Peter Alfred Penfold, CMG, OBE
Former Governor of the British Virgin Islands
Peter Alfred Penfold is a retired British diplomat and a former Governor of the British Virgin Islands.
Early life and education
Peter Penfold was born on 27 February 1944 in the United Kingdom to Alfred and Florence (née Green). educated at Sutton Grammar School for Boys, where he stayed on until 19. He left school with A-levels in French, German, and geography, and took casual employment to earn money. Having a desire to make use of his language qualifications, he began applying for jobs at multi-national companies. He applied to Her Majesty's Civil Service and passed the civil service exam, but was keen to join the Foreign Service. He took and passed a second exam to join the Foreign Service, but had to enter at a lower grade than he would have held in the Civil Service.
Penfold served as Governor of the British Virgin Islands from 14 October 1991 - 21 June 1995.
His career began in 1963, when he joined the Foreign Service as a clerical officer. Two years into his career, he was posted to the British embassy in Bonn, West Germany, and two years after that to Nigeria. From 1970 to 1972, Penfold served as a "floater" in Latin America, filling in as necessary for staff at British missions in the region. He served in Mexico during the 1970 football world cup, and on St Vincent, where he was responsible for organising an evacuation after a volcanic eruption. After Latin America, Penfold briefly served in Canberra, before returning to London to take a post in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He earned early promotion to second secretary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he was responsible for reporting on the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Eritrean War of Independence and was still in the country during the revolution, in which the pro-Western emperor was overthrown. After completing his tour in Ethiopia, Penfold served as information officer in Port of Spain and then as first secretary in the West Africa Department of the FCO.
Penfold's next overseas posting was to Kampala, Uganda, as deputy High Commissioner. There, he persuaded President Milton Obote to attend the queen's birthday party for the first time. Two months later, Obote was overthrown in a coup, after which Penfold led an evacuation of foreign citizens to Kenya. The high commission remained open, and Penfold was still present six months later when a second coup took place. In 1987, he again returned to the FCO, this time serving in the West Indian and Atlantic Department, and four years later, he was appointed Governor of the British Virgin Islands. The main issues of Penfold's tenure were the establishment of the territory as an offshore financial centre and the smuggling of drugs through its waters until the sudden death of the chief minister. Penfold resolved the subsequent constitutional crisis by appointing the deputy chief minister as an interim replacement. Penfold's term as governor expired in 1996, after which he spent a year as a drugs adviser to the Caribbean before being appointed High Commissioner to Sierra Leone in 1997. Six weeks into Penfold's term, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was overthrown in a military coup and Penfold organised an evacuation of foreign citizens.
After a hotel housing the remaining foreign nationals was attacked, Penfold organised a further evacuation, which was conducted by an American warship. The ship transported the evacuees—including Penfold—to Conakry in neighbouring Guinea. While in Conakry, Penfold advised Kabbah on re-establishing his government in exile, and leased a disused restaurant for the government's headquarters. Kabbah was restored in February 1998, but the role of the private military company Sandline International in assisting Kabbah created controversy in the United Kingdom, as its services were alleged to violate an arms embargo on Sierra Leone. After an HM Customs investigation, a parliamentary inquiry, and a select committee investigation, Penfold was reprimanded but allowed to return to his post. Later in the year, violence began to intensify again in Sierra Leone, and Penfold was ordered to evacuate foreign nationals (the eight evacuation of his career and the second in Sierra Leone) over Christmas 1998. He requested an extension to his term as high commissioner, but the request was denied and he left Sierra Leone in April 2000. He spent the last year of his career working for the Department for International Development and retired in 2001. In retirement, Penfold has spoken on issues concerning Africa, particularly Sierra Leone, and has been critical of the FCO. His support of Kabbah, and his role in returning him to power in 1998, earned Penfold folk hero status in Sierra Leone.
Penfold met his first wife-to-be while serving on St Vincent as Latin American floater. He was planning his wedding at the end of his term in Latin America but was persuaded to postpone it due to the urgency with which he was required in Canberra, and the wedding eventually took place later in 1972. The couple had three children, but his wife did not enjoy the overseas postings. They divorced in 1984 and Penfold travelled to Kampala alone.
While in Uganda, Penfold met his second wife-to-be, Celia, who was working for the World Bank. They married while Penfold was Governor of the British Virgin Islands, making Penfold the first British governor to get married in-post. Both Penfold and his wife consider themselves committed Christians, and Penfold has stated that, "as a Christian, I have felt more at home in Africa".