Black Bermudians’ role in wartime defence of our country
This is Part Four of the series of Black History Month features with excerpts from my yet-to-be published book, ‘Blacks in Defence of Our Country’. It is set against two backdrops. First, the spectacular 46th Annual Recruits’ Passing Out parade in January of the racially integrated Bermuda Regiment. And, second, the centuries of fears on the part of powerful white rulers over a Negro or slave revolt, leading up to Emancipation of Slavery in 1834 and for generations after that. Harsh laws with strict penalties were enacted, including summary execution, banishment from the Island and or floggings on naked backs to keep blacks in their place. Colonial Parliament in 1892 authorised creation of a force of 300 men for local defence, the Black Bermuda Militia with its white-only English officers and the all-white Bermuda Volunteer Rifles. The BMA were the first of the two units to be up and ready. There was never any question about their enthusiasm and patriotism. They were fanatically proud of their unit, and reveled in the adulation received from their families and the community at large. As stated earlier, there was friendly rivalry and competition with their BVRC counterparts and regular British forces stationed on the Island. There were some brawls as well. And some resentment that black Bermudians were not allowed to rise above the rank of non-commissioned officers. In fact, white Bermudians without any impediments to their promotion were brought into the BMA as their superior officers. When the First World War broke out, the BMAs were a highly trained unit, already in camp and eager to go the battlefields in France and Belgium. On May 28, 1916, some 206 BMAs and four officers left Bermuda in convoy for Britain, commanded by Major Tom Dill. He was a scion of one of Bermuda’s first families and later Attorney General as well as and leading MCP. Arriving in the UK on June 9, the BMAs disembarked at Devonport, where orders were waiting for them to proceed immediately to France, where they landed on June 24, going directly to the warfront. In his published memoirs, Major Dill stated all the Bermudians were under fire a few days later engaged in the attack on the Somme on July 1. They were assigned the arduous task of passing ammunition to batteries at the front from the dumps “so perilously under shell fire they were compelled to work in constant danger which they did efficiently, evincing exemplary courage and tenacity that won they praise from the beginning”. The Bermudians acquitted themselves so well the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Rt Hon Bonar Law, in a letter from Downing Street, wrote to Governor Lord Bullock in1916 requesting more troops. Major Dill went on to state, the following year ,1917, the Bermuda contingent were engaged in the thickest battles, “acquitting themselves heroically during the attack on Vimy Ridge on April 9 and subsequent battles which won them commendation from Army Headquarters”. There had been severe casualties among the Bermudians, which increased when they moved on May 23 to Army Area, and attached to the Fifty-second Heavy Artillery Brigade. On June 7 they were in the thick of the attack on Wytschaete when several of the men were gassed. Casualties mounted as the Bermudians were moved from one front to another and were exposed to daily shell fire and lethal night bombings. By the end of June 1917 the contingent was reinforced by a second contingent of 40 men and two officers, who arrived from Bermuda and went straight to the front for their baptism of fire. According to the Warriors Chapel in the Bermuda Cathedral, capsulising the history of the BMAs and BVRCs, “During the 52 year existence of the BVRCs (leading up to the amalgamation of the segregated units into the Bermuda Regiment), 232 men of the BVRCs saw active service in the Two World Wars 1914-18 and1939-45.” No reference is made to the BMA’s numbers, which would show the 240 black Militiamen, sent to the battle fronts in World War One alone, were more than the BVRC’s totals for the two wars. Both units served heroically with many losing their lives. Upon their return home, Bermuda on the whole treated its black war veterans well, and for the rest of their lives they were not wanting for adulation, particularly among their own people. However, when the Second World War broke out in September, 1939 there was a complete reversal of the attitude of colonial authorities in Britain and the powers-that-be in Bermuda towards the engagement of black Bermudians in particular and blacks in the Caribbean and other parts of the Empire. A different kind of fear was then engrossing the Colonial authorities; it was over the rising tide of Black Power, stoked by the sweeping Marcus Garvey Movement. Time and space will not permit me to ’excerpt’ the documented evidence in my book. Suffice to say, the blacks were just as eager to go overseas for service as they were 25 years earlier. But they had no way of knowing they were not wanted; nor could they be aware of the downright conspiracies and hypocritical intrigues undertaken both in London and Bermuda to thwart them. This time around it was because of fear of Black Power. Both the BMAs and BVRCs were embodied at the start of the Second World War. The Militia was up to full strength. But not the white BVRCs. That was a source of considerable embarrassment on the part of race-conscious leaders in the House of Assembly, particularly the Speaker, Sir Reginald Conyers. Speaker Conyers placed in
The Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily, dated September 16, 1939 this notice:
To the Young White Men of Bermuda between ages of18 and 24. The BVRC is still under strength. There are plenty of young men between the ages above mentioned, who if they enlist would bring the Corps up to full strength. Are you going to let it be said that this could not be done WITHOUT CONSCRIPTION? The Committee feel that you young men will not permit such a stigma to come upon this ancient and loyal Colony. COME FORWARD. The Committee sits daily (including Sunday) at the Hamilton Hotel until 19th instant. From 12 noon to 1 pm and from 8.00pm to 11pm. On Monday the Committee will also sit between the hours of 4.00pm and 6.00pm. Let us prove that we are a volunteer and not a Conscript Colonysigned REGINALD CONYERS, chairman of the Committee appointed to consider Conscription. In utter desperation Sir Reginald published what he called a ‘final notice’ to the young white men of Bermuda, between ages of 18 and 24 years in
The Royal Gazette on September 18 stating:
There are at least 80 of you who up to last night had not reported. Do you wish to be known to the Committee and perhaps to the public that you failed to answer your Country’s call in a national emergency. The ‘final notice’ went on to state not only would the Committee be sitting at the previously advertised place and time, the hours had been extended into night by five hours. It added:
If any of you are considering going overseas, the Committee has been informed that if you join the BVRC no obstacles will be put in your way to stop you. The Committee believe your chances of going overseas are greater by joining now. Sir Reginald was demonstrably aware of the ‘obstacles’ and racist policies at that time militating against the overseas aspirations of black Bermudians and non-European colonial subjects elsewhere.