Tucker’s Town: a lost place of refuge
The vote on Tucker’s Town, August 6, 1920
Notes: Astwood and Pearman were later appointed commissioners under the Act.
Bluck, Spurling and Watlington were appointed provisional directors of the BDC
Spurling and Watlington were later elected directors of the BDC
“Doing wrong that good might come”
August 1, 1920, the commemorated 300th birthday of Bermuda’s Colonial Parliament, gave pause to the debate in the House of Assembly on an unprecedented Bill that would allow for the compulsory purchase of a 500-plus-acre swath of real estate, owned principally by black Bermudians.
After the introduction of Wesley Methodism to Bermuda in 1799, a fledgeling Methodist community had formed in Tucker’s Town and in 1831 the Methodist membership there comprised 22 persons — two white and 20 free blacks. This was a time when Tucker’s Town was referred to as “remote and inaccessible” in one sentence and “a place of refuge” in another.
Indeed, in 1829, a 17-year-old runaway “Indented Apprentice” named John Smith was advertised to have “taken refuge in a place called Tuckers’ Town” by one Thomas Nusum, of Somerset. John was still absent two years later in 1831.
Over the years, the Methodist community had grown: building a stone church, burying residents of Tucker’s Town in an adjoining cemetery and erecting a schoolhouse. In 1883, when the cornerstone for the schoolhouse was laid, it was reported that Tucker’s Town contained “about 300 inhabitants, most of them fishermen or small planters ...”
In a Letter to the Editor of The Royal Gazette in 1889, the writer who had witnessed the growth of the community over a 30-year period, observed that “with one or two exceptions they are all of African descent, and kinder or more hospitable people are not to be found in Bermuda’s fair isles.”
Later an African Methodist Episcopal church and membership were added to community.
A review of death records at the Registry General by the writer of this article revealed that the pre-1920 Tucker’s Town community was about 4 per cent white and 96 per cent black.
The debate in 1920 alluded to earlier, had been preluded by the passing of another Bill in the House of Assembly establishing the Bermuda Development Company as a private company, based on a prior petition submitted on behalf of the Furness, Withy shipping company that was praying for permission to acquire 510 acres of real estate in Tucker’s Town to establish a golf course and gated community of wealthy North American tourists.
That first Bill had been piloted through the House by barrister J. Reginald Conyers and had passed on June 21, 1920.
Now, the House was locked in debate on the second Bill — Bermuda Development Company Act (2) 1920 — which laid out the method for compulsory purchase of the lands in question. That vote would not take place until August 6.
What was most peculiar, during the pause to celebrate Parliament’s 300th anniversary, was that the Governor James Willcocks’s August 1 “Tercentenary Speech”, in outlining a chronological highlight of Bermuda’s 300-year history, pointedly omitted any dates of significance to the black community.
For instance, he mentioned “rats” being imported in 1615, but made no mention of Africans and Native Americans being imported as slaves. There is no mention of the significant dates of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the subsequent abolition of slavery in 1834 — on August 1, no less — but he sympathetically mentioned the “heavy” suffering of “St Georgians” after the American Civil War, who had “pinned their faith [and money ventures] to the South ...”.
Such was the invisibility of anything relevant to the black community at that time. But, in context, what was most extraordinary about the published speech of Mr Willcocks was his inclusion of accolades for the Tucker’s Town appropriation, as if it had already been approved, when the debate had not yet concluded and a vote was still outstanding!
First, he quoted an unnamed writer of the 1600s who described Bermuda as “the richest, healthfullest and most pleasing land man ever set foot on” and remarks that: “Perhaps he was a seer and foreseeing the future had purchased a plot in the vicinity of ‘Tucker’s Town’.”
Later, he states quite boldly: “Furness, Withy and Co will, I feel sure, be names to be remembered by future generations, when Tucker’s Town will be a great centre of attraction to thousands of visitors ...”
Such was the lack of respect for even the appearance of due process — a tabled petition from residents of Tucker’s Town not having even been heard by the House, let alone voted on — and all of it (petition and Bill) yet to go forward to the Legislative Council for approval.
Again, such was the non-existence of proper due process and serious consideration of the civil rights of the marginalised, but majority, black community. Any review of the Tucker’s Town saga must be looked at through this lens.
In the end, the petition of the Tucker’s Town residents, tabled by Thomas Heber Outerbridge, was lost on August 4.
And the Bill granting expropriation powers to the Bermuda Development Company was passed in the House of Assembly on August 6, 1920 by a vote of 19-2 — the dissenting members being Dr Outerbridge (MCP for Smith’s) and William Alexander Moore (MCP for Warwick).
The Bill would have a narrower victory at the Legislative Council, with the Receiver General, Allan F. Smith, being reported as saying that he “did not agree with the principle of doing wrong that good might come”.
The Assistant Colonial Secretary, F. Goodwin Gosling, was so sure that the Bill would pass that he tendered his resignation to take up the position of secretary to the Bermuda Development Company a week before the final Legislative Council vote was taken.
On August 26, 1920, The Royal Gazette reported the passing of the Bill in the Legislative Council two days before and stated “all that remains now is for the Act to receive the King’s assent and become law”.
However, before the King’s assent was received the next year in January 1921, the Governor-appointed commission to give effect to the expropriation had been in full swing for a number of months.
The Tucker’s Town “land grab”, always a fait accompli — with a veneer of legality — had been accomplished.
The last holdout resident of Tucker’s Town, 74-year-old Dinah Smith, was unceremoniously evicted from her home on June 4, 1924. She died the next year, in obscurity.
• LeYoni Junos is a historical researcher. Records used from the journals of the House of Assembly, The Royal Gazette and the Registry General
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