When WHT Joell made Bermuda history
We could not let Black History month sink into the files of 2012 without saluting a good friend Mrs Rosemary Joell Cann for her zeal in researching the life and times of her great-great grandfather, William Henry Thomas (WHT) Joell. He was the first black man to be elected to a seat in the House of Assembly. That was a feat in the General Election of May 1883 that must have been somewhat as earth-shattering 115 years later when the Opposition Progressive Labour Party wrested the Government of Bermuda from the entrenched United Bermuda Party. WHT Joell was born in 1838, four years after the Emancipation of Slavery in 1834. He died at the early age of 47 in Vine Cottage, located directly east of the People’s Pharmacy on Victoria Street and Joell’s Alley, which is named after him. For generations before and after Emancipation, control of Bermuda’s economic, political and even ecclesiastical affairs was in the hands of a small band of aristocratic families; white landowners. They were powerful and feared for their vindictiveness and the lengths they went to keep blacks and poor whites in subservience through domination of the courts, Parliament and manipulation of the voting franchise, which was based on ownership of land. Even though blacks at Emancipation were for the most part landless and voteless, the ruling class took no chances on their political ascendancy. One of the first things they did was to double the centuries-old rate of qualification for both voting and standing for election. But that was not enough to block men with the grit ofWilliam Henry Thomas Joell. Documentation in the National Archives shows WHT was on a list of 536 black men who signed a petition to the Governor-in-Council seeking his support against a resolution passed by the House to provide £1,000 for the encouragement of immigrant Portuguese farm labour and other skilled workers from the UK who were given cash allowances and accommodation upon arrival in Bermuda with their families. The skills of blacks until Emancipation were “hired out” by slave owners who pocketed the proceeds, with little if any going to the slave. Their skills were just as much needed after 1834 as before. And when the blacks demanded to be paid directly, at the same rate as before, they were labelled as being unreasonable. Legislative steps taken to undermine them via the immigration route were vigorously protested by leaders like Joell. WHT was outraged that the white rulers, who had beforehand profited from the free labour former slaves, “had the temerity” to take out of the public treasury monies he and other hardworking and skilled blacks had contributed in taxes, to reward whites to come to Bermuda and undermine blacks with cheap labour. Joell was also one of the founders of the Berkeley Educational Society that led an 18-year battle to bring the Berkeley Institute into being in the late 1800s. And he started the Pembroke Political Association. Rosemary Joell Cann says her research into the life and times of her great-great grandfather is a work in progress. She has established he was a married man with seven children. Three sons were Harry, Russell and Frederick. Daughters were Alice, Leila, Mattie and Kate. Harry migrated to New York and raised a family there. Frederick or Fred was the father of WER Joell, a political activist, particularly at the Hamilton Municipality level. He was a skilled cabinet maker, like his own grandfather (W.H.T. Joell), and a successful business man. WER Joell and his wife Grace were the parents of five lovely daughters, Rosemary, Elsie, Eileen, Lillian and Joyce. Rosemary said her father raised her “as the son he never had”, especially when it came to his indulgences as a tennis enthusiast. His efforts to desegregate tennis at the National Tennis Stadium culminated in the Stadium being name after him. As far as the origins of her Joell ancestors are concerned, Rosemary recalls her grandfather Fred Joell telling her two brothers came from Pakistan. But reasons for WHT ending up in Bermuda are vague at this time. He was among other things a cabinet maker who built the distinctive, original staircase inside the entrance to Wesley Methodist Church in Hamilton. He was proficient in the French language, and a facilitator for Hamilton merchants who imported goods from France. He was also the first black to own a dry goods store on Front Street. At the time of WHT’s election to the House, there was no way for people living in the Smith Hill and North Village to get to Hamilton without having to go around Government House to St. John’s Road. Dockyard was the main source of employment and it was difficult for workers to travel to catch the early morning ferry from Hamilton to the Dockyard. Rosemary said it was through WHT’s efforts the road that now cuts across Parson’s Road, (past the yet-to-be built Central School), was opened. It is called Glebe Road, though for a long time was known as Joell’s Road.