OBITUARY : McWelling Todman

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Islands - and most island people - do not take kindly to distinguished difference, let alone quiet eminence, from among their resident number. Caribbean island people, anyway. Put heself up an' dey will pull he down.

There can be exceptions. McWelling Todman was one. It is not often in such societies that you find a man who eschews family antagonisms and rivalries, who is trusted and listened to with respect by all political groupings and by civil servants. No one in the British Virgin Islands, or in the Caribbean as a whole, ever pull he down.

Todman began his adult life as a teacher in the high noon of colonialism. He learnt in the classroom to assemble his material and to deliver it to his first critical listeners with clarity and persuasiveness.

If he never mapped the destiny of the life of his island people, Todman certainly helped to shape it. He was a background confidant and trusted unofficial adviser to more than one Chief Minister of the territory.

He was also a regular lay preacher, who filled the pews at the Road Town Methodist Church. "Mac Todman is preaching on Sunday," my Finance Ministry colleague and now the choirmaster would say. "You should come."

Todman's words could come shooting out from the pulpit as from a machine- gun, peppering the congregation with intellectual conviction and passion. It was not fire-and-brimstone stuff, though; nor judgemental evangelism. On one occasion he roasted West Indian men for their marital infidelities and irresponsibility; but he did so with a smile on his face.

In 1967 Todman, who had been called to the Bar in London at Gray's Inn, set up his own practice in Tortola. More than 20 barristers have followed; but he was the first BV Islander to do so. Before that, he had varying administrative experience in the BVI and in Antigua before moving in 1957 to Barbados and then Trinidad on the founding staff of the embryonic but stillborn Federal Government of the West Indies.

In the early 1980s, the tiny British Virgin Islands embarked on the improbable task of re- negotiating its on-notice double taxation treaty with the United States. Powerful forces were wheeled in at the US Treasury in Washington. The BVI delegation there was headed by Chief Minister Lavity Stoutt. The only other BV Islander was Todman, by now a QC; the rest were white expatriates. During months of protracted negotiations, Todman's voice within the delegation was often decisive on tricky issues with local implications and significance.

Todman was an avid reader. He seemed to have a new book for each flight - from George Orwell to V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie to Martin Luther King. Latterly, it might have been Nelson Mandela or perhaps Colin Powell. The human condition, from a West Indian perspective, was his constant innermost preoccupation.

A Fiscal Review held by the government in 1981 was a major exercise in pointing the way forward for the tax structure and economy of the territory. Tourist promotion was in its infancy; the BVI as a significant offshore finance centre was no more than a dream. Annual budgetary grant-in-aid dependence on Britain was too recent to be a comfortable memory; and foreign capital investment was spasmodic and ill- managed. There were informal moves to introduce what amounted to a capital gains tax on tales of land between non-belongers (foreigners). Todman's view, which the committee endorsed, was that such action would be contrary to the philosophy on which the fiscal sector of the BVI economy was based and could do serious damage to the government's efforts to build up the BVI as a low- tax regime and an offshore base for legitimate and properly administered commercial undertakings.

Throughout the Eighties, there was a fierce debate about the conditions under which non-belongers should be permitted to come and work in the BVI. As always, Todman's views were clear: the interests of the BVI came first. The government had an inalienable right, indeed obligation, to decide which non-belongers should be permitted to carry on business, including the practice of his own law profession, in the territory.

Todman never sought authoritative power for himself - and this was the key to the trust which he engendered and enjoyed in the community. Further, he never asked to be paid for his public services to governments and people.

Kenneth Bain

McWelling Todman, lawyer and public servant; born Tortola, British Virgin Islands 25 December 1923; chairman, BVI Public Service Commission 1970- 94; OBE 1970, CBE 1988; QC 1980; married 1952 Audrey Creque (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died 7 March 1996.