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Blacks in defence of Bermuda

As this is Black History Month, and against the backdrop of the spectacular 46th Annual Passing Out Parade of the racially integrated Bermuda Regiment, we began last week the first of a series on ‘Blacks in Defence of Our Country.’

Excerpting from my yet-to-be published book of that title, in Part One it was noted how Blacks had more than played their part in the face of strict laws passed by Parliament making it an offense punishable by death for any Negro caught with a firearm.

During one of the darkest periods of slavery when there was fear of a slave uprising, Parliament proclaimed harsh martial laws that led to the execution of six slaves. The laws were enforced by penalties of floggings on naked backs, summary executions or banishment from the island for blacks caught with sticks or other dangerous weapons. Any Negro man caught out after nightfall had to immediately fall to his knees when confronted by guards or take 100 lashes.

Expectation of a Dutch invasion in 1666 caused mobilisation of all slaves, men and boys over the age of 14. They were ordered to carry weapons when an alarm was sounded. The slaves were required to be obedient to their masters and respective commanders “under paine of death”.

By 1679 the population of Bermuda totaled 8,000 including slaves, 1,000 of whom were fit to bear arms. Further measures taken to improve led to the passage in 1691 of The Militia Act. The law among other things made provision to compensate any white who lost a limb in combat with 200 pieces of eight (gold); and if the loss occurred to a free black or slave the compensation was 200 pieces of eight, payable in the case of a slave to his master.

It was not until after Emancipation in 1834 that large scale recruitment of black soldiers took place. An Act of Parliament in 1892 authorised creation of two units, the Black Militia Artillery with its white English officers and the white-only Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (BVRCs). The BMA were the first to be up and running, being embodied on June 15, 1896 for the first time, and went on three months full-time training at camp in St George’s.

The Royal Gazette reported on how during their first three months of service the BMAs “won golden opinions from all for their excellent conduct and military enthusiasm”.

Their first Passing Out Parade and inspection by the Governor was described as spectacular. He congratulated the soldiers for coming forward as militiamen to help defend Bermuda against invasion. Their “admirable conduct while in camp and the excellent spirit” shown in qualifying themselves satisfied him (the Governor} entirely, and their general appearance and general efficiency reflected great credit on their Commandant, officers and non-commissioned officers.

The blacks were fanatically proud of their unit and received great support from family and friends in the community at large during their many public appearances. Over the years there was a friendly rivalry with the regular British forces stationed in Bermuda, and keen competition with their white Bermudian counterparts, as well as occasional antagonism and brawls.

A whole chapter in my book deals with some of those facets of military life in Bermuda at the turn of the century. Other chapters deal with the lead-up to the outbreak of the First World War, and a summary of the battlefield service of the black BMAs.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 the BMAs were already in camp at the start of hostilities. There was no lack of loyalty on their part. The patriotism of black Bermudians generally was amplified by a touching letter from a former corporal, Reginald JH Pearman, who after 15 years of honourable service from the time of the inception of the BMAs had gone to Lowell, Massachusetts to live.

The Editor of the Mid-Ocean News published the letter because he considered it as strong an appeal to the “coloured’”men to volunteer for service as any speech that had been delivered.

Pearman had the distinction of being one of the men sent to England to represent Bermuda on the occasion of the coronation of King Edward VII after the death of Queen Victoria.

Pearman wrote as follows to his mother Anna S Wilkinson:

Dear Mother:

I received your last letter, also the paper, thanking you for your kindness.

Now, Mother, I have a question for you to consider.

I saw by the papers you sent me that they want 100 men to go to the front. You know I owe a duty to the Flag, and I must be in the 100. I have got to go to help out those boys over there.

Now I am willing to sacrifice all for the Nation’s Flag and little Bermuda. Please give me your opinion about this valuable duty. I must and am bound to perform it. Remember you always told me that I was not born a coward. If I could serve 15 years with the BMA abroad and in Bermuda, why not serve 15 years on the battlefield if that is essential? I am not a coward, and I am not going to let my comrades call me one if I get the chance for the front. Write me right away, please because I want to notify my Commanding Officer at St.George’s.

Now, Mother. Don’t cry over this. You must save that little drop of water in case the Germans take or come into possession of little Bermuda; then you do your lashing out.

This is urgent. Write me right away please.

Reginald JH Pearman

Next week: The battlefield service of the BMAs and Bermuda Militia Infantry (who were formed at the start of the Second World War).

Training: Bermuda Militia Artillery drill on the 6-inch guns at St David?s Battery, about 1939.

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Published February 11, 2012 at 7:41 am (Updated February 11, 2012 at 7:40 am)

Blacks in defence of Bermuda

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