An advocate of social and economic change and a Renaissance man of his day, Governor Sir William Reid did much for Bermuda and Bermudians during his nine-year tenure.
Drive into the grounds of the Cabinet Office from Court Street. About 20 yards in, stop and look to your right. You should be in front of an obelisk made of granite. And if the sun is setting, you might be able to make out an inscription and a portrait in sunken relief on its southern face.
It’s a likeness of Major General Sir William Reid, KCB, FRS, who was our governor from 1839 to 1846. The obelisk was, the inscription says, erected in his memory by the people of Bermuda, who knew him as “the Good Governor.” As obelisks go, it’s quite a small one, but that’s no measure of his worth. Think of it this way: how many other governors had memorials built in their memory by the people of Bermuda?
Sir William had a major beneficial effect. During his seven years here, he…well, read this snippet from the obituary published in the Bermuda Royal Gazette in November 1858:
“As Governor of these Islands, he left behind him here a name and a reputation which have ever been warmly cherished by all classes of the community. The secret of this sentiment of esteem, unhappily too unusual a phenomenon in Colonial History, may be found, we believe, in the conviction which all, whether friendly or hostile to Governor Reid’s plans, felt of the perfect sincerity of his efforts to promote the good of the Colony.”
It goes on in that vein for quite a lot of column inches, an expression of admiration and gratitude that is unmistakably as sincere as the Gazette felt his efforts were to improve Bermuda.
The obituary published in the Times of London also employed admiring terms:
He possessed the placid and calm temper of a true philosopher…combined with a rare talent for conducting business and in making his colleagues and subordinates do their best. In private life, he was one of the most amiable of men, with a pleasant mixture of gravity and cheerfulness. He belonged to that Corps of Royal Engineers which has furnished so many men to do essential service for their country not merely in the ordinary routine of their duty, but by the voluntary exertion of talent and energy of character in the pursuits of science, and in the government of the dependencies of the British Crown.
As that paragraph suggests, Sir William’s reputation didn’t rest on his role in Bermuda.
He was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1809, when he was 18, and he served from 1810 to 1814 in the Peninsular War in Spain (you might remember it as the war that inspired Goya to make his terrifying series of prints, The Disasters of War). He served under then-General Arthur Wellesley, who was made field marshall, then 1st Duke of Wellington, largely as a result of his skilled conduct of that conflict. According to the National Dictionary of Biography, the young Lieutenant Reid proved “a skilled engineer, a brave soldier and a fortunate man, since he survived three wounds, including a severe one to the neck.”
In 1832, Sir William was sent to Barbados to be resident engineer, assisting in the cleanup after the hurricane of August 1831, which killed some 1,500 people and caused great damage. Hurricanes interested him. When he went back to England, he began to collect data about them from the logbooks of British ships. In the course of doing his research, he read a paper written by an American, William Redfield, suggesting that the winds of hurricanes moved in a circular path. Redfield reached this conclusion after observing the direction in which felled trees lay after a freak hurricane in New England. That was, at the time, a controversial idea. But Sir William’s own research confirmed Redfield’s suggestion, and he wrote Redfield to say so. The two men corresponded and became lifelong friends (although they never met), exchanging over 300 letters before Redfield’s death in 1857. Sir William confided in him about his work in Bermuda, and Redfield acted as his supplier of things American.
According to the historian and author Dr. Olwyn Mary Blouet of Virginia State University, whose two articles on Sir William should be read by anyone seeking to understand the significance of his life (and to whom I owe a debt for much of the information contained in this article), those letters now form part of the collection of Yale University’s library.
In 1838, before he was posted to Bermuda, Sir William published a book that is acknowledged by meteorologists as the basis of the modern understanding of the nature of hurricanes. He called it An Attempt to Develop the Law of Storms By Means of Facts, Arranged According to Place and Time and Hence to Point Out a Cause for the Variable Winds With the View to Practical Use in Navigation, an impossible title that has mercifully been shortened by use to The Law of Storms.
If you had asked the Bermuda Royal Gazette staffer who wrote Sir William’s obituary what he thought the governor’s major accomplishments had been, it wouldn’t have taken him long to mention that Sir William founded Bermuda’s first library. One imagines the reason the obelisk was put up in the grounds of the Cabinet Office was that it was the library’s first home. Copies of the first and second editions of The Law of Storms were among the books in its first collection.
He is remembered also as the man who changed Bermuda’s attitude toward agriculture. Shortly after he arrived in Bermuda, he wrote a letter to his friend Redfield in which he described the place as “covered…with cedar, rocks and weeds.” Bermudians of the day, especially poor white Bermudians, thought farming was beneath them and didn’t believe that anything worth having would grow in the soil.
Sir William knew better. He knew that Bermuda’s climate was favourable to plant growth, and he knew that if the soil were improved by fertilisation and irrigation, and if the land were terraced to reduce erosion, nearly everything would grow. He turned the gardens of Government House into a kind of showplace, cultivating citrus and other plants and holding horticultural exhibitions there. He imported ploughs (there were evidently only two on the island when he arrived) and held ploughing competitions at Government House. A little snippet in the Bermuda Gazette of September 8, 1840, included in William Zuill Sr.’s book, Bermuda Sampler, records one of these matches, though not one held at Government House:
The Ploughing Match, got up by Members of the Agricultural Society, took place on Thursday in Paget Parish, on a reclaimed piece of March Land, the property of HENRY J TUCKER, Esq… At the conclusion of the match, the whole of the ploughs, five in number, were put in operation at one and the same time, among which we were pleased to see a horse and plough belonging to His Excellency the Governor.
Sir William began to correspond with Kew Gardens in England, sending Bermudian plants there and getting them to send plants in return. He imported seeds and plants from the United States. He subscribed to agricultural magazines and got the Gazette to reprint some of their articles. It was at his suggestion that tamarisk was planted all along the North Shore, providing shelter from the strong northerly winds in winter.
His campaign worked; acreage under cultivation grew by leaps and bounds, as did Bermuda’s fruit-and-vegetable export business. One imagines that the place he found covered in rocks and weeds began to look a little better because of his efforts. (He also did something that, if there were nothing else on his record, would secure him a place in Bermuda’s everlasting memory: he gave us loquats, sending seeds here in 1850 from his new posting in Malta.)
Sir William’s concentration on agriculture wasn’t simply to indulge his interest in the subject. He had other concerns, the most pressing of which was the possibility of another war between the United States and Britain. It’s almost forgotten now, but its flashpoint was a dispute over the border between the state of Maine and the province of New Brunswick. It was known as the Aroostook War, and sometimes, lightheartedly, as the Pork and Beans War (perhaps that name comes from the diet of the Canadian lumberjacks who touched it off), but there was for a time at the beginning of Sir William’s tour of duty in Bermuda nothing lighthearted about the danger it posed.
Impressed by the strategic significance of Bermuda, the Gibraltar of the Atlantic, he felt he had to improve Bermuda’s preparedness for war with the Americans. Sir William reasoned that if Bermuda’s cargo-carrying business in the Atlantic, already tailing off since 1823 because of competition from American shipping, were to cease altogether, agriculture would become critically important to the survival of the island.
In addition, he made it his business to try to increase Bermuda’s military preparedness for war. Dr. Blouet writes, in Sir William Reid, FRS, 1791–1858: Governor of Bermuda, Barbados and Malta:
He wanted the local Assembly to pass a militia law, but failing that, as Commander-in-Chief, he began a new Regiment, open to anyone, ‘without distinction of colour.’ Reid was a pragmatic man and, although he doubted the loyalty of whites in a possible conflict with the United States, he believed blacks would fight to retain their new free status. In fact, the recruitment scheme did mostly appeal to the black population. Reid’s other initiatives in security involved making military training obligatory for Dockyard workmen and organising a flotilla of private boats for defence.
As it turned out, the Pork and Beans dispute was settled by negotiation. The governor’s new, integrated militia faded away. One could argue that even had there been war, it wouldn’t have been a success as an experiment in integration, because whites of that day would have been reluctant to serve alongside blacks.
Sir William arrived in Bermuda only five years after emancipation. Most of the West Indian islands, whose economies were closely tied to slavery, had opted for a seven-year period after emancipation during which slaves were “apprentices”—free, but not free. Bermuda, whose economy did not depend on slavery, opted to free the slaves outright, and did so in August 1834.
By opting for unqualified emancipation, however, it seems unlikely that the legislature was implying that black and white Bermudians should start taking steps toward integration. Indeed, the legislature seemed not to be especially interested in what was to happen to blacks after they were freed.
In his book, Slavery in Bermuda, James E. Smith puts it starkly: “After years of working for someone else, the ex-slave entered into a state of freedom with little or nothing to show for his labours, and this, coupled by the fact that most of Bermuda’s limited land area was owned by the white population, made it extremely difficult for him to acquire land to call his own. The poverty which he experienced was a major deterrent to his advancement, especially in a society where political power was vested in the owners of property.” Smith quotes a report by the then-governor, Sir Stephen Remnant Chapman, saying that at emancipation, only 34 blacks were qualified to vote and only three qualified to run for election.
Nonetheless, Dr. Blouet, in the second of her articles, Governor Reid in Post-Emancipation Bermuda, 1939–46: An Advocate of Social and Economic Change, quotes Sir William as having written in his Annual Report for 1842 that many of Bermuda’s blacks were “steadily advancing themselves by industry and frugality…buying small portions of land and building houses.” In 1845, statistics show that there were just 51 people, black and white, who received parish aid.
Still, Sir William also wrote in 1842 that “Whichever way I turn my thoughts in connection with improving the colony, I find the difference of the races presenting itself perpetually as an obstacle and often becoming a complete bar to it.” Dr. Blouet wrote that Reid “did not believe in a racially divisive society and had no patience with the whites, especially the poor whites, who would not adjust their attitudes and life styles to the new situation created by the abolition of slavery.”
Sir William thought the answer to this problem was education, offered to Bermudians regardless of colour. Dr. Blouet describes his actions toward the end of his term in Bermuda:
The Governor became extremely keen on encouraging the Legislature to grant what money it could spare on improved educational facilities…. He feared that Bermuda would become an intellectual backwater, unresponsive to the introduction of new ideas… The Governor felt that Bermuda’s most serious educational disabilities were in higher education. In 1844, he tried unsuccessfully to impress upon the Colonial Office officials the need for an adult school, similar to a Mechanics Institute, so that the Dockyard workmen could improve their technical skills, in view of the rapid progress being made in steam navigation.
The following year, he planned to send several youths to model schools in England to train as teachers, and towards the end of the year obtained a grant from the Assembly of £80 each for two men to attend college in England. Since there were roughly equal numbers of Europeans and Africans in Bermuda, it was decided to send one black and one white youth. Only one black man, Robinson Tucker, expressed interest in the scheme and duly took up his place at Battersea College.
That was a rare success. Sir William was, on the whole, bitterly disappointed that the assembly took so little interest in improving education. He thought that training in religion and morality, which was provided to blacks, was all well and good, but it was instruction in practical matters that was important, and it had been seriously neglected. Dr. Blouet quotes him as having written to Earl Grey, then secretary of state for war and the colonies: “Such instruction as I am advocating requires to be diffused throughout all classes without distinction of religion, creed or of race. Having abandoned the principles of slavery, general freedom requires that man, to be useful in society, should be taught to reflect.”
Dr. Blouet makes it clear in her articles that her interest in Sir William stems in large part from the fact that the office of governor didn’t require him to make such efforts to improve Bermuda.
There was little in his background and career to suggest that Governor Reid would seriously attempt to tackle the social and economic problems experienced in post-emancipation Bermuda. That Reid gave his enthusiastic attention to the internal development of the Bermudas is tribute to the governor’s own initiative rather than to any programme from the Colonial Office, since he was given absolutely no instructions about the methods and policies he should employ in the social and economic spheres.
Bermudians are known for their sometimes-stormy relationships with governors. Often, what seemed to have triggered their hostility was a feeling that the governor in question was putting pressure on Parliament to act against the better judgement of its members. That was what Sir William was doing when he tried to push them to do more for newly emancipated blacks. But one must conclude that in addition to his abilities as a scientist and as an administrator, he must have been an extraordinarily charming man. When news arrived that he was to leave Bermuda to become the new governor of Barbados, the Bermuda Gazette wrote:
We can but briefly allude to this very unwelcome intelligence brought by the Mail-boat yesterday. Our words must be few, but our regret is truly inexpressible. Must we lose our indefatigable, excellent and beloved Governor? And must the poor throughout these Islands be deprived of the charities of his beloved Consort, and those of Pembroke and Devonshire no longer enjoy the consoling visits of their amiable daughters? We trust, though we hardly dare, that an altered arrangement may avert the calamity of his removal… Years and years to come, almost every improvement now witnessed in Bermuda will bring back his honoured name to our grateful recollection, and evoke from the depths of our hearts blessings, blessings on him and his worthy Family.