Somers Day: cognitive dissonance or cultural schizophrenia

  • Rolfe Commissiong

    Rolfe Commissiong

  • Views challenged: LeYoni Junos presenting her findings on Mary Prince at the University of Oxford (Photograph supplied by Oxford)

    Views challenged: LeYoni Junos presenting her findings on Mary Prince at the University of Oxford (Photograph supplied by Oxford)

First, I wish to commend LeYoni Junos, who was featured in a couple of articles in relation to her research work in respect to the iconic figure of Mary Prince, a Bermudian-born slave of African descent. The research she has undertaken to further expand our knowledge of Mary Prince and that particular period of her life has been exemplary and inestimable.

Ms Prince’s contribution to abolition was one that was of global import and exposed the heart of darkness that was at the centre of the British Empire in this hemisphere.

I do, however, naturally take issue with one or two of her conclusions found in the articles in question in direct reference to the efforts of those such as Christopher Famous and others who may wish to sever Sir George Somers’s association with the two-day Cup Match holiday.

I would ask Ms Junos to consider the following:

Certainly, a previous government made a decision to name or designate the first day of the Cup Match holiday as one that honours or commemorates the abolition of slavery in Bermuda, by way of what we call Emancipation Day. By doing so, however, they did not in turn abolish the historical fact that the actual day of abolition occurred on August 1, 1834.

Abolition Day or, as we say in Bermuda, Emancipation Day on August 1 is still commemorated every year as a consequence — although I believe more needs to be done to give it its proper consideration. On that point I believe that Ms Junos and I are on the same page.

But this is the key point in relation to her call to leave the second day as it is in honour of Sir George Somers. Clearly, if one follows Ms Junos’s logic, are we then to repeal the association of emancipation with Cup Match on the first day? By her own account, she insists that the relation of Cup Match to emancipation is dubious and not proven.

And if she would not agree to that course of action, does she not see that it is still highly problematic, to say the least, to have Sir George Somers, a slave owner and trader, to be placed in such proximity to the designated Emancipation Day recognition held on the first day of every Cup Match?

As to the somewhat red herring of whether Sir George Somers owned slaves. Mr Famous never asserted that Sir George was a plantation owner in South Carolina with 20 slaves as his property for example or that he had an estate at Crow Lane in Pembroke with ten slaves by way of another example.

But it is fair and accurate on the face of it to establish that:

• Sir George Somers was a slave trader

• If he was a slave trader trading on his own account as opposed to being an agent for someone else — that, by the standards of the 1600s, he would have been trading in human property that he in fact at the time of sale owned

More importantly, should then someone whose primary role was to trade in slaves that he in fact owned by the laws of the day be associated with a holiday that a previous government has designated as one that should honour emancipation — the abolition of slavery — on that first day? And, frankly, the fact that he did trade in slaves in and of itself should be dispositive.

The ownership issue, in other words, is moot. Is it a distinction without a difference? I believe so.

The mere fact that the Somers honour immediately follows the emancipation honour over the two-day holiday can only elicit cognitive dissonance or cultural schizophrenia — take your pick — on an epic scale, which it does year after year. The two should not coexist on the same holiday.

To give Ms Junos credit, the facts are the facts. But culture, as we know, is fluid. The stories we tell about ourselves and the symbols we employ to do so are important, thus Emancipation Day is celebrated on the first day of Cup Match despite its actual commemoration falling on August 1 each year. We can, however, do both.

And note that Bermuda is not the only country to celebrate emancipation/the abolition of slavery on a day other than August 1. Although in Bermuda’s case, as in this year, there will be occasions every few years when the Cup Match calendar will sync with the actual August 1 date, which commemorates abolition/emancipation. This is a reality that the classic cannot escape and thus our ongoing existential dilemma vis-à-vis Somers, the occasional slave owner and trader of human property or chattel.

I have no problem in supporting, as Ms Junos recommends, the honouring of Mary Prince on August 28, the day that Royal Assent was given to the Abolition Act. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that Sir George Somers’s association with the classic must be severed.

Therefore, I can find a no more fitting, quintessential venue on the Bermuda cultural calendar to honour her, with a grateful country’s attention focused on Mary Prince and her work, than the second day of Cup Match.

I know this will produce a caterwauling among the shrinking number of racists and/or white supremacists, who are bound to take issue with this view and will do so right on the pages of this newspaper — under the cover of anonymity, I might add — but I believe, as do many right-thinking white and black Bermudians in this country, that it is high time for us to do the right thing by this issue.

Rolfe Commissiong is a government backbencher and the MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21)

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Published Aug 3, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 3, 2019 at 9:01 am)

Somers Day: cognitive dissonance or cultural schizophrenia

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