A celebration of human rights
Today, the United Nation’s Human Rights Day, is special in that it marks the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
That iconic document was finalised in 1948, a few years after the conclusion of the devastation of the Second World War. That tragedy caused the death of millions, demonstrating gross inhumanity on the part of so-called civilised societies.
The human rights declaration was an attempt by global leaders to turn the page in an effort to chart a course towards a more humane order. That document offers something of a guidepost, challenging the era of domination and empire, seeking a global culture based on respect and reverence for all humankind.
The drafting of this document is a key milestone that charts a long journey towards freedom, equity and justice around the planet.
That journey has taken on a variety of forms across the globe. Success has been demonstrated by grassroots movements, removing barriers and positively transforming societies. This, from Mumbai to Birmingham.
Here in Bermuda we have had our unique “long road to freedom”, a path securing human rights.
After settlement in 1612, Bermuda society established a system of slavery that paralleled other new colonies, although without a plantation economy. The vast majority of those enslaved came from Africa, and a small minority were Native American.
Those enslaved in Bermuda resisted bondage and championed their human rights in a variety of ways, despite the regime of brutal repression. Attempts to claim their rights included “go-slows”, strikes and conspiracies towards mass violent rebellion — for example, the nascent uprising of 1761, involving half the island’s enslaved population, which led to the imposition of martial law on the island and a number of executions.
A protracted global campaign against slavery emerged by the turn of the century. Bermudian-born Mary Prince produced written narratives, in collaboration with colleagues, regarding the inhumane treatment of those enslaved. This helped as a catalyst for the movement that resulted in the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on August 1, 1834.
Notwithstanding that step forward, various barriers remained.
In 1835, only months after emancipation in Bermuda, an initiative of the local Friendly Societies liberated a group of about 70 enslaved Americans, carried on board the ship Enterprise, which involved an historic legal action in our Supreme Court.
In 1864, a strike at St George’s docks impacted blockade-running ships from the Confederacy during the American Civil War. This, and the subsequent arson of cotton bales on those docks, proved to be an act of solidarity for emancipation in the United States.
In 1903, the Reverend Charles Vinton Monk, an African-American pastor of Allen Temple AME Church, campaigned to protect the rights of a group of Jamaican workers at Dockyard. Monk based his efforts on the employer’s breach of contract. However, Monk was prosecuted and imprisoned for his efforts and eventually expelled from the island.
One supporter of Monk was the Reverend Goldring, the British rector of both St Paul’s Anglican Church and St Mary’s. He, too, suffered persecution for his commitment to the concept of human rights.
In 1918, a women’s suffragette movement was started by Gladys Morrell, from Somerset, to gain voting rights for women. She led that campaign for more than two decades, involving petitions, rallies and civil disobedience, before women received the right to vote in 1944 with the key assistance of Eustace Cann. (Note that the vote remained restricted to landowners.)
Also in 1944, a group of workers at the new US Naval Air Station gained Dr Cann’s assistance in forming the Bermuda Workers Association, which evolved into the Bermuda Industrial Union. The BWA’s first president was E.F. Gordon, who led a campaign of rallies and a petition throughout the island.
The historic campaign championed a variety of issues: abolition of segregation, the right to vote, the right to education, etc, which spoke to the whole of human rights. The right to free primary education in 1949 was a direct result.
In 1959, the Progressive Group sparked the Theatre Boycott, which removed most of the formal racial barriers that restricted the human rights of the majority of residents.
In 1960, a number of members of the Progressive Group and others, notably Roosevelt Brown (Pauulu Kamarakafego), formed the Committee for Universal Suffrage, which campaigned for voting rights for all, regardless of land ownership. After this campaign, the Progressive Labour Party was formed and took up the baton of championing the right to vote. The first democratic General Election took place in Bermuda on May 22, 1968, with 2018 marking the 50th anniversary of that fundamental human right.
This account of a portion of the evolution of basic human rights in Bermuda demonstrates that rights, which we often take for granted, grow out of the mindful actions of ordinary members of society. This is a reminder that in this era, when some global leaders look to turn back the clock, that maintaining progress on human rights requires the involvement of us all. That civic engagement is essential for human rights to remain an integral part of the social fabric.
In the face of the stark reality of climate change, that civic engagement is essential to preserve the most basic of human rights for upcoming generations — the right to life.
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