassed more than the British Virgins. His was a far more spacious and diverse trading/shipping "insular system", with safe harbours, products and markets on a much grander geographical, geopolitical, and multicultural scale, which-in turn-was not without its own influence on the course of BVI historical development.
It is clear in these "Life Notes" that over the past six or seven decades J.R.'s family, colleagues and business associates were not unresponsive to the principles which made this extended maritime trading system work so well. O'Neal's success was in part driven by his understanding and appreciation of the dynamic cultural and economic forces at work within the region. His response, for example, to the advent of World War II or to the U.S. Virgin Islands as a competitor was classic Harvard Business School dogma.
There is further evidence of his important role as a Caribbean maritime trader and venture capitalist. O'Neal not only carefully designed a shipping, pharmacological and hardware business; with equal care, he began investing in the construction of trading vessels, first in wood and sail, then in wood and diesel, and eventually larger steel and diesel construction. Even later he purchased ready-built, finished vessels on the open market. He also pioneered a hydrofoil service linking Road Town and St. Thomas and San Juan.
Much of what he moved in his ships kept his wholesale and retail stores stocked and competitive. He moved (and sometimes sold) pharmaceuticals, cement, generators, Land Rovers, lumber, household goods, rock crushers, spirits, gasoline, kerosene, diesel oil, compressors, anchors, marine gear, paints, varnish, and construction tools while also serving as the resident agent in Tortola for larger shipping lines that linked the Territory with New York, New Jersey, Miami and the Unit
On a more personal note, J.R. had a deep and abiding interest in traditionally built boats, including vessel design, wooden boat construction techniques and boat building as a livelihood. He considered himself well grounded in the proportionate design length ratios for all the principal longitudinal timbers and the key athwart ship beams used in the standard Tortola sloop. He employed a number of local shipwrights to keep himself supplied with freight boats. All of this suggests a firm foundation in maritime lore and marine operational practices. He also was both patient and sensitive in his working relationships with boat builders (carpenters) and numerous ship captains.
All in all, it is fair to say that this fascinating story opens up a new, under-appreciated maritime dimension to the economic, social and artisanal history of the British Virgin Islands. J.R. can indeed be proud of his effort.