Shipwright both big and small
Milton Hill has made a life out of replicating Bermuda’s maritime history in miniature.
The model boat-maker also champions the fact that people of colour have played an integral role in shipbuilding and sailing, a legacy he says is woefully neglected.
“My observation is that we might not have all come here on the same ship, but we are all in the same boat,” he told Lifestyle.
“We are all part of the tapestry of Bermuda and no one should be left out.”
His latest masterpiece pays tribute to one of the greatest stories in black Bermuda’s maritime story, a model replica of the 74-gun HMS Resolution skilfully piloted in 1795 by James “Jemmy” Darrell.
Then a slave, he navigated the ship through Bermuda’s notorious reefs to its moorings near Tobacco Bay; the ship’s Admiral was so impressed with his abilities that he recommended he be freed.
Mr Darrell went on to become the first black man to own property in Bermuda; his house on Aunt Peggy’s Lane, St George’s remains in family hands.
He also became one of the first black King’s Pilots.
Mr Hill’s cedar replica, which he created with the help of intern Esmeralda Zanders, herself a descendant of Mr Darrell, was unveiled at a special ceremony at the World Heritage Centre in St George last month.
The event was attended by descendants of Jemmy Darrell.
Mr Hill, 74, said: “[Deputy pilot warden] Mario Thompson called me about five years ago and asked me to build a pilot gig.
“He was so impressed with the final model he wanted me to do the Resolution.
“The great thing was that Esmeralda is related to Jemmy on her mother Ami’s side.
“The descendants of Jemmy were all there. They were so happy with it — they were over the moon.”
Mr Hill didn’t set out to be a boat maker.
At the tender age of ten, after witnessing what he believed to be an injustice when a black neighbour was publicly whipped for stealing a bicycle, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer.
“They took him to the flagpole, put a black cover over his head and flogged him,” he recalled. I was horrified that they did that for such a minor crime. I wanted to be a lawyer. I was intrigued by the law.”
However, when he was 14 years old, Mr Hill, one of seven siblings, had to leave school to support his family.
His parents Jim and Mildred Hill sent him to work with the shipwright Rhodes Ratteray to learn how to build fully sized, functioning boats.
“I loved boats anyway, my uncle James Trott was a master fisherman so I was happy to go,” he recalls.
“Mr Ratteray would give me a block of wood and told me to take it home and carve a hull, if I brought it back and it was not right he would crack me with a yard stick. I learnt quickly.
“Mr Ratteray’s great-grandfather Charles Roach Ratteray, his father was governor to Bahamas.
“His father sent him to Bermuda for schooling and he built the Rose of Shannon and the Morning Star.
“It made him the richest man of colour in Bermuda.”
Mr Hill began carving miniature boats and giving them to friends and family members.
It wasn’t until he was in his 40s that his son asked him why.
They set up a business, Bermuda Classic Mini Yachts, together.
Mr Hill made ten cedar models of a Bermuda-built regatta racer and sold them to Bluck’s of Bermuda for $35 each.
“We went to the store just before Cup Match and saw that Bluck’s was selling them for $350 apiece. I was kind of annoyed,” Mr Hill chuckled.
“After that, we started selling our models at Harbour Nights and soon at Cooper’s, Triminghams, the [Fairmont] Southampton were all buying them and selling them and keeping 30 per cent.
“It was the first time I was earning proper money doing it.”
Stretching his memory back over the years, Mr Hill estimates that he has crafted between 450 to 500 model boats.
Among them was a piece for a future king. In 2011, he made a two-foot Gombey which was given to Prince William when he married.
He also made a goblet with a longtail on its rim for Princess Anne. But asked to pick out pieces that are closest to his heart, Mr Hill instantly thinks of his La Amistad replica.
The original went down in history for the slave revolt by Mende captives.
They were being transported around Cuba to their plantations when they overthrew the crew and ordered those who survived to sail the ship to Africa. It was captured in the Atlantic and the Mende were interned in Connecticut but, as the slave trade had been banned in the US, the US Supreme Court ultimately decided that they should be freed.
Turning 75 next week, Mr Hill is showing no signs of slowing down.
He is working on building his own functioning boat, which he plans to take out fishing, and carries out voluntary work for people with disabilities.
With so much knowledge acquired over the years, he also plans to pen a book documenting his life.