Bermuda, 1902. The Boer War is raging in South Africa, and thousands of Boer prisoners of war are incarcerated on islands in the Great Sound. The Rock (population 17,500) is picturesque but not hugely prosperous. Bermuda onions still find a market in the eastern United States, but competition from American onion patches is growing. Tourism has grown hesitantly since the mid-1880s, when Princess Louise sojourned on the Rock, thereby publicising the beauties of “The Isles of Rest,” attention increased by Mark Twain’s unabashed adoration of the place. Meanwhile, Bermuda’s military are proving to be big spenders. That is to say, in the west end the naval Dockyard is beginning another spate of major construction, as the British navy begins the build-up in ships and facilities in the Empire, part of the rivalry with imperial Germany which led to the First World War.
In short, Bermuda is entering the twentieth century in flux. The governor of the day, Sir Henry LeGuay Geary, has his concerns about the Rock over and above the administrative headaches attendant on overseeing the Boer POWs. Governor Geary’s despatches to the Colonial Office reflect the social and economic subordination of the black majority (64 percent of the population) to the white minority (38 percent), a grim reality of the era. Geary did not question the racism of the day, but he did perforce grapple with some of its unsavoury effects on prosperity and social order. Black students enjoyed limited access to secondary education, with the Berkeley Institute only opening in 1897 after a long struggle—a serious impediment if one wanted a skilled, adaptable work force. However, many white Bermudians feared an educated black populace as a threat to their dominance. As Geary tactfully put it, there was “a lack of public interest in educational matters in this colony.”
The inbred nature of Bermudian society was also an administrative worry for the governor. In the Lilliputian world of the white elite, family, political, financial, governmental and judicial affairs were intermingled in complicated and awkward ways. At one point in his tenure, Geary mused: “ In a small colony like Bermuda, where offices like those of the Assistant Judges are paid by fees, and where consequently it is only possible to make local appointments, it is very difficult to avoid selecting suitable gentlemen…who are not entirely free from all local ties and family relationships…“
The canniness of this observation is nowhere more apparent than in the dramatic events that unfolded with the expansion of the Dockyard between 1902 and 1907. While Dockyard expansion brought some prosperity to the west end, it also sparked an ugly series of events—even as it brought what was ultimately a vibrant new element to Bermuda’s demographics. The British government had awarded a lucrative contract (some 610,000 pounds) for the Dockyard megaproject to C H Walker and Company, a globalised British construction firm headquartered in England with formidable experience in building railways and dockworks in locations from Rio to Uruguay to England herself. Some 1200 Bermudians were already employed in the existing Dockyard infrastructure. But where to get the several hundred skilled labourers needed for this massive new project? Docks, roadways and a construction railway had to be built, as well as the new Watford Bridge.
Well, work on the Panama Canal was in an interregnum, and some of its imported workforce—many of them from Caribbean islands like Jamaica, St. Kitts and Trinidad—was now at loose ends; they had just the skills that the Dockyard extension required. Walker’s resident managers in Bermuda initially arranged to bring in a contingent of some 230 skilled Caribbean workers to Bermuda in May 1902. They were contracted to work for 30 shillings a day, with a nine-hour day. They were prohibited from working elsewhere on the island without written permission. They were promised housing, but the cost of their passage to Bermuda was to be repaid out of their wages. They were, in effect, indentured to their employer.
Where to house this new labour force? The works managers contracted with the local police magistrate in Somerset, 35-year-old John Benjamin Zuill. Zuill was a bumptious but well-connected white entrepreneur of all trades—auctioneer, real estate buyer, dry goods merchant, justice of the peace. He agreed to provide housing off-site—at King’s Point on Mangrove Bay, hard on what is now the Cambridge Beaches property. Matters quickly went awry—when 226 Caribbean workers arrived in May, the 17-room house and many tents which Zuill intended for them were not only entirely inadequate for their numbers but were empty of both furniture and bedding. There were no supplies of food or water either—and just one privy. The 20 or so women who accompanied the workers were summarily turned out of the property, initially having to sleep on the roadside. A bad beginning, as Sandys residents hastily tried to aid their black brothers in need.
It got worse. On the job itself, whether it was bridge-building at Watford ferry or doing masonry or marine railway work at the Dockyard, many of the imported workers discovered that, probably owing to a lack of coordination and the vagaries of construction schedules, there was often not nine hours a day of work available, with a subsequent cut in pay. By July, the workers, many used to better conditions elsewhere, rebelled. There was rioting at Dockyard—tools and other makeshift weapons came into play. Some of the rioters were charged, and appeared before Magistrate Zuill who as their landlord, was in a clear (if unacknowledged) conflict of interest. The colonial authorities, worried by any manifestation of black worker unrest, had rushed through a Riot Act, a move designed to make speedy trials possible. Of the workers who went to trial, eight were jailed for terms of three to six months.
In the black Bermudian community, one particularly prominent voice of protest was heard. Reverend Charles Vinton Monk, the African Methodist Episcopal minister in Somerset, an activist black American pastor from Philadelphia, had come to the island in 1898, married Fannie Parker, a Bermudian, and ultimately fathered five children. He was outraged at the working conditions at Dockyard and at the nepotistic injustice he saw in play. Moreover, Reverend Monk was the publisher of The New Era, a fledgling newspaper made possible by the printing press that belonged to his Bermudian father-in-law, which he had revived in 1899 to speak for black Bermudians. The latter’s interests had little voice in the coverage of the white establishment Royal Gazette. The New Era motto proclaimed: “Here shall the Press the people’s right maintain…Pledged to religion, liberty and law.” Even the title of the paper must have sent a shiver down the spines of Bermuda’s anachronistic vested interests on Front Street and beyond.
One of Monk’s articles alleged that a worker killed in a crane accident had died due to the negligence of the contractors. They had earlier fired another worker who refused to work on it, insisting that the crane was unsafe. Monk dramatically described the workers as “poor slaves” whose de facto pay cuts by Walker and Company managers were “starving the wives and children [back] in Jamaica, and keeping honest workmen with hardly enough [money] to cover their nakedness or keep them from stealing.” The workers, he wrote with preacherly eloquence, were “poor blind Samsons…bound in bonds of steel” by exploitative contracts. To Monk, the employment situation at Dockyard constituted “one of the most brazen pieces of diabolical rascality in the violation of contracts” by Walker and Company managers.
No sooner had these pieces appeared than company managers lodged a complaint of criminal libel against Monk with none other than Magistrate Zuill, who promptly and conveniently had Monk bound over for trial in Hamilton. The workers—as well as many black Bermudians—were outraged at this treatment of a prominent clergyman and champion of the black underdog. Reverend Arthur Goldring, a white Anglican clergyman at St. Paul’s Paget, new to the island, also protested this injustice (and came under heavy manners from the white elite as a result).
Who would defend Reverend Monk in court? Bermuda’s white barristers were not eager to defend a man they would have seen as hostile toward their class, race and economic interests. But the stirrings of social change were afoot. The Dockyard workers—and many black Bermudians across the island—laboriously collected the considerable funds needed (300 pounds) to hire an outstanding barrister from Jamaica to plead Monk’s cause. The arrival of Matthew Henry Spencer-Josephs on the island—a tall, imposing black barrister trained at London’s Inner Temple, and called to the bar in 1899 after earlier careers in Jamaica as teacher and surveyor—created consternation among the white elite . The fact that his blonde, well-born white English wife, Grace Ada Evens, accompanied Josephs, a Freemason and a member of England’s Royal Geographical Society, as he arrived at Hamilton’s Windsor Hotel was a further shock to a white Bermuda not keen on interracial marriage.
Josephs had his legal work cut out for him. As Monk had already pointed out in the pages of The New Era, the judiciary in Bermuda was a tangled tapestry of privileged white interconnection. The Chief Justice of Bermuda, the octogenarian and very conservative Sir Brownlow Gray, was the father of the Attorney General, Reginald Gray; the Assistant Justice of the Supreme Court was Reginald’s brother-in-law. Monk mocked them in print as “the Father, the Son and the Unholy Ghost.” The Dockyard workers who had already gone on trial had been enmeshed in this tangled legal web.
In March 1903 came defendant Monk’s turn. The trial transcript in the Bermuda Archives makes dispiriting reading: the disdain of the court toward both Monk and his barrister is very evident in the written record. Nonetheless, a parade of witnesses had to be called in the matter of both the crane accident and the pay situation. By the end of March, and the end of the Easter assizes, proceedings were still dragging on. The case was deferred to September. Then: tragedy. On September 8, shortly before the trial was to resume, Josephs’s wife woke in their Court Street living quarters to find her husband dead in their bed. In such an atmosphere of controversy, she believed that the 42-year-old Josephs had been poisoned by Monk’s enemies. Many black Bermudians shared her fears, although the court records indicate that Josephs, whose health had been poor earlier in life, had been periodically ill in court in the spring. Amid shock and rumour, a largely attended funeral for Josephs was held at St. John’s Church in Pembroke. Monk was now left to defend himself, even as his tubercular wife was ill and his father-in-law dying.
The trial continued. To the evident impatience of the judiciary and the Crown, Monk called a long roster of witnesses on the pay matter in one of the longest trials (53 days) held in the Empire to that date. The Royal Gazette muttered at one point that the trial “drags its weary length along.” Monk’s defence strategy was to no avail: the all-white jury returned a verdict of guilty in just three hours. Monk was sentenced to a hefty 100-pound fine, and six months in jail—this, after also having spent over 200 pounds of his own money in his own defence. Ironically, several months later, Walker and Company held a gala public opening for the Watford Bridge with a triumphal arch, celebratory music and crowds of schoolchildren brought to the site to celebrate the project. There must have been some ambivalent spirits in that Somerset throng as a heavy downpour soaked the crowd and saturated the bunting.
Monk served his harsh sentence, but he was understandably disheartened and traumatised by the experience—as were many black Bermudians, by the harsh and railroading treatment of one of their clergy. In 1904, Monk returned to the United States where he had a stormy and controversial career in Philadelphia and environs, dying in 1941.
And what of Magistrate Zuill? He had speedily sold off his rental contract with Dockyard when it became publicly awkward. He came to a bad end, nonetheless, betraying even fellow white Bermudians. With the end of major Dockyard construction, his real estate holdings dropped drastically in value. He was consequently sued on two occasions for defaulting on major loans from fellow Bermudians. He was given a slap on the wrist for some of his magistrate malfeasance, and the governor and executive council cut his pay for six months (“a penalty sufficient to meet the case” Geary told his English overlords). His appointment was renewed for a time: then he ceased to be a magistrate.
Then, in 1908, Zuill, now manager of the Somerset branch of the Bermuda Savings Bank, was found by an audit committing fraud and siphoning off the savings of his fellow Bermudians—repeatedly forging signatures and pilfering deposit funds in the safe. That made the headlines in the Royal Gazette, given the sensational details. For example, it came out that during the course of the investigation, he had “accidentally” dropped the deposit record book in the sea off the Front Street docks after purchasing a bottle of rye whiskey on the carriage ride in from Somerset. The courts gave him a lot of leeway in the proceedings (unlike the treatment of Josephs and Monk) but the evidence was unambiguous. His explanation was vague when he ultimately pleaded guilty (“It was not my intention to retain the money but I plead guilty”). It was, all in all, a “pathetic scene,” declared the Royal Gazette. Even his two brothers, Eugenius and Ormond Zuill, were burned by their sociopathic sibling: at one point he defaulted on bail, for which they had each posted 100 pounds, and was hauled off to jail. Sentenced to six years in prison, Benjamin Zuill emerged a broke and broken man. His real estate holdings dwindled through several auctions of his properties which persisted even after his death in 1920.
Did any good come out of all this? Well, the descendants of many of the early twentieth-century Caribbean Dockyard workers are a vibrant segment of Bemuda society today with descendants prominent in all sectors of Bermuda life. The labours of those workers helped produce part of the magnificent Dockyard area today, now a heritage site and cruise ship port, and much more. Certainly the question of Reverend Monk’s draconian treatment still festers in Bermuda today. Thanks to the efforts of journalist and broadcaster the late Ira Philip, author of the book From Monk to Mazumbo, to ensure that Reverend Monk’s story not be forgotten Bermuda’s premier, David Burt, asked the governor in August 2018 to grant Reverend Monk a retroactive pardon to right a historic injustice, a matter currently under study at Mount Langton.
The story of the Dockyard Riots and the subsequent Monk trial furnished a stark demonstration of where power lay in the colony a century ago. Outside black workers and outside black ministers were perforce expected to “know their place.” Even the liberal white minister sympathetic to the plight of the imported workers, the Reverend Arthur Goldring at St. Paul’s Paget, had the screws turned on him—he ultimately had to go to court when his wages were withheld by an Anglican Synod made up of many of the same men who conducted the judicial and business workings of the colony. Today, in many ways, a “new era” has dawned, although the wounds of the past have not fully healed. At times, Bermuda has inescapably been “The Isles of Unrest.”