This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the May 1992 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
A brief study of our West Indian Bermudian Heritage
West Indian ancestry have chosen to assimilate into Bermudian society rather than embrace both cultures. Still others have chosen to ignore their West Indian roots.
An idyllic approach in understanding the nexus between Bermuda and the West Indies would be to examine the colonial history of the respective areas gaining insight into the similarities in social, economic, and political developments; or to reconstruct family history throughout the various Islands, shedding light on migratory patterns while simultaneously comparing family names, attitudes, and values. Undoubtedly the results would reveal the intimate links between the two regions under discussion.
There is neither time nor space to conduct such a comprehensive study; therefore the following account should be viewed only as an exploratory journey. There are two parts to this article. The first part highlights the migratory patterns between Bermuda and the West Indies from the seventeenth century onward; the second looks closer at some twentieth century West Indian families in Bermuda. Please note in the context of this article, the term West Indies applies to the entire Caribbean region.
In the seventeenth century, Britain began to establish colonies in North America, the West Indies, and Bermuda. “It is generally conceded by Englishmen that colonies were necessary links in the maintenance of sea-power…they were equally indispensable in the expansion of commerce,” wrote Henry Wilkinson in Bermuda in the Old Empire. It was Britain’s expanding commercial interest which led to the importation of labour into the colonies. Although indentured servants were imported for a time, it was African slaves who comprised the majority of the labouring population.
Bermuda’s first reference to migrant workers was in 1616 when two indentured servants, one black and one Indian, were brought to the Island from the West Indies as pearl divers. By the 1620’s slaves were listed amongst the imported workers, and according to Cyril Packwood in Chained on the Rock, the majority of Bermuda’s slaves came from the West Indies, specifically St. Thomas and Barbados. By 1670 there were about 2,000 slaves of a total population of approximately 8,000. Even at this early date, whites were concerned about the increasing number of slaves on the island and in 1675 a law was passed prohibiting the importation of blacks, Indians and mulattos. Although the law was not strictly enforced, it does indicate an attempt to control the increasing black population. While it is impossible to offer statistics showing the total population of slaves imported into the Island – to my knowledge no such figures exist- the black population continued to increase either naturally, through importation, and through miscegenation. The core group of this increasing population was rooted in West Indian ancestry. When slavery was abolished in 1834, out of a total population of 8,818, 4,559 were black and 4,259 were white.
So far, focus has been on West Indians migrating to Bermuda. However, there was a migrating population to the West Indies as well. For various reasons both blacks and whites left Bermuda to settle abroad. Free blacks and rebellious slaves were transported from the island for fear they might cause problems among the others. In may 1730 a law was passed against free blacks forcing them to leave the Island within six months of their freedom; failure to comply with this law meant reverting back to the status of a slave. During the time this law was in effect, a free woman and her son were sold back into slavery for failing to comply with this law. It is likely some of these free blacks settled in the West Indies. Still other blacks, those labeled as troublesome slaves, were banished to colonies, including the Bahamas. In 1763 the Bahamas government passed a law preventing the importation into the Island of slaves, mulattos and Indians from Bermuda. In the min-seventeenth century some Bermudian whites, finding it difficult to make a living on the Island, took their worldly possessions (including their slaves) and migrated to Eleuthera, New Providence, Barbados, Jamaica, and St. Lucia. During a period of slave unrest in the 1730’s, some whites migrated to the Bahamas. In the History of Mary Prince, a Bermudian slave narrative edited by Moira Ferguson, mention is made of Prince’s seven brothers and three sisters of whom she knew the whereabouts only of her two sisters: one living in Bermuda and the other in Trinidad with her master and their three children.
Mary Prince also tells of herself living in the West Indies on two occasions. The first time was in 1805 when she was sold to a Bermudian living in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Prince says she lived there for about ten years before returning home to Bermuda with her owner. Some time after 1814 Prince was sold to John Woods and accompanied him and his family to John Woods and accompanied him and his family to St. John, Antigua. She probably would have spent the remainder of her life there except she accompanied her master and his family to England where she claimed her freedom. Prince spent the remainder of her life there. There are numerous examples similar to those presented above, reflecting an integrated West-Indian-Bermudian population.
A great deal more is known of the history of migrant workers from Bermuda to the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was Bermudian involvement in maritime activities which led to their claim over those Islands from about 1673. Prior to this period Bermudians had attempted, unsuccessfully, to compete against the larger agricultural producing areas like the American and West Indian colonies. Between 1678 and 1710 migrant workers from Bermuda enjoyed a monopoly of the salt trade which became the pivotal trade for all other Bermudian businesses. Bermuda vessels sailed to the Turks every summer, dropping off the work crew before continuing on with a skeleton crew either to trade or to get involved in some clandestine venture. At the end of the salt raking season the vessel sailed back to the Islands, picking up the crew and sailing home again with a ship-load of cargo. By the l 750’s as many as eighty vessels and 1,200 people were employed annually in either raking or transporting salt from the Turks and Caicos Islands and Tortuga, an island off the coast of Hispaniola. Between “1757-8 Bermuda vessels carried at a moderate calculation 130,000 bushels of salt annually to the Continent of North America,” wrote Mary Arton in Trade and Commerce in Bermuda and Old Sea Captain’s Tales. Business was so lucrative that some Bermudians took up permanent residence on Turks, managing both the ponds and the slave labour. The Turks “offered opportunities for the deliberate merchant with capital, and at least a good chance for the sturdy mariner whose luck had enabled him to buy a ship and turn her where opportunity presented,” wrote Wilkinson. One of the several trading routes was the triangular trade: Bermudian vessels carrying salt from the Turks to the North American colonies where they traded salt for grain or salt fish before sailing home to Bermuda with such supplies as corn, bread, beef and lumber. The salt was also exchanged for gold or silver which allowed Bermudians to purchase manufactured goods from England. After 1710 Bermuda’s monopoly of the Turks began to weaken. Finally in 1799 after a long and hard struggle to maintain control over the Islands, it was annexed to the Bahamas. It changed hands at least twice more before it became a Crown Colony.
David Frith, a white Bermudian, migrated to Turks Islands sometime prior to 1799 as he was a registered landowner in that year. His descendants remained there for more than 100 years before returning home to Bermuda. This fascinating story was told to me by Isabel Frith Ashford, one of David Frith’s descendants. Mrs. Frith Ashford’s story is one of several intriguing stories told by West Indians or their descendants resident in Bermuda. All of those interviewed would probably agree with Allan Lichtman and Valerie French, authors of Historians and the Living Past, who said: “Our most personal link to the past comes…through our families and communities; the perceptions of our families, the attitudes and values of our communities, have been transmitted through generations, culminating for the moment in ourselves.” Included amongst the interviewees were people from Turks and Caicos Islands, Saba, St. Kitts, Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica, Trinidad, and Guyana. The purpose here is merely to show how some families embrace both their West Indian and Bermudian heritages.
We begin with the Frith of Turks Island who returned to Bermuda after living abroad for more than 100 years. The main focus is on the Bermuda Frith family’s ties with the Turks.
In 1924 Nellie Spencer Frith and her five children left Turks Island to join her husband Archibald who immigrated to Bermuda the year before. The Friths were all born in the Turks Islands but could trace their ancestry back to Bermuda. Nellie Spencer Frith had visited Bermuda a few times and some of her Turks relatives were even schooled in Bermuda. Gradually, Nellie’s side of the family – the Spencers, Crissons and Adams – made their way back to Bermuda permanently; Nellie and her children followed suit in 1924. Isabel Frith Ashford was fourteen years old when her family returned to Bermuda. She says even though she is West Indian by birth, she felt as if she was coming home. She actually acknowledges both places as home. Isabel Frith Ashford remembers her ancestors as proprietors of the salt ponds and merchants. Her own father had gone to sea as a purser on board a steamship travelling between the West Indies and New York. This all happened nearly seventy years ago. Her family has all moved away from the Turks but they have not relinquished their ties. She has visited the Turks on a few occasions as have her brothers, Gerald and Jack, the latter having visited there as recently as three years ago.
Edwena and Donald Smith’s father, Hosay Smith, was also born in the Turks Islands. He came to Bermuda in 1912 at the invitation of a Bermudian family whom Edwina Smith believes had some Turks Island connections. Hosay Smith was about twenty years old at the time and within a few years of his arrival was employed with the Navy, Army, Airforce Institute (N.A.A.F.I). He worked with N.A.A.F.I for thirty-five years and when he retired in 1950 he owned and operated a grocery store business. Even though he married Adelaide Lough of Warwick, and adopted Bermuda as his home, he never severed ties with the Turks. He often met with other Turks Islanders, including Gerald Frith, to talk of old times and perhaps to share the occasional news from home. According to Rosemarie Taylor Crichlow, whose grandfather was also a Turks Islander, she remembers Hosay Smith and others gathering at her grandfather Robbie Taylor’s home to talk of the old days. Hosay Smith was proud of his roots. In addition to visiting his country of birth, he also wrote a book entitled A History of Turks and Caicos Islands which is indicative of the sentiments he felt for the Turks Islands. Edwena Smith tells her father’s story and obviously shares his interest in the Turks and Caicos; she has visited there on more than one occasion.
In 1929 Lionel Jean-Jacques says he wanted to do a little exploration, and gain some knowledge of the world. So at the age of twenty-seven he left his government job in Dominica and travelled to Bermuda on board the Lady Nelson. There are perhaps a few reasons why his exploratory journey started and ended in Bermuda. He had a brother living here at the time, and by 1932 he met and married a Kittitian named Edith Taylor. They had four children and of the two surviving, one lives in Bermuda and the other in Canada. Jean-Jacques, now in his ninetieth year, claims Bermuda as his adopted home.
Lionel Jean-Jacques is perhaps best remembered for the Jean-Jacques Commercial Centre, Dundonald Street, Hamilton, established in 1938. It was only last year that he retired after more than fifty years of teaching thousands of students Pitman shorthand and other commercial subjects. A variety of students passed through his doors including secretaries, teachers, business personnel, lawyers, British army officers, and American airforce serviceman. Lionel Jean-Jacques left Dominica, one of the larger Islands in the Windward group, looking to explore the world. He probably never thought he would find his own little world in Bermuda’s twenty-one square mile.
Similar to Lionel Jean-Jacques, Edna Mae Scott is also an educator. She came to Bermuda from Jamaica in 1933 to marry Victor Scott who arrived here from Jamaica two years previously. Mrs. Scott’s first two years were spent in Somerset as her husband was headmaster of West End School. The Scotts had two sons; both reside in the United States.
Mrs. Scott came to Bermuda immediately after she graduated from college in Jamaica. She still has family there and visits there often; however she has dedicated her entire life to educating the youth of Bermuda. Similair to Jran-Jacques, countless students have been under her tutelage, and over the thirty years she taught primary school it seems inevitable that some of her own cultural values would have passed on to her students. Mrs. Scott has retired from teaching and is actively involved in a Bermuda senior citizens programme.
Charles Pringle was in his late teens when he came to Bermuda from St.Kitts in 1930. Pringle had an uncle living here and secured a job for Pringle working as a labourer at the Dockyard. Just as Pringle was settling into Bermuda, he became ill and was forced to return home. He was joined by Cynthia Cholmondeley Bean whom he married in St.Kitts. Mrs. Cynthia Pringle (she had Barbadian roots) remained there for eight years before returning to Bermuda with her family. It would take thirty-six long years before her husband would join her. The Pringles had three children including Milton Pringle who was among the panelists speaking to the Bermuda College students on the Bermuda/West Indian connection. From listening to Milton Pringle’s panel presentation it seems evident he shares his father’s Kittitian values.
Cyril Clyde Smith was also employed at the Dockyard. He came to Bermuda in 1942 and began working almost immediately in the Dockyard Keepyard, preparing ammunition for loading onto the Royal Naval ships. World War Two was in progress and speed and efficiency were necessary in assuring the ships got in and out of the harbour as quickly as possible to resume their duties.
Mr. Smith says from the get-go he enjoyed being in Bermuda. He says he heard all about the Island from crew of the ‘Lady’ boats which made stops in Bermuda and Barbados along with other ports. On arriving in Bermuda Clyde Smith worked and lived among Barbadians. There was a special residence for Dockyard workers called the Barbadian quarters located in Somerset where Loyalty Estate is located today. He met and married Varleta Rogers who is of Saban ancestry; they have two children who have visited Barbados. Although Clyde Smith refers to Bermuda as home, he visits Barbados yearly, thereby keeping close ties with his country of origin.
Our journey takes us from Barbado to Guyana, to Michael Bradshaw’s ancestral home. Michael is second generation Bermudian and his grandparents, Samuel and Laura Bradshaw and baby Clarice, came to Bermuda from British Guiana (Guyana) around the early l920’s. According to Michael, his Kittitian-born grandfather was a skilled cabinet-maker and was invited by the Bermuda Government to come and work in the Island. Although the Bradshaws reared five children in Bermuda, including their grandson Michael, neither his grandmother nor his grandfather severed ties with Guyana and St. Kitts respectively. In fact, three of the Bradshaws’ five children were born in Guyana. Michael says his grandmother was extremely proud of her Guyanese upbringing and she instilled in her own children and her grandchildren these same cultural values which included the utmost respect for adults, an innate sense of pride, and the art of storytelling. Michael has passed these same values on to his own children. Michael is Bermudian but does not hesitate to call himself Guyanese as well.
Jane Singh Greene is West Indian Indian with strong cultural connections rooted in Trinidad and India. She met Walter (Dickie) Greene while he was visiting Trinidad with a Miss Bermuda Contingent in the mid 1960’s. Initially Ms Singh confused Bermuda with Barbuda (located in the Leeward Islands) and even as she planned her first visit to the Island, she was unaware of its geographical location. She arrived here in July 1967 and was astonished by the Island’s miniature size, while simultaneously being impressed by the friendliness of the people.
Jane married Dickie Greene in 1968 and they have an eighteen-year-old daughter named Lisa. (Mrs. Greene also has a son, David, who is married to a Bermudian). Even though Lisa was born in Bermuda, she embraces many of her mother’ traditional values. Lisa, whose Indian name is Sita, wears the traditional Indian sari on the appropriate occasion, one such occasion was her high school graduation. Mrs. Greene who celebrates Davali, a Hindu religious celebration similar to Thanksgiving, says even though Lisa embraces Christianity, she shares an interest in Hinduism as well. In a further attempt to identify with her ancestral roots, Lisa has pierced her nose in the Indian tradition. The Greenes have not visited Trinidad frequently. However, Lisa is familiar with her West Indian roots and next year she hopes to re-establish ties with her Indian heritage. Similar to Michael Bradshaw, Lisa Greene is a prime example of a first generation Bermudian with strong cultural roots fimly embedded in Bermuda but seasoned with a Trinidadian Indian flair.
Jacob Johnson travelled to Bermuda from Saba (which has Dutch influence and is predominantly European in population) in 1929, when he was sixteen-and-a-half years old. He joined his rather Cohone Johnson and several other Sabans living here at the time. Cohone was a transient worker, travelling between Saba, Bermuda, New York, and wherever else he could find work. He had worked in Bermuda prior to this particular
stint. By this time he was tired of working abroad says Ivy Johnson, Jacob’s widow, and wanted to settle down in Saba. Six months after Jacob’s arrival, his father decided to go home, relying on subsistence farming and remittances from his son Jacob. Meanwhile Jacob Johnson had a variety of jobs before settling down with the Bermuda Electric Light Company.
When Jacob Johnson was stationed in Britain during World War Two, he met Ivy, whom he later married in Bermuda. The Johnsons had three children and they spent many summers with grandparents and other relatives in Saba. Jacob Johnson lived most of his life in Bermuda, but his family was as much a part of Saba as they were Bermuda.
Although each account is different, in some ways they are similar. The West Indian migrants under discussion either had friends or family resident in Bermuda; they came to Bermuda expecting better opportunities; they maintained a West Indian identity; they shared their cultural values with family and friends here in Bermuda; some of them even married into West Indian-Bermudian families.
An attempt has been made in this short presentation to offer some findings on the historical relations between West Indian and Bermudians. There are some obvious gaps in our migratory study. For example between 1901 and 1906 a large group of migrant workers came to Bermuda from St. Kitts and Nevis to work in the Dockyard. Scores of West Indians left Bermuda each year, but more immigrated than emigrated annually until 1904. In that year black West Indians numbered slightly more than 3,000 in Bermuda, a sizeable minority in the Atlantic colony whose native population was only 17,535 in 190l. Even though the majority of these transient workers returned home or took employment elsewhere, some remained behind and formed the core group of our Kittitian and Nevisian population. Also, since the 1960’s West Indians from several islands are employed by the local Police Force. According to the 1980 census report, of a total population of 54,050, only 1,419 were recorded as West Indian born ( Report of the Population Census 1980: forty-six) The records, however, cannot show the actual figure of Bermudian with West Indian ancestry. As stated previously, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the majority of slaves imported into Bermuda came from the West Indies. This suggests there is a significant group of Bermudians with West Indian heritage. Perhaps as we learn more about our history, we will become familiar with our own West Indian-Bermudian ties. So when someone asks for a showing of hands of those Bermudians with West Indian ancestry, perhaps the majority of Bermuda will raise their hands.
What’s in a name-West Indian names found around Bermuda
(click on the country for a drop down list of names)
Turks and Caicos Islands
Frith, Smith, Taylor, Williams, Bean, Crisson, Hutchings, Spencer, Brown, Manuel, Durham, Adderley.
Jean-Jacques, Charles, Shillingford, Joseph, Augustus, Didler Sererin, Maroni, Royers.
Scott, Cunningham, Da Costa, Snaith.
Pringle, Caines, Thomas, Govia, Corbin, Heyliger, Nesbitt, Douglas, Edwards, Kelly, Williams, Byron, Guishard, Morris, Rawlins, Hendrickson, Pogson, Bradshaw, Augustus, Warner, Glasford.
Smith, Crichlow, Lambert, Best, Blades.
Singh, Frederick, Aming, Vaucrosson.
Johnson, Hassell, Woods, Goodchild, Vanderpool, Leverock, Simmons, Lewis, Rogers, Sagurs, Kessell, VanPutten, VanLow.
Bradshaw, DeGraff, Belboda, Ottley, Richards.