ISLAND09

We must learn the lessons that history teaches us

  • Celebrations at BIU headquarters after a settlement was reached in the 1981 General Strike.
  • Hundreds of marchers make their way along Front Street during the 1981 General Strike.
  • Celebrations at BIU headquarters after a settlement was reached in the 1981 General Strike.
  • Workers clearly state their wage demands during the 1981 General Strike.
  • Hundreds march along Church Street during the 1981 General Strike.
  • Francine's brother Gladstone Simmons, Jr., is with the basket of flowers containing the ashes of Francine for commitment in the family grave.
  • Muriel Francine Simmons
Island Notebook

February in the Black Diaspora is observed as Black History Month. It began in the United States in the 1920s when a concerted effort by leaders was undertaken to highlight the rich history and culture of black citizens since they were brought in shackles as slaves from Africa to the States and other parts of the New World including Bermuda.

In Bermuda so-called Black History is fundamentally ‘Bermuda History’, considering how, up to the present generation, we have seen the development of two-Bermudas, one white and the other black.

Bermuda, a mere dot on the world map has always assumed an international significance out of proportion to its size. It is Britain’s oldest self-governing colony, a strategic military base and tourist resort situated in the Atlantic 600 miles off the Carolina coast and approximately a thousand miles north of the nearest Caribbean Island. Bermuda’s population dynamics have always distinguished it from all other British territories excepting South Africa, with its predominantly black majority and its significantly large white minority.

As I recorded in my book, FREEDOM FIGHTERS: From Monk to Mazumbo, for centuries Bermuda has been noted for its affluence, with the wealth of the country compressed in the hands of a few white landowners, former slave masters and their descendants, lawyers and businessmen. They were the oligarchy, the aristocratic first families labelled as the ‘Forty Thieves’ by Dr. E.F. Gordon. Dr. Gordon was the founding father of the organised labour movement in Bermuda, who later became known as Mazumbo.

The oligarchy were powerful and feared. They held the black masses and poor whites in economic thraldom. They abused their power through the control of the parliamentary processes, the courts and the press by developing through their policies, as we said earlier, not one Bermuda, but two; one white, the other black. They were bent on controlling all facets of the Island’s 20 Century economic, political and ecclesiastical affairs.

Charles Vinton Monk was a Philadelphia-born AME Minister and journalist. He was posted in the late 1800s to pastor the circuit of Mount Zion AME Church in Southampton and Allen Temple in Somerset

He started his own newspaper, called The New Era. Monk vowed, when he arrived here and found so many problems crying out for redress, that if he had to, he would stand on one end of this little island and trip the other end up,, in the interest of justice and fair play.

Monk saw organisation of the working classes as the answer to the oligarchy. He editorialised against rampant racism and nepotism. He called the ruling class a ‘tyrannical oligarchy’ that reduced justice and fair play to a hiss and byword.

Monk asked, how could one get justice in a court with a Chief Justice on the bench; his son being the Attorney General and the Assistant Justice, being the father-in-law of the Attorney General. He termed them ‘ the father, son and unholy ghost’. Mostly all others in the judiciary being related one way or another.

Bermudians will remember the Trinidad-born surgeon Dr. Gordon through his leadership in the 1940s formation of the Bermuda Workers Association out of which the Bermuda Industrial Union emerged. He was branded as a ‘racist troublemaker.’

When Dr. Gordon died in 1955, he held the office of BIU Secretary-General. This writer, Ira Philip was then on the union’s executive, being its Treasurer. I was elected to fill the Secretary-General position, and as I told my biographer, I played the part for the next turbulent year of the young boy who held his finger in the dyke that saved the city in Holland from flooding.

Eventually a younger, more aggressive, charismatic, articulate carpenter by trade, Kingsley Tweed, became Secretary-General and figured prominently in the rebirth of the BIU. Kingsley was also the fearless, chief street-corner articulator during the 1959 Theatre Boycott.

I cite these historical facts merely to show how well-positioned I was as a trade unionist, parliamentary reporter for the black-owned and operated Bermuda Recorder newspaper during the 1959 Theatre Boycott; and later during the Belco Strike as news director of the black-owned Capital Broadcasting Company’s radio stations and later television station founded by Montague (Monty) Sheppard.

In those positions I was able to see up front how the oligarchs let their power ‘go to their heads’, showing contempt, and disrespect for the unionised workers and their leaders. It all culminated in 1965 Belco Strike, and the February 2, 1965 Belco Riot.

As author of the 333-page book The History of the Bermuda Industrial Union, beginning on Page 143 I referred to February 2, 1965 as a ‘Red-Letter Day for Bermuda and the BIU’, detailing the disturbing events that led up to the Riot.

It was most interesting to read in The Royal Gazette this week, two somewhat contrasting articles relating to the Belco Riot. The first, from one of the 17 expat English police officers nearly killed in the riot. He declared he was sympathetic to the workers demands, and not entirely pleased with the handling by his superiors. The other article was from one of the privileged Belco managers viewing the happenings from inside of his secure executive office reflecting his bias against the strikers.

My experience over the decades has led me to know that history has a way of repeating itself. Indeed Bermuda has changed. The paradigm has shifted from a monolithic racist perspective. Since the advent of social integration; and the opening of the door through economic empowerment, a new business elite, both black and white, has evolved which is not of a strong racial bias but is representative of a new social agenda.

The global economic crisis has had a significant impact on our local economy, leading among other things to the fall of the PLP Government and the rise of the OBA with Hon. Craig Cannonaire at the helm as Premier.

The status of moving forward and uplifting the economy out of the doldrums will require astute leadership. We cannot go down the path once again instituting policies which create economic and social entrenchment. The Belco Riots and the respective battles were fought in the Supreme Court of Bermuda, the final judgment having been rendered through the Privy Council on pivotal decisions as to labour relations in Bermuda.

Political entrenchment is undesirable. As we speak of change the political mindset must be reflective of inclusion and transparency. What we have witnessed in recent days is not reflective of that perspective.

I allude to Government’s policy regarding the elimination of Term Limits, which shall ultimately affect the status of Bermuda’s labour force. Its handling of the matter was merely perfunctory as to how they informed the stakeholder in the absence of due diligence and due process.

Its ‘like it or lump it’, take it or leave it, done deal stance can only provoke labour skirmishes which were so prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. It is counter- productive and aggravating to say the least to the organised labour leaders, chief among them BIU President Chris Furbert, and the Bermuda Public Services Union.

Regrettably I see Bermuda lurching towards another showdown. Today, as in the 1960s there’s trouble on the waterfront, with postmen and hospital workers restive. That is similar to how it was in the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the Belco riot. And we see Government resorting to the courts to bail them out.