The emancipation of slavery lies at the heart of change in the 1800s. Abolition, however, was but a first step, and enormous social and economic challenges, including segregation, faced black Bermudians for years to come. Their response to the inequalities they encountered every day included the establishment of friendly societies, educational facilities and even pension provision.
1806: Britain Abolishes the Slave Trade
In England, William Wilberforce found the strategy and the Parliamentary voters to end the ever-growing horror of the slave trade. Earlier, his friend Prime Minister William Pitt had denounced the slave trade as “the greatest practical evil that has afflicted the human race.” Following Pitt’s death, Charles Fox introduced a bill to Parliament which led to the abolition of slave trading the year following. Meanwhile, in Bermuda, Mrs. Caroline Adams, wife of a lieutenant, confessed to “a moral delinquency and a racial transgression”; her sentence was 39 lashes on her bare back.
1807: Slavery Continues
The British government abolished the slave trade but not the keeping of slaves. The government required that registers be maintained, so that slave owners could be monitored to ensure they did not buy slaves after this date.
1808: Educating Black Bermudians
Educating and teaching religion to Black Bermudians was frowned on in white society until Methodist missionaries arrived and began breaking down racial barriers. Joshua Marsden was one such missionary who, along with his wife and young daughter, arrived in 1808 from Newfoundland and preached to Black Bermudians. He opened Zion Chapel, which was situated at the corner of Queen and Church Streets in Hamilton and dedicated one side of the church to “black and coloured people.” He also started a Sunday school for Black children and encouraged Black Bermudians to learn reading and writing, not only unheard of but forbidden.
1827: Enslaved Persons Permitted to Marry
Legislation was passed in Bermuda that permitted people who were enslaved to marry. Even so, the slaveholder still had to give permission.
1827: First Rights Law for Blacks
The legislature passed an act “to Ameliorate the Condition of Slaves and Free Persons of Colour”; it was the first comprehensive law that defined the rights of the black population. Although enslaved people could own property under the new legislation, they along with free blacks, could not vote in general elections or run as candidates for public office.
1831: Mary Prince
Mary Prince, a Bermudian born into slavery and one of about 5,000 slaves on the island, played a key role in the abolition of slavery. Her parents were also slaves; her mother worked as a house servant for Charles Myners. Mary was sold on several occasions: on the death of Myners; again at age 12 when she was bought by Captain John Ingham of Spanish Point for the sum of 57 GBP and at 18 when she was bought by Mr. Dill and sent to work raking salt in the Turks Islands.
Her last owner was John Wood, who in 1827, took her to London as a servant. Mrs. Wood complained increasingly about Mary’s work and after several arguments, Mary was told to leave their residence. Eventually, she took employment with Mr. and Mrs. Pringle. Thomas Pringle was the secretary to the Anti Slavery Society, and it was he who arranged for Mary’s experience to be published in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince.
Mary’s account was instrumental in Parliament’s decision to abolish slavery three years later in 1834.
On August 1, 1834, Governor Chapman called the assembly together to read the Act for the Abolition of Slavery, and its passage ended years of legally sanctioned human bondage. While he suggested that the apprenticeship system – adopted in England- might solve any problems of unrestrained emancipation, he noted that the conditions in Bermuda were not the same as those inother parts of the empire, and he believed that Bermuda slaves were quite capable of managing their own affairs. The assembly agreed and did not adopt the apprenticeship arrangement.
The British government had agreed to reimburse slave owners for their losses and had given them eight years in which to free their slaves. Such a measure was not considered appropriate to Bermuda and so it was that the legislature decided that those who were enslaved should be freed as of August 1. Out of a total population of 10,000 in Bermuda that year, 3,600 were enslaved Bermudians and 1,200 were free black Bermudians. The cost of reimbursement to the owners by the British government varies according to the source but it was probably in the order of 129,000 GBP. This would be equivalent to over 16 million pounds today.
1835: U.S. Slaves Freed in Bermuda
In stormy February, the American brig Enterprise, en route to Charleston, South Carolina, put into Hamilton carrying 78 captive Africans. The ship’s manifest made no mention of its human cargo, listing instead tobacco, bricks and feed. Because slavery had ended in Bermuda the previous year, customs refused to clear the ship without the governor’s permission.
Captain Eliot Smith was informed not only that Enterprise’s mission was illegal but also that the enslaved passengers were entitled to their freedom. Smith protested, but as the courts refused to budge, he made plans to escape with his illegal cargo. Fortunately, the matter came to the attention of the island’s friendly societies, and a Bermudian black man, Richard Tucker, asked the chief justice for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the enslaved captives.
The writ was granted and the captives came ashore that night protected by locals. Seventy-two of these enslaved individuals received their freedom because of the court’s decision, while the remaining six returned to the United States.
1862: Joseph Rainey in Bermuda
Born to parents who were enslaved in South Carolina who bought their freedom, Joseph Hayne Rainey followed his father in becoming a barber. In 1861, however the Confederate government drafted him to work on fortifications and blockade-runner ships, work that he hated. In 1862, Rainey and his wife, Susan, escaped to Bermuda, settling in St. George’s where Rainey worked as a barber and Susan established a dress and coat making business. When yellow fever threatened St. George’s in 1865, they moved to Hamilton where he worked as a bartender and barber at the Hamilton Hotel. Rainey took advantage of activities that were open to him, including membership at the Alexandria Lodge, where he rose to prominence. While he and his wife liked Bermuda, they longed for home, and following the Civil War, the Raineys moved back to Charleston, where Joeseph joined the executive committee of the newly formed Republican Party. In 1870, he was elected to the South Carolina State Senate; later that year, he was elected to fill a vacancy in the Congress of the United States as a Republican. He was the first black man to do so.
1868: Adele Tucker
Adele Evelina Johnson Tucker was born and raised in Warwick, one of eight children of Thomas and Catherine Tucker. “I was born on the eighth day of the eighth month in the year 1868 when my father was 38 and my mother was 28, being one of eight children,” was how she memorably described her origins. For most of her life, she lived in the rambling family home Granaway on Harbour Road that the notorious Bermuda privateer Hezekiah Frith had built for his daughter. Tucker spent all her life in education, teaching and putting the case for change in Bermuda. Along with three others, she formed the Bermuda Union of Teachers later in her life, in the graveyard of St. John’s Church, Pembroke, while attending the funeral of a teacher. She lived to be 103 years-old.
1883: First Black MP
Mr. William H.T. Joell was elected as a representative for the constituency of Pembroke in 1883. His success was largely attributable to the support given to him by the Pembroke Parish Political Association.
The 20th Century
1919: First Trade Union Formed
Bermuda’s first trade union, the Bermuda Union of Teachers (BUT) was formed in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in 1919 by sisters Edith and Matilda Crawford along with fellow teachers, the Reverend Stovell and Adele Tucker. They were attending the funeral of a teacher who had died in financial distress. The four were moved to form the union to press for higher pay and better working conditions for black teachers. All were active BUT members and served on its executive until the 1930s.
1925: Bermuda Record Founded
The Bermuda Recorder was not Bermuda’s first black-owned newspaper – there had previously been the Bermuda Times and The Advocate amongst others – but it was the most successful and best known. First published on June 18, 1925, the Recorder became a vital source of news an dopinon for the island’s black community, which was largely ignored by the existing daily newspapers. Its founder, printer Alfred Brownlow Place (known as A.B.) learned his trade at the biweekly Bermuda Colonist & Daily News before being inspired by the teachings of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey to start his own paper. Its writers ranged from Cup Match cricketer Alma “Champ” Hunt, who was a sports editor, to future premier Dame Jennifer Smith, who was a reporter. Place, who managed the paper for 47 years received the Queen’s Certificate.
1947: Bermuda Industrial Union
World War II shook Bermuda out of its sleepy complacency. Construction was booming but the Bermuda Labour Board, concerned that the boom would lead to inflation, set pay rates for local workers. In 1944, when a group of workers employed at the U.S. base in Southampton was forced to take a pay cut, they founded the Bermuda Workers Association (BWA). By 1946 (with the outspoken Trinidadian-born physician Dr. E.F. Gordon as its president) the BWA had 5,000 members and their influence led to the passage of Bermuda’s first trade-union legislation, the Trade Union and Disputes Act in 1946. The law was designed to clip the wings of the fledgling BWA, making it illegal for a union to have a newspaper or operate a business, and because the new law banned unions from involvement in political activities, the BWA established the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU) in 1947. The BWA continued as the BIU’s political arm before it eventually went out of existence.
1949: The Talbot Brothers
The Talbot Brothers, whose brand of calypso harmony and charm was to make them Bermuda’s best ambassadors, were featured in Times magazine. Every year during the winter months, they toured North America promoting Bermuda’s attractions. In the summer months, they entertained thousands of visitors in Bermuda’s best resort hotels.
1959: The Theatre Boycott
The theatre boycott was a pivotal moment in Bermuda’s political and social history, ending segregation in public places such as hotels, cinemas and restaurants, and paving the way for universal suffrage in the 1960s. Organized by the Progressive Group, a secret group of 18 mainly young, professional black university graduates, the boycott was the first to gain widespread popular support. Starting on June 15, 1959, black Bermudians boycotted the island’s movie theatres, and hundreds turned out to support nightly rallies. Within 10 days, Bermuda General Theatres, which ran five cinemas, closed its theatres, citing “safety concerns.” The theatres eventually reopened on July 2 without racial barriers, and this sparked a domino effect in other public institutions, from hotels to churches. The identity of the Progressive Group, which continued to press for political equality for blacks, remained a secret until they were publicly commended in 1989. The group’s members were Rudy and Vera Commissiong, William Francis, Gerald and Izola Harvey, Dr. Clifford and Florence Maxwell, Marva Phillips, Dr. Erskine Simmons, Dr. Stanley Ratteray, Esme and Lancelot Swan, Clifford Wade, William Walwyn, Coleridge Williams, Rosalind and Edouard Williams and Eugene Woods.
1962: Richard Saunders Photographs Malcolm X
In the decades after World War II, the American civil-rights movement and the growth of Black pride and Black power movements, which raised awareness of racial identity and solidarity, increasingly influenced Black Bermudians. Bermudian photojournalist Richard Saunders captured the mood of those changing times, having himself left Bermuda for New York City in 1947 partly because there was limited options for Black photographers on the island. During a long and distinguished career, he photographed Malcolm X at the height of his fame in 1962 and 1963 and highlighted social conditions among African-Americans.
1965: The BELCO Riots
A strike at the Bermuda Electric Light Company in 1965 was a turning point in the history of trade unionism on the island. BELCO workers belonging to the Bermuda Industrial Union went on strike in a dispute over union recognition, and the union called out other divisions in sympathy. Growing frustration on the picket line led to violence and rioting on February 2, 1965; a policeman was seriously injured and racial tensions flared. Although the BIU lost that round, great gains were soon seen in union recognition and improving relations between unions and management.
1976: Olympic Medalist Clarence Hill
Boxer Clarence Hill won Bermuda’s first and only Olympic medal when he fought his way to a bronze in the heavyweight division at the Montreal Games in 1976. After knocking out Iran’s Parvis Badpa in the second round, he won a unanimous points decision again Belgian Rudy Gauwe – a bout that left him with a badly bruised left arm and hands, rendering him a shadow of his former self in the semifinal, which he lost on points. Hill was inducted into the Bermuda Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
1981: General Strike
In April 1981, a pay dispute between the Bermuda Industrial Union and the Bermuda government over hospital workers and blue-collar civil servants escalated into a 21-day island-wide strike that brought Bermuda’s tourist industry and much of the island to a standstill. Government capitulated on May 7, with the union winning increases averaging 20 percent.
1990: Nicky Saunders Leaps to Gold
In February 1990 at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, high jumper Clarence “Nicky” Saunders made history as the first Bermudian athlete to win an individual gold medal at a major games. Saunders, who had narrowly missed out on a medal at the 1987 World Championships and the Seoul Olympics in 1988 (he was 5thboth times) did it in-style by jumping to a Games and Commonwealth record of 2.36 metres (7ft, 9 inches) which still stands today.
1995: Wellman Strikes Gold
Triple jumper Brian Wellman became only the second Bermudian to win a gold medal at a major international sports even when he took first at the 1995 World Indoor Championships in Barcelona, Spain, setting a new championship record of 17.72 metres. His personal best outdoors was 17.62 metres. Wellman, who was ranked among the top 10 triple jumpers in the world from 1992 to 2001 and third in 1994 and 1995, competed for the University of Arkansas and won two NCAA outdoor triple-jump titles. He also won gold at the World University Games in Sheffield, England, in 1991 and the Central American and Caribbean Games in Barbados in 1999.