ABOVE PHOTO: Fort St. Catherines
By Renée S. Gordon
The first indication of the island of Bermuda is its appearance on a Spanish map in 1510 and its documentation in 1511. Mariners believed it was inhabited by spirits and referred to it as the “Isle of Devils.” It was not until August of 1612 that the first group of English settlers arrived aboard The Plough and colonized the east end of the island in the area that they named in honor of England’s patron St. George. St. George’s would remain the capital city until January 23, 1815, more than 200-years.
The Historic Town of St. George, the first and oldest permanent English settlement in the Hemisphere, and the Related Fortifications have been protected by legislation since 1950. In December of 2000, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on its being an outstanding representation of a New World early English urban settlement. www.whc.unesco.org/en/list/983
Bermuda’s African heritage is long, storied and precedes colonization. Fifteen slaves of African descent accompanied Juan Bermudez, credited with being the first to explore the area, in the early 1500s. In 1616 a black pearl diver became the first permanent black resident. He was neither enslaved nor indentured. Slavery was introduced to the island in 1619 when Captain Daniel Ellfryth sailed into port with 29 Angolan slaves on his ship Treasurer by way of Virginia. A year later “slaves” were officially documented regarding lifelong servitude. A 1623 law curtailed the “insolence of Negroes” by instituting restrictions on their movement and commerce.
In spite of the small size of the island, the limited number of places to hide and legal prohibitions there were a significant number of slave insurrections with ever increasing consequences. The earliest fully documented revolt took place in 1656. Once the plot was discovered all free blacks and problematic whites were deported to the Bahamas. Five years later Irish indentures and black enslaved workers plotted together resulting in the establishment of a night watch.
Bermuda’s first ship sailed to the Guinea Coast in 1672 and returned with 125 Africans. In 1673 after yet another conspiracy those involved were branded, maimed, whipped and then executed. Harsher laws governing the importation and behavior of slaves were imposed. In 1730 a £5 tax, was placed on each imported slave, except slaves shipped directly from Africa, in hopes the revolts would cease. It was an obvious failure because in 1761 a conspiracy was discovered that involved the majority of the blacks on the island. Six slaves were executed and all black celebrations were prohibited. Slave sales were held in St. George’s until 1793, they were banned in 1807 and in 1834 slaves were emancipated.
Black slavery and cultural connections have been officially recognized as a UNESCO Slave Route Project. Bermuda’s 14-site African Diaspora Heritage Trail runs throughout the island with the largest concentration of locations in or near St. George’s and the two UNESCO trails largely overlap. The route features landscapes, memorials, monuments, historic buildings and museums. Guides are available for download and a bronze marker by artist Carlos Dowling denotes each stop. www.unesco.org
St. George’s World Heritage Centre is inside the renovated 1860 Queen’s Warehouse. The museum was outfitted with interactive exhibits four years ago and visitors can see the original pulley system on the upper level. The centre provides an excellent orientation on the UNESCO heritage.
Public life in Historic St. George’s revolved around King’s Square. The most prestigious ceremonies continue to be held here and it was one of the places visited by Her Majesty the Queen of England in 2009. A replicated stock and pillory and whipping post are on the square and are much photographed. A “jumper,” the man who could make the slaves jump the highest when lashed, whipped slaves here and the public dunking of town gossips or nags in water while tied to a stool also took place. Regular reenactments of the dunking continue to be held.
The Globe Hotel, the island’s first, was constructed in 1699. During the American Civil War the upper floor functioned as the Headquarters of Confederate Shipping headed by Major Norman Walker. The Globe interprets this history through a self-guided exhibit “Rogues & Runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War.”
Once two islands, Ducking Stool and Gallows, have been combined since 1795 to make up Ordnance Island. It features a full-scale replica of the 300-ton Sea Venture. The flagship of a resupply fleet the ship was lost in a storm on its way to Jamestown, Virginia. On July 28, 1609 it stopped on rocks near Bermuda’s shore. For nine months they were marooned and once two ships were built and the voyage could continue some chose to stay. They are credited with being the first to colonize the island. Visitors can tour the boat and see the animatronic exhibits. In 1984 Bermuda honored the group’s leader, Admiral George Somers, with a statue by Desmond Fountain. The statue is located near the ship.
The Bermudian Heritage Museum was established in 1994 to preserve and present the island’s unique black history. Black history and that of Native American slaves is showcased in a series of exhibits that include photographs, drawings, artifacts, memorabilia and items of clothing. Personal stories recounted here include those of Mary Prince and Sally Bassett.
PHOTO: Slave Ship Exhibit
Mary Prince was born in Bermuda in 1788 and was sold at least four times by age 27. She wed a freeman in 1826 but in 1828 was taken by her owner, Mr. Woods, to England where she was technically free. The Anti-Slavery Society attempted to purchase her but Woods refused therefore making it impossible for her to return to her husband. In 1831 she dictated the story of her life, “The History of Mary Prince.” It was published detailing the hardships, beatings and injustices she had endured. Prince’s book was the first published in Britain by a woman of African descent. She disappears from written records after 1833. www.docsouth.unc.edu/neh/prince/prince
Though Sarah “Sally” Bassett left no personal written account her story is equally famous and compelling. Sally seems to have always been strong-willed. She was convicted of threatening John Jennings in 1712 and her sentence was to be whipped across the length of Southampton. As she completed each 30 steps she was lashed three times. In 1730 she was accused of attempted poisoning of Mr. and Mrs. Forster, the daughter and son-in-law of Jennings. She is said to have given the poison to her granddaughter to administer to the family.
She was burned at the stake on June 6, 1730 at Hamilton Harbour. The day was extremely hot and historically a very hot Bermuda day is referred to as “Sally Bassett Day.” A statue of Sally Bassett stands on the site of the Cabinet Office.
Bermuda’s biggest event is the Cup Match Cricket Festival held annually the Thursday and Friday prior to the first Monday in August. Emancipation Day coincides with the opening day of the match. The festival and match are outgrowths of celebrations held to commemorate emancipation. Two black cricket clubs, Somerset and St. George’s, held matches and that tradition continues. Museum displays serve as a great orientation to the Cup Match. www.bermudacupmatch.com
The 1722 Mitchell House is home to St. George’s Historical Society Museum. Notable features of the house include an exterior welcoming arms staircase, limestone roof and handmade plank flooring. The original owner, William Mitchell, owned two slaves. A subsequent owner, freedman Mitchell Archer and his wife Isabella, also owned slaves.
St. George’s Post Office was the location of the gaol and Provost Marshal’s House in 1622. The structure was rebuilt in 1760 and continued to serve as a place of incarceration for pirates and miscreants. Methodist minister John Stephenson was imprisoned here in 1800 for preaching to blacks without a license. Legend has it that Stephenson continued his ministry through his barred prison window.
The 1620 State House was restored in 1969. It is both the oldest British stone building in this hemisphere and one of the oldest parliaments in the world.
Tucker House was erected in 1752. It exhibits archeological exhibits and furnishings. Adjacent to the Tucker House is Barber’s Alley. An American slave who, with his wife, escaped in 1862, Joseph Hayne Rainey established a barbering practice in the kitchen of the Tucker House where there is now an exhibit. At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1866 Rainey returned to America and became a U.S. Congressman from South Carolina. Ten years ago his portrait was hung in the Cabinet Building in Washington.
St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican Church in continuous use in the New World, is a jewel in the crown of both UNESCO trails. The current structure is the third on site. The first was made of cedar in 1612. In 1616 the first criminal court was held here and on August 1, 1620 the first parliament session was held in St. Peter’s because it was the largest structure in the settlement.
Slaves were not permitted to worship on the main floor and the 1720 slave gallery on the upper level can still be seen. The gallery was accessed through a separate door. On the west side of the church is a 1660s slave graveyard separated from the main graveyard by a stone fence.
Highlights of an interior tour include an altar table dating from 1625 that was made by Gov. Moore and 17th-century communion silver gifted by William III. The most profound item within the church is a facsimile of the 1834 slave registry. Visitors can see that in August 1, 1834 a “mere line” was drawn to indicate that all children born after that date were free.
In Warwick you can visit the 1827 Cobbs Hill Methodist Church, the oldest extant Methodist structure on the island. Free and enslaved blacks built the church at night by carrying huge blocks of limestone to the site. The one-room church on Moonlight lane remains active and all are welcome to attend services.
Barr’s Bay was the scene of the arrival of the storm tossed American ship Enterprise in 1835. The ship set out to carry a cargo of slaves from Alexandria, Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina but was blown off course for 21-days. After provisioning the ship was refused permission to sail because slavery was illegal in Bermuda. The 78 enslaved appeared before the Chief Justice and were asked whether they wished to remain in Bermuda or continue to Charleston. Only one woman and her five children returned to servitude. A model of the ship is on view in the Bermudian Heritage Museum.
A great way to end this history tour is with a visit to the Commissioner’s House in the Royal Naval Dockyard. On the first floor there are two galleries that interpret the African slave experience globally and in Bermuda. From the front veranda you can look out and see the Atlantic Ocean and know that sailing east from here the next landfall is the African Coast.
Make plans to experience historic Bermuda. www.gotobermuda.com
I wish you smooth travels!