Special Features
January 17, 2014
Entrepreneurs of St Vincent and the Grenadines – King Mitchell

by Luke Browne Fri, Jan 17, 2014

King Augustus Mitchell, who lives and reigns in Union Island, celebrated his 100th birthday on August 31, 2013. There were initially no names on his birth certificate, but he was christened “King” by his grandmother, because he was the firstborn son of his parents and because she believed that he was destined for greatness and would become the most prominent member of his family. She was probably right.{{more}} Mr Mitchell, true to his name and in justification of his grandmother’s faith in him, does indeed sit on the hard-earned throne of business in his domain and he was even endorsed by Elizabeth II with an MBE on June 12, 1976 and subsequently with an OBE. These awards, for him, removed any residual self-doubts that he was worthy of his name.

King Mitchell played a vital and pioneering role in the transportation of cargo by boat between the Grenadine islands, mainland St Vincent and neighbouring countries—such as Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados—at times of war, drought and extreme economic hardship. He was born and raised in a Union Island that had no electricity or good concrete roads, much less an airport. There were neither airplanes nor motor vehicles.

Life was hard. It was a struggle to find enough food on a daily basis and after leaving school the typical teenager had nothing to do and was condemned to a life of idleness and stagnation. King Mitchell was spared this fate after a gentleman who lived in St Vincent called Hugh Keane passed through Union Island and met him. Mr Keane was impressed by the young Mitchell, who he thought was rather unlike the seemingly uncontrollable boys from the mainland, and took him, after persuading an initially hesitant mother, to St Vincent to help him run a shop in Arnos Vale.

King Mitchell jumped at the opportunity from the “get go” and said that he had “the experience of a lifetime” in St Vincent. King Mitchell was only about 16 years old when he moved to the mainland and he learned the ins and outs of business from his shop experience. He rose through the ranks quickly and soon became the “head man” in the shop and remained in that position until his father, Mr Peter Mitchell, who worked for New Port Industry in Curacao, sent for him in 1930. The young King left the shop with some reluctance, but eventually without regrets.

King Mitchell was always very ambitious and, through a stroke of good fortune, landed what was regarded as a “prestigious” and “enjoyable” job in a kitchen that prepared food for engineers and other skilled workers who were predominantly white. It turns out that the vacancy he filled was created only two days before he arrived in Curacao and it was helpful that King, on the advice of his father, reported to immigration officials that he was a cook.

Peter Mitchell, who worked in a different kitchen from his son (and for a lower salary too), lost his job in a round of lay-offs roughly two years after King joined him in Curacao. Peter was therefore forced to return home, since immigrants were not allowed to remain in Curacao if they became unemployed. The protective father was adamant, however, that he would not go back to Union Island without his son, even though the younger Mitchell still had his very secure and comfortable job. King, out of an abundance of respect for his dad, resigned from his post and father and son made their way home together.

They met Union Island just how they left it and were now considered to be rich by local standards. King marvelled, in reflection, at the fact that a young man like him, who was just in his early twenties and who basically had “nothing” (even though he saved every cent he earned in Curacao) was considered rich. That fact, he said rather modestly but also seriously, tells you more than anything else about the general poverty in Union Island at the time. The reality is though that King, unlike most of his peers, had (between his father and himself) enough money to get into the “boat business.” They bought a schooner named Radial, which they heard was up for sale and a legendary inter-island sea transportation service was born.

Once the boat business was up and running, King left it in the care of his father (who was a good seaman in his own right) for a while and went to work in the goldfields of Guyana, where he thought he could make some money to consolidate his financial position. He was working in Guyana’s goldfields at the time of the 1935 riots and for some reason recalled that the Guyanese used to say “boat gone ah falls can’t turn back.” Mitchell lived through the 1979 Union Island Uprising, but he was on the side of the government because he thought the rebels were fighting for a power which they could not manage or sustain and he wanted to protect his interests.

King returned from Guyana in the late 1930s and took over the reins from his father. It was generally smooth sailing, but King made at least one big mistake. He transported goods in insured vessels over rough and dangerous seas during World War II without incident. After the war, when his business risks were considerably lower, he decided that there was no further need for insurance protection and removed the coverage. That’s precisely when disaster struck. Almost as soon as he terminated the policy he suffered the great loss of his first boat in Antiguan waters. King Mitchell was not, however, deterred by the mishap and he recovered and rebuilt his business after the setback. Mr Mitchell said in his unique way that he simply “washed out his boots and put on new boots” and was sailing again in no time. That is, he bought a new boat and continued, almost without interruption, the work that he enjoyed. Critically, King learned a hard, but valuable, lesson from his mistake. He subsequently became the owner and captain of several other boats (most of which he also lost at sea and some of which he sold), but he never sailed an uninsured vessel again.

Indeed, Radial was just the first of many boats. Business was booming and King went from one ship to a next until he moved through about nine vessels in all. They were all, as you would expect, wooden sail boats or “wind-jammers” to begin with. King had the excellent maritime and seafaring skills required to operate these vessels. Much later on he introduced iron boats with engines to the Grenadines.

King had mainly cargo boats, but there were “one-or-two” passenger vessels in between. The names of some of the ships were: Radial, Auspicious, Sea Man, West Indian Eagle, Ioma, King Mitch, Princess Louise and Flanders. King said that he captained all of his boats “from the first come right down.”

Flanders was his last boat and he used it to make weekly trips to Trinidad with produce from all over SVG. He took load from as far north as Chateaubelair, and from within the Grenadines, “down South.” He carried provision by the bag, goats, sheep and hogs (which came mostly from the mainland) and other items like tamarind and sugar apple (which are indigenous to the Grenadines) and seafood like conch into the Trinidad and Tobago market. Incidentally, King Mitchell said in a recent interview that the biggest hog he ever saw came from the Leeward coast of St Vincent (where they were apparently well fed). People sometimes went to Trinidad with him as speculators. Mitchell invariably returned home with the sugar, rice and other products that were ordered by the islanders. King also made trips to Barbados. St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines were the main suppliers of fruits and provision for Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. There was no banana at that time.

The transportation of fuel (gasoline and diesel) by drums (since there were no gas tanks in those days) was big business for this King of the seas. He, however, laments the fact that he missed an opportunity to own what would have been the only gas station in Union Island, because of an unfavourable government policy which resulted from a fire at the Kingstown Port. He nonetheless still operates a small scale fuel supply business today.

“Captain King” dominated the inter-island shipping scene for a long time. He was in a class by himself and was more than a businessman. Importantly, this fearless and courageous seafarer repeatedly provided critical relief for his fellow islanders in very difficult times that were characterized by chronic and severe shortages (of near crisis-like proportions) of food supplies and other goods. He recalled one occasion when he returned home from a voyage and found that all the shops were empty as a result of the World War and that even the wealthy islanders had no access to basic commodities. The whole island came out after word spread of King’s return and he give away large quantities of flour which was otherwise unavailable. King said that he is still reaping the rewards of his simple and disinterested acts of kindness and generosity up to now.

King Mitchell realized that he would not be able to put up with the rough and tumble of the seas for his entire working life. He therefore prepared himself for his post-sailing days. He was masterfully able to reinvent himself when it became necessary and made a smooth and seamless transition from the water to the land. Mr Mitchell became a hotelier and the proprietor of a hardware store after he became too old to comfortably ride the waves.

He opened what was the first hotel in Union Island in the early sixties. Its name was initially Sunny Grenadines and it was located in Ashton. The hotel was subsequently moved to Clifton and its name was changed to King’s Landing. Before he opened the hotel in the first place, Mr Mitchell checked in as a guest at hotels in Barbados and Trinidad, just to observe what they were doing and to gather ideas which he could take back home and share with his own staff. Apart from his ownership of King’s Landing, Mr Mitchell has shares in Rosewood Apartments on the mainland.

Mitchell’s Hardware is the number one store of its kind in Union Island and it supplies its customers with material on favourable terms. The hotel and hardware have operated without interruption since they were opened and are still going today. King Mitchell declared that he “will die and leave them running.” Mr Mitchell, at 100 years old, is still involved in the day-to-day management of his businesses. He is supported by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are set to take over from him when he is gone. King Mitchell is not all about work. He also enjoys spending quality time with his 93-year-old wife, Ruth, at their Clifton home.

A leading hotel and hardware store notwithstanding, Mr Mitchell thinks that the boat business was his “most important achievement” and the defining work of his life. He provided the people with a service that they didn’t have and which they so desperately needed, and being on the sea was his “greatest pleasure.” He also served his community in many other ways, including as president of the United Friendly Society for a long time and as chairman of the government Utility Committee.

King Mitchell even dabbled with politics at one point, but after he marginally lost the Grenadines seat (there was only one Grenadines seat at the time) by a very narrow margin (a mere 27 votes) to Clive Tannis in his one and only general elections contest in 1961, he abandoned political pursuits. He attributed the defeat to the innocent complacency of some of his supporters, who didn’t work hard enough because they, ironically, were “too sure that he was winning.” Mr Mitchell wasn’t too bothered by the outcome in the end, because he realized that business and politics don’t “gree.” It is still very difficult to be a successful politician and a successful businessman at the same time.

King Mitchell would like young people to know that three things are required (necessary and sufficient) for success in business (and in life): intelligence, determination and perseverance. These three attributes, he highlighted, would help you cope with the inevitable competition and to get pass the obstacles in your path.

Union Island has come a long way since King Mitchell was born in 1913. The island, which didn’t have electricity, is now “enlightened” and has “developed tremendously” over the years. Captain King contributed in no small way to this development, while he made considerable material progress in his own life. That’s the way it should be: private rewards should be properly related to social returns. Long live the King!

Mr. Mitchell died at his home in Union Island on April 26th, 2014. He was 100 years old