In a seminal piece for The Bermudian in 1992, Cyril Packwood traced Bermuda’s ethnic origins from Africa to Bermuda through their capture and trade, and as indentured servants or chattel slaves for more than 200 years. We are pleased to reproduce this article today.

It is not possible to write of the origins of the African-Bermudians in Bermuda without considering the important impact slavery had on the Island’s ethnic composition. While the first African-Bermudians were not slaves, but indentured servants, it was slavery which caused the great influx which ultimately would shape the ethnic population of the Island. Taken as a captive with only the possibility of surviving an unspeakably miserable voyage to an unknown and threatening destination, classification of the slave as an immigrant is undoubtedly questionable. It is true that many Bermudian slaves did not come directly from Africa, but from an intermediary destination such as the West Indies. Their ethnic origin, however, was still Africa, although the particular country, unrecorded, was unknown

To place the advent of the first African-Bermudians in context, it is necessary to start at the beginning of colonisation. The first permanent English settlers, sent out by the Virginia Company, arrived in Bermuda on July 11, 1612. In 1616 Governor Daniel Tucker instructed a Mr. Wilmott to go to the Savage Islands and secure “Negroes to dive for pearles.” This was the first reference to African-Bermudians being sought for the colony in early records. During the summer of that same year, the ‘Edwin’, captained by George Bargrave, returned from the West Indies loaded with lignum vitae (trees found especially in the West Indies), certainly plants and fruits, also bringing “an Indian and a Negar.” Governor Butler in his ‘History of the Bermudas or Summer Island’ said that they were the first these Islands ever had.

African-Bermudians and Indians during this early period were indentured servants like many Europeans at the time. The Bermuda settlement was mainly agricultural at first and men who had skills in planting and knowledge of what would grow in this climate were highly sought after. Many of the early African-Bermudians were expert growers of sugar cane and divers for pearls. Sir Nathaniel Rich’s estate in Southampton depended on the knowledge of African-Bermudians for the success of their crops, as revealed in the ‘Rich Papers’.

The first mention of an African-Bermudian by name was Symon in the ‘Colonial Records’ for the assize issue in October 1617. Symon was sentenced by the court to be enslaved (penal slavery) during the Governor’s pleasure. This was the beginning of a unique feature in colonial history. The Somers Island Company, a Chartered Company, which succeeded the Virginia Company, not only used the services of penal slaves, but purchased and owned slaves throughout its existence.

By 1622 African-Bermudians were numerous enough in a population of approximately 1,200 to merit a special Act (#12) entitled: “An Act to restrayne the insolencies of the Negroes,” which was passed by the Second Assembly. This was the first law anywhere in English specifically dealing with ‘Negroes.’ The act forbade African-Bermudians to buy or sell, barter or exchange tobacco or any other produce goods without the knowledge and consent of their masters. Noncompliance resulted in punishment and masters having to make full recompense. This Act, which singled out ‘Negores’ marked the beginning of legal restrictions based on colour, with freedom of movement restricted, carrying of weapons prohibited, and the right of independent barter denied. This clause in the Act was called “the first formal legislation of its character in an English colony” by historian Wesley Craven. The evidence concerning lifetime service for African-Bermudians is not clearly defined in Bermuda’s documents. It was during the mid 1620’s that references to African-Bermudians and Indians changed from that of indentured servants to life servitude as slaves. This subtle but devastating change resulted in the lowest state of servitude – chattel slavery. The Company employed an agent who was responsible for the purchase and sale of slaves. In the early years the average price for a slave was £12; but in later years the price fluctuated with demand and supply. Slaves were sold for fourscore and nineteen years.

Slaves arrived in Bermuda from ships trading in the West Indies, from pirate ships, shipwrecks and directly from Africa. Shipowners would often give their sailors an African or an Indian to sell as payment for a successful voyage to the West Indies or Central America. Many early slaves had Spanish names because they had been captured by pirates from Spanish ships and taken from islands possessed by Spain. Frequent shipwrecks on Bermuda’s reefs caused destitute sailors and passengers to sell their valuables, which included Africans and Indians, to provide for lodging and passage. Many of those slaves were born in the New World and the Indians were the indigenous people from the Caribbean Islands and America. Only a few ships carrying slaves arrived in Bermuda directly from Africa.

A small Bermudian ship sailed to Callebar on the Guinea coast in 1672, and returned with 125 slaves; of which, half were sold in Bermuda, and the remainder reshipped to the Carolinas and Virginia. In 1697 another ship was recorded as sailing to Callebar and returning with ninety slaves. This time only a few were sold in Bermuda, with the majority being sent to North Carolina and Virginia. Later in 1703 the Royal African Company sent slaves from Gambia on a ship bound for Bermuda, but bad weather forced the vessel to go to Turks Island. Eventually, half of the slaves were placed on board a Bermuda-bound vessel.

Population figures for African-Bermudians during the years of the Somers Island Company, 1615-1684, are difficult to ascertain. In spite of their known presence, they were excluded from most early census reports. This was true for the 1622 census which was held at the request of Sir Nathaniel Rich. By 1629 there were approximately 2,500 white men, women and children; while the African-Bermudian and Indian population was anywhere from 300 to 400. Many African-Bermudians and Indians were imported from the West Indies and Central America during the period 1630-1640; consequently the 1670 report showed that the salve population had tripled. As a result of the fear engendered by the slave conspiracies of 1656, 1661 and 1673, an Act was passed in 1675 prohibiting the importation of Africans, Indians and mulattos. In spite of the ban the slave population continued to increase through smuggling and by natural means, which included miscegenation.

A very detailed population report was published by the Government on January 1, 1699. The African-Bermudian population was as follows:

The African-Bermudian population was 2,247 with 529 able to bear arms and the white population was 3,615 with 724 able to bear arms. St. George’s Parish had the largest number for both races. In less than 100 years the African-Bermudian population had risen to three quarters of the white population. The largest number of African-Bermudian children (1,032) would serve as the future pool for Bermuda’s slaves. There was such a great variety within the African-Bermudian at the time that the laws were written using these descriptions: “Negores, Mulattoes, Indians, Mustees, Quarteroons, or other Slaves.”

Slaves gathered to listen to Joshua Marsden in 1816. Illustration taken from “The Narrative of a Mission by Marsden” – Courtesy of Bermuda Archives

In 1729 serious attempts were again made to limit the number of slaves when the Assembly passed: “An Act laying an imposition on Negroes & other Slaves imported into these Islands.” A tax of £5 was levied on all imported slaves, except those arriving directly from Africa. This was a huge sum of money to add to the purchase price of a slave. The increasing number of free African-Bermudians resulted in a law the very next year entitled: “An Act for extirpating all Free Negroes, Indians, Mulattoes.” Government wanted to export them because it felt that they were a corrupting influence on slaves. Any free African-Bermudian who had been a slave had to leave Bermuda within six months; however, mulattos born free were exempted.

An 1880’s view of the dockside along Front Street.

A Government report on the real estate of the inhabitants of Bermuda 1788-1800 revealed important information concerning African-Bermudians. Thirteen free African-Bermudians were listed as possessors; however, only one was listed as a freeholder – Brown Marshall of Warwick. A detailed census of the whole Island was taken in 1806:

Now the number of slaves outnumbered the white populations by just fifty-nine. Currently, there were 383 free African-Bermudians with the majority (147) residing in St. George’s.

Slaves were sold on the auction block to the highest bidder, unless they were imported for the Somers Island Company, specific landowners, or were kept by the shipowners for their own use. The main slave market was located in St. George’s until it moved to the town of Hamilton, after it was incorporated in 1793. The action block saw the cruel separation of husbands from wives, and children from parents. Mary Prince, a slave, who had her life story published by the Anti-Slavery Society in 1831, vividly described the inhumane experience of being sold on the Hamilton auction block. The vendue master “took me by the hand, and led me out into the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or lamb he was about to purchase, and who talked about my shape and size in like words – as if I could no more understand their meaning than the dumb beasts. I was then put up for sale. The bidding commenced at a few pounds, and gradually rose to fifty-seven, when I was knocked down to the highest bidder; and the people who stood by said that I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave.”

Unidentified mother and children, one of the many portraits from The Lusher Collection, circa 1895

Slaves were quartered in cabins, cellars, or in the master’s house depending on the size and location of their owners’ homes. Large two storey mansions like Bridge House, St. George’s and Verdmont in Smith’s Parish, had slave cabins in close proximity to the back door entrance so that the slaves could be summoned for service at any time of the day or night. Smaller houses kept their slaves in the cellars that usually had iron bars in the windows to prevent them from escaping. Mary Prince slept on a blanket in the passageway in front of her mistress’s chamber, while the family’s slave cook slept on a mat in the kitchen. In all instances the slaves were locked in each night.

A superb photograph from The Lusher Collection showing the dignity of Mark Swan and Lady, circa 1890

The Bermuda Company quickly discovered that the demand for labourers on farms, in homes, in shipbuilding, and on trading ships, could not be met by indentured servants. The importation of slaves increased to meet the demand for labour. Bermuda’s diversified economy meant that a slave had to have more skill and versatility than a plantation slave in America and the West Indies cultivating a single crop. A slave’s employment depended on the business interests of his master. Also, many slaves were apprenticed to learn a trade that would provide financial security for their owners. Female slaves worked as concubines, cooks, domestics, field hands, house maids, sellers of firewood, sick nurses, washerwomen, and weavers. Male slaves were occupied as boatmen, carpenters, caulkers, house servants, jointers, labourers, mariners, masons, pilots, sailors, sawyers, ship builders, and whale hunters. The majority of slaves worked as house servants or domestics. At emancipation, 921 were classified as head domestic servants and 1,406 as inferior domestics, making a total of 2,327 – more than half of the slave population.

Since Bermuda is an island, the sea often provided the only meat the slaves’ diet afforded. A great variety of fresh fish was easily caught along the shore by men with hooks, lines and nets. Fishermen ventured further out to, and past, the reefs in the shallops. The favourite meat from the sea was ‘sea beef’, the name given to the fleshy portions of humpback whales, captured off Bermuda from March throughout June. The meat was salted and dried, but the more delicate parts were dressed, so that they lost their fishy flavour and were eaten as tender veal. Salted codfish caught in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland became a staple in the slave diet, not only in Bermuda but throughout the West Indies. On land hominy and loblolly were made from corn or maize. The heart of the palmetto was eaten raw as a salad and cooked like cabbage. Slaves also ate the ripe palmetto berries, a highly nutritious fruit. The purple berries from the numerous cedar trees were eaten as well. Barley was boiled into a thick jelly and eaten as a barley broth. Slave cooks were experts at making puddings and cakes from arrowroot. Cooks held the most envied position among house servants because they could hide food and kitchen commodities for their own or their family’s consumption. Mary Prince was often fed potatoes and milk for her supper meal. When she raked salt for several years on Turks Island, her food consisted of raw Indian corn, which was pounded in a mortar and boiled in water to make a corn soup called blawly. Ground nuts or peanuts were a favourite with slaves who preferred them roasted. Cassava pie, a standard dish at Christmas, had already become popular before 1830.

Slaves usually wore their masters’ cast off clothing. A coarse, heavy cotton used in making sacks – known as osnaburg was worn by male and female slaves. During the cold winter months, slaves dressed themselves in a “variety of strange garments” to keep warm. In spite of severe restrictions female slaves really dressed up for holidays and funerals, much to the consternation of their owners. Shoes, however, were a luxury, therefore most slaves went barefoot. If a slave was lucky enough to own a pair of shoes, they were highly prized and worn on special occasions only – to church, to weddings, to funerals. Often a slave carried his shoes to an event slung over his shoulders, worn only at the event, then immediately taken off.

A group posing for the camera at a boat landing in Salt Kettle. The house in the background stands on Musson’s Point, circa 1880

Slaves were kept busy from sunrise to sunset, especially house slaves. A detailed account of the chores a house slave performed can be found in Mary Prince’s narrative. She was required to wash and bake, pick cotton and wool, wash floors, and help with the cooking. The family’s slave cook carried out these additional tasks – milk the cows, fetch and pen up the sheep, drive home the cattle and stake them out, feed and rub down the master’s horse, feed the hog; plus prepare the beds, undress the children and put them to sleep. After the latter’s death, Mary had to milk eleven cows before sun-up, take care of the cattle as well as the children, and also do the housework.

Faced with this workload and cruel punishment if a task was not completed on time, Mary ran away. She escaped to the estate on which her mother was a slave. Her mother hid Mary in a cave and secretly brought her food at night. Alas, Mary was taken back to her master by her father. It was illegal for slaves to run away, but they had been doing so since the earliest days of slavery. When recaptured, a slave was usually severely punished; however, if he was a chronic offender, he was sold away from Bermuda. Jeffrey’s Cave in Smith’s Parish bears the name of the slave who successfully hid there for months before being recaptured. The only way to escape from Bermuda was by boat, but the nearest land was 700 miles away. In spite of the distance and the hazards, many tried. One of the earliest recorded accounts transpired in 1640 when three slaves made an unsuccessful attempt to escape in a small boat. All three received thirty-nine lashes upon their naked backs at the whipping post in King’s Square, St. George’s. In the very first issue of the ‘Bermuda Gazette’, published on January 17, 1784, a one guinea reward was offered for a runaway slave. The advertisement read: “Run away from the Subscriber a NEGRO WENCH named HAGAR; has lost most of her fore teeth; when she laughs her mouth appears a little drawn. Has at times much affection by a haughty movement of her head and screwing of her mouth. Whoever will apprehend and deliver said Wench to the Subscriber, at his House; or at the Stores of Jennings, Tuckers and Co. at St. George’s, Crow Lane, or Salt Kettles, shall receive One Guinea reward. All persons are hereby cautioned against harbouring or carrying her off these Islands, as such will be prosecuted according to law. JOHN JENNINGS Port Royal, January 17, 1784.”

The early nineteenth century witnessed slavery debates in Parliament which forced the British Government to compile detailed information on slaves. British Parliament passed an Act in 1807 prohibiting “all manner of dealing and trading slaves.” Any English ship suspected of carrying slaves would be stopped and searched at sea. This proved an inconvenience to Bermudian ship-owners who constantly had to show proof that their slave seamen were employed or owned and not slaves being transported to a new auction block.

Bermuda published three slave registration record books in 1821, 1830, and 1833. They shed illuminating light on the slave population: numbers, ages, colours, family relationships, occupations, and places of birth. All slaves were registered by name, sex, colour, employment, age and country. The vast majority of slaves listed were born in Bermuda. This proved the effectiveness of the various bans on importing slaves. Many of the Bermuda-born slaves were in their sixties and seventies. There were slaves listed who were born in Africa, the Bahamas, Madeira, Turks Island and from most of the West Indian islands. As late as 1830, Susette Lloyd, in her book, Sketches of Bermuda, described two pure African slaves: “One of these Africans is a female, who has her face curiously slashed and tattooed; another, a man, who lives near us, and is one of the most good tempered, gay, and thoughtless beings in the world.” These two were exceptions rather than the rule this late in Bermuda’s history. The first registration book, in 1821, listed 5,242 slaves – 2,620 males and 2,622 females. In 1830 the second registration showed: 2,107 males and 2,264 females, making a total of 4,371. The third and last registration in 1833 listed 1,858 males and 2,319 females, totaling 4,277 slaves. Why the decrease in the number of male slaves by 149 can only be guessed at. What is known is that some slaveowners, fearing the low price they might receive for their slaves as emancipation approached, sold their males to the highest bidder in the southern United States.

The first African-Bermudian arrived from the West Indies in 1616 and that ethnic population had grown to 4,103 (not including several hundred free African-Bermudians) at emancipation on August 1, 1834. This Island’s African-Bermudians had arrived from Africa through a number of countries and by various ways – capture, trade, shipwreck, sold by stranded owners, pirates, etc. Initially employed as indentured servants then as chattel slaves for more than 200 years, African-Bermudians not only survived, but rose to become an integral part of the Bermudian community.