This article was taken from our archives first appeared in the November 2000 issue of The Bermudian.
Picture the scene: A twenty-something woman visits Bermuda. She is shown all the local beauty spots and points of interest– Devil’s Hole, Elbow Beach, Tom Moore’s, Flatts Inlet. She raves about the beauties of the scenery and the climate in letters back home to England. The young woman meets local and visiting celebrities and gets glimpses of a privileged lifestyle she never dreamed of back home. She even entertains romantic fantasies about one of the men she spends time with—a married man, alas.
It all sounds absolutely contemporary, doesn’t it? But this twenty-something woman, Susette Lloyd, arrived in Bermuda in the twenty-somethings— the 1820s, that is. Moreover, she came to Bermuda to do good—as part of an initiative by the Anglican Church in England and Bermuda to educate slaves in the colony in the decades just before Emancipation in 1834.
Women were prominent in the anti-slavery movement in England which brought about the end of slavery throughout the British Empire. Susette Lloyd was an earnest young abolitionist associated with English organisations like the Ladies’ Society for Educating Negro Children (L.S.E.N.), which raised money to fund teachers and schools in the slave colonies. After all, the emancipationists reasoned, literate slaves would be more fit for eventual freedom. Slaveowners were assured that slaves who had access to baptism and the three Rs were less likely to be violent and rebellious.
When Susette Lloyd returned from her 18-month sojourn in Bermuda—August 1829 to April 1831—she published Sketches of Bermuda (1835), a slim collection of her letters from the island illustrated with her own pen-and-ink sketches of local beauty spots.
Colonial slavery was a hot topic in the 1830s. Slavery in Bermuda in particular had recently caused an uproar in England. Mary Prince, a slave raised in Bermuda, had told her story in a narrative called The History of Mary Prince (1831). Mary Prince told a grim tale of repeated floggings and brutal exploitation by several Bermuda owners during her life as a slave. Interest in the topic was high, and information about far-off Bermuda was in short supply.
To most Britons, Bermuda was distant, dangerous and disease — inducing for its army garrison and naval station. Susette Lloyd’s preface to her book refers to the need for “authentic” information about what the tiny, remote colony was really like. She would, she assured her readers, give them a glimpse of the colony, which held some 3,600 slaves out of a total population of roughly 9,000 people.
It’s never easy to play Lady Bountiful, however, and Susette Lloyd’s book-now sought after by collectors for its rarity-tells us as much about her illusions, prejudices and fantasies as it does about slavery in Bermuda. The account also suggests that Bermuda slaves were far from passive in dealing with condescending visitors, finding sly and subtle ways of making their unhappiness felt.
Even as she arrived in Bermuda— appropriately after a stormy, sea-tossed voyage on the sailing ship Wanderer -Susette Lloyd received her first surprise about what slaves were like. Her stereotype of slaves as unskilled and ignorant received its first contradiction when the highly skilled pilot who guided the ship safely through the treacherous reefs turned out to be a black man, and a Slave at that.
Relations between the slave population and their visiting do-gooder speedily became rather complicated. Like many people who set out to do good, Susette Lloyd sat in judgment on everything she saw, and felt that she possessed the standards by which everyone in Bermuda, whether black or white, should be judged. Susette Lloyd saw herself as a benevolent visitor.
However, the reader of her book soon realises that some slaves saw her as yet another demanding genteel white woman, another “Missee’ who insisted on being waited on and on controlling their lives, however well-meaningly from her point of view. For example, as she stayed in the homes of prominent white Bermudians, and visited churches and schools, Lloyd so assiduously collected data about slave customs and habits, that she started to encounter resistance to her ceaseless curiosity. When she asked Mistress Piny, the elderly cook in one household, endless detailed questions about slave herbal remedies, her harassed subject soon had enough. A mystified Lloyd recorded her reaction:
“[Piny is] the oddest creature in the world, and dances on before me, clapping her hands, wondering why a young lady should trouble herself with such out of the way matters.”
Lloyd, however, was relentless in her pronouncements. Soon after arrival, for example, she sniffed at the interest in clothes of the church-going black women of St. George’s (“I was sorry to observe the extraordinary vanity of dress displayed by some”). Even after her first night on the Island, she complained that slaves had “absentmindedly” forgot to brush or secure the mosquito nets around the beds of the white travellers, leaving her sleepless and fly-bitten.
Soon, she was the unwitting object of another slave stratagem when she continued to complain about the mosquitoes: “An old African woman, in pity to my sufferings, recommended me to lay a large branch of the sage-brush near me: “They’ll all settle on it, Missee,’ said she, ‘and never think of coming to you.’ How I did rue the advice thus kindly meant, for its only effect was to attract them in swarms.”
Were such sly tricks one way slaves could protest their subjugation and get back at tiresome visitors? Despite her interest in educating and baptising Bermuda slaves, Susette Lloyd’s behaviour often seems arrogant, condescending and priggish, never favourite traits in Bermuda visitors. Her comments-after some 10 weeks on the Island-on the presence of dogs and the dress of slaves in Paget parish church suggest her priggish manner: “I wish that some regulation were made to exclude these four-footed intruders; and I have prayed an honourable member to issue an order in council to this effect. The negroes are more quiet in their [dress and manner than in St. George’s].”
If Susette Lloyd sounds pompous and overbearing, it is not surprising. She was having one of those most heady expatriate experiences-moving in social circles far above her usual rank at home. Lloyd had been invited to Bermuda to do educational work by its Anglican Archdeacon, Aubrey George Spencer. The imposing, aristocratic English-born Archdeacon (soon to be a bishop), was a great-grandson of the second Duke of Marlborough, and his wife was the daughter of John Musson, one of Bermuda’s leading merchants.
Lloyd had travelled out to Bermuda with the Spencers, and, once there, she stayed in the houses of leading families like the Mussons and the Tuckers. Lloyd was soon attending dinners and outings with such grandees as Sir Hilgrove Turner, the Governor of Bermuda and the visiting Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Sir Peregrine Maitland, on the Island to recover from tuberculosis. These high officials and their wives were heady company for Susette Lloyd, herself the daughter of a relatively humble official of the Foreign Post Office.
Perhaps to make herself seem more aristocratic, Lloyd is deliberately vague about the exact nature of her own educational work on the Island. Fortunately the diary of John Inglis, Anglican Bishop of Nova Scotia at this period, is less close-mouthed. Inglis, visiting this far-flung part of his diocese in May 1830, wrote about Susette Lloyd’s work: “…proceeded to the Infant Black School, supported chiefly by the Ladies Negro Education Society in London. Miss Lloyd… met us here-Sixty coloured children from 3 to 12 years old belong to this School, and 53 were present, who went through their exercises in a very gratifying manner. Miss Lloyd has been fortunate in finding a good mistress…, whom she has instructed in the System.”
Ironically, because Susette Lloyd liked to refer to the Spencer children in her letters to show how intimate she was with the well-born Archdeacon, later chroniclers of Bermuda mistakenly identified her as the children’s governess. Susette Lloyd would have been horrified at the social demotion.
Even at the time of her visit, she was already getting some indirect rebuffs for her peremptory ways. Syllabub—a Potent rum and milk punch—was the Bermuda drink of the day, as great a treat then as a rum swizzle is now. When Susette Lloyd brought a party unannounced to the cottage of the woman slave who traditionally prepared the drink for visitors, Miss Sally Socco told her politely that the group must come another day.
There were even clearer signs that Miss Lloyd was not loved. The gombey dancers of the day would make up chants about people, and in the carnival atmosphere of the performance could mock people. When Lloyd tells about being hazed by the gombeys at Christmas 1829, she conspicuously omits what the “Caliban looking Negroes” have been chanting: “They completely besieged my [bed]room, which opens on the garden, so that I was forced to remain a close prisoner, and listen to their rude songs, which I should fancy must be very much like the wild yelling scream that we read of in African travels. How much would the diffusion of true Christian principles do for these poor people, by teaching them the real nature of rejoicing, and the folly of all these superstitious festivities.”
Increasingly, Lloyd’s references to slaves take on an exasperated tone. For example, an arrowroot cooking lesson with Mistress Piny, a skilled slave cook, mysteriously (to Lloyd) turned out badly when her arrowroot cakes and puddings fall flat. Things worsen after we learn of the fate in July 1830 of the botanical specimens that Lloyd has painstakingly assembled to send back to authorities in England: “The Lentipes, [a slave] whom I dispatched with the box, arrived too late for the vessel, and having thrown it down on the sea-shore, it remained there for some weeks, so that everything has been spoiled.”
But Lloyd crossed the line from irritation to cruelty before her visit was over. In January 1831, she records a revealing incident. Because she herself was not affected by poison ivy, she blithely rationalised sending a slave to pick the noxious plant, ignoring his protests that the plant would harm him. When the blistered man refused to touch the poison ivy a second time for fear of further harm, Lloyd was displeased at his balkiness. Clearly her socialising with prominent slaveowners and her own ambivalent relations with the slave population affected Lloyd’s behaviour in ways not compatible with the New Testament.
Most of the slaves she designated as “good’ were elderly, Christian and devoted to their owners. Other good slaves are innocent and cute children whose prattle Lloyd enjoys. Clarissa, a little black girl who died in quarantine of small-pox—with a hymn on her lips which Lloyd has taught her—is upheld as “God’s child at last.”
Susette Lloyd may have been unaware of her own ambivalent attitudes towards Bermuda’s slaves, but she must have been aware of her partiality for Archdeacon Spencer at the expense of his Bermudian wife. Ella Paynter Musson Spencer is remembered by Bermuda historians as beautiful, talented, ladylike and hospitable. In 1829, the couple had been married only seven years and Ella Spencer gave birth to her second daughter during the time Susette was in Bermuda.
That fact, however, did not prevent Lloyd’s fantasies from operating overtime as far as the distinguished Archdeacon was concerned. From his appointment as the island’s archdeacon in 1821, Spencer was a pioneer in bringing the Anglican Church in the colony into slave education work in Bermuda, at a time when the Methodists had outstripped the Anglican Church in this area. Susette Lloyd’s praise of Spencer drips with adoration: “To a mind inheriting the varied and classic talents of his highly gifted father, the archdeacon unites an ardent zeal for the welfare of the people committed to his spiritual guidance-and though brought up amid the all the elegancies which the most refined society of our metropolis can afford, has become a willing minister in this distant field of missionary labour. His path has been of no ordinary difficulty, but, by his conciliatory and temperate conduct, he has gained the esteem of the master and the grateful attachment of the slave.”
Lloyd dedicates her book to Spencer as his “sincere and faithful friend.” She clearly longed for much more. When Spencer recites a poem he has composed on board ship en route to Bermuda, she faithfully includes the whole text. She draws oblique parallels between the great romantic figure of Bermuda history, the poet Thomas Moore’s muse Nea, and herself. Lloyd even points out that Spencer’s work has transformed the site of Nea’s bower at Walsingham, traditional site of trysts between the poet and his Nea, into a centre for slave education, a scene at which Lloyd symbolically situates herself centre stage: “I could have lingered for hours amid the romantic scenery of this retreat; my interest in its natural beauties were heightened by pleasing associations of the moral culture which is bestowed on above a hundred negroes, who throng from the vicinity to attend the Sunday school, which is kept in a small building on the lake.” Lloyd’s sketch of Paynter’s Vale has two very erotic, breast-like hills which suggest that her mind was not on Sunday school when she thought of the Archdeacon.
Lloyd pays lip service to Mrs. Spencer, but her text is full of elliptical malice. Bermuda ladies, she politely implies, are inept housekeepers and foolishly indulgent mothers. They are even pictured as unlady-like Amazons who have been known, to Lloyd’s “[no] little surprise…to kill a centipede with a club in the drawing room.” Bermuda ladies, she tells us, are also aesthetically ludicrous as well as socially and domestically inept. Thanks to their incompetent and ill-regulated slave laundresses who overstarch their muslin gowns, “the ladies frequently look as if they were hewn out of rock salt.” No doubt Lloyd fervently wished that Mrs. Spencer would turn into a pillar of rock salt. Since Lloyd stayed mostly with the Spencers at Roselands, their Paget home, the inference that Mrs.
Spencer did not meet Lloyd’s standards of judgment is clear.
Bermudians were probably amused by the sanctimonious visitor’s barely concealed malice and infatuation. Bermuda has never seen a snake, yet Lloyd confidently asserts that there are “harmless snakes of very brilliant colours.” Did some shrewd ‘Mudian have some satirical fun with the earnest serpent in the island paradise by feeding her such fantasies for her nature record? Perhaps the long-suffering Mrs. Spencer eventually had enough of the snake at Roselands: the announcement of Lloyd’s departure in April 1831 comes suddenly and seems a surprise even to her. She takes pains to declare, however, that she returned to England “under a protection of a friend of the Archdeacon.”
Lloyd’s farewell letter is eloquent: “Bermuda will ever be to me a beautiful dream—a green spot in memory’s waste to which my mind will fondly recur for pleasant thoughts.” Even these words, however, echo an image from one of Spencer’s sermons, showing that though Susette Lloyd’s visit had ended, her fantasies had not.
Aubrey Spencer is credited with importing into Bermuda the double-edged gift of the fiddlewood tree, which can be a botanical nuisance. In Susette Lloyd, did he also import a visitor of a type familiar to Bermudians-the kind whose departure brings happiness?
Note: An article by John Adams in John Cox’s Life in Old Bermuda (1998) tells the story of the prominent Musson family to which Ella Spencer belonged.
The early history of the Anglican Church in Bermuda is examined in A.C.H. Hallett’s Chronicle Of A Colonial Church 1612-1826. A copy of Sketches of Bermuda can be found at the Bermuda Archives.