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Packwood: embrace our history

  • Significant date: Cheryl Packwood, the former director of the government’s Washington DC office, said Bermuda must do more to embrace its past, which would help the country to progress (File photograph)

A “phenomenal” project on the arrival of slaves in America has sparked a call to boost discussion about history in Bermuda.

Cheryl Packwood, the former director of the Government’s Washington DC office, said that further embracing the island’s past would help the country to progress.

It came after The 1619 Project was launched by The New York Times Magazine to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in Virginia, when Angolan people were stolen from Spanish traders and delivered to Virginia and Bermuda.

Ms Packwood said: “In order to go forward, we need to understand our past. We can’t ignore what has happened in the past, we have to embrace it, we have to understand it and everybody needs to know because it’s all of our history.”

The New York Times initiative aimed to “reframe the country’s history” and place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very centre of the story we tell ourselves about who we are”.

Ms Packwood said that although there were precursors to 1619, the year had become a marker to “rally around”.

She explained: “It’s an iconic date, it’s a date for education, for publicising all of this.”

The businesswoman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University, added: “It was one of the first recorded dates, historically, for blacks being in the mainland United States, so when history was taught to children, that was one of the first things they talked about; these first African men that landed in America.”

She described The 1619 Project as “phenomenal” because it provided historians, academics and cultural commentators with a vehicle for talking about the issues. The daughter of the late historian and librarian, Cyril Packwood, said that there were plenty of occasions that Bermuda can use to do the same.

She added: “There are all sorts of dates that we could think of to commemorate ... the ending of the British slave trade, emancipation.”

Ms Packwood explained: “We can look at emancipation, we can look at getting ready for 2034, which will be the 200th anniversary of emancipation.

“August 1, 2019 would have been the 185th anniversary of emancipation in Bermuda and we all ignored it.

“We do commemorate emancipation with Cup Match every year, but we could have had interviews, articles, but it’s not too late, the whole year can be used.

“We can be talking about it in schools this year, we can do special projects, bring in special speakers perhaps.”

Lovitta Foggo, the Minister of Labour, Community Affairs and Sport, noted the 185th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Bermuda when she highlighted commemorative events last month in the run-up to Cup Match.

Ms Packwood added: “Bermuda is a place where the wider community loves history, we don’t always look for stuff that’s new. People would listen to a regular panel, every month or every week.”

The work of John Thornton, a Boston University professor, identified that the Africans who were taken to Jamestown, Virginia, and Bermuda in 1619, hailed from the southern African nation of Angola.

They were captured during warfare in their home country and placed in the São João Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship bound for the Spanish colony of Vera Cruz in modern-day Mexico.

That vessel was attacked by the White Lion and the Treasurer, English privateers, which went to Jamestown and traded Africans for provisions. The Treasurer continued on to Bermuda, where more slaves were landed.

Professor Thornton believed that a majority of Bermuda’s early influx of African slaves came from Angola.

A spokesman for the Blue Flag Ambassador course explained: “The significance of the slaves being from Angola is relevant, and their impact evident today by virtue of our Gombeys.

“The word Gombey is Buntu, the language of Angola, and means rhythm.”

He added: “It is curious that the English had tried to settle in Virginia from 1607 and although they had multiple setbacks, they did not import slaves until that unexpected arrival of ‘20-odd Negroes’ in 1619, 12 years later.

“Conversely, Bermuda was established in 1612 and slaves were sought out only four years later in 1616.

“Between 1616 and 1619, Bermuda quickly surpassed Virginia in importance to the Crown, and by 1622, Bermuda’s population was greater even though it had only been colonised a decade earlier.”

A packed schedule of events took place in Hampton, Virginia, over the weekend to mark the landing of the enslaved Africans at Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe, in late August 1619.

Clarence Maxwell, a historian, credited Professor Thornton’s work for increasing awareness among American scholars of the links with Bermuda.

He said: “I think the US is getting more and more aware of it, they’re more interested in Bermuda’s relationship with Virginia.”

Dr Maxwell, who teaches Latin American and Caribbean History at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, added: “It’s good that they’re being linked together ... as we get more knowledge about the relationships, as the US gets more aware of Bermuda, then hopefully at some point we will be able to talk more about it.”

A new education strategy developed by the National Museum of Bermuda is expected to reflect multiple perspectives of the island’s history and diverse cultural heritage.

Elena Strong, the executive director, said earlier this year that the blueprint was a “formal response” to calls from the community.

The museum is working with the Department of Education to promote the new approach to teachers, who contributed to discussions on the change of focus, and to work out how it can be integrated into the history curriculum in schools.

Ms Foggo noted Emancipation Day activities had focused on the legacy of abolitionist hero Mary Prince.

Ms Foggo added: “The ministry from a broader perspective is seeking to ensure that Bermuda’s historical milestones receive the attention and public awareness they deserve.

“We were extremely encouraged by the interest expressed by members of the public who attended our events to learn more about our collective history.

“In fact, so well received were our events, that we had to provide additional activities to satisfy the public’s demand for historical information.”

She added that the department supports many programmes and events that provide awareness about Bermuda’s culture and history.