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Walton Brown’s book, a gripping look at Bermuda’s racial and political struggle

Walton Brown Jr’s ‘Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform: Race, Politics and Ideology’ is a well-researched and beautifully written study of Bermudian politics in an era of protest, resistance and change, writes

Benedict Greening.

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them,” wrote African-American author James Baldwin in his 1955 collection of essays about racial division in America and Europe.

It is perhaps a cliché to say that the broad lines of today’s politics in Bermuda are a function of what went before.

Right or wrong, past describes present in richly textured ways we can’t control and perhaps should never hope to.

Yet, history requires acknowledgement and discussion.

Unfortunately, much of our local historical literature has been too reticent in offering up well-argued analysis rather than simple narrative.

Recently, Bermudian historians are beginning to change this however. One recent example is Quito Swan’s powerful and highly polemical 2009 book ‘Black Power in Bermuda’.

Similarly, Walton Brown Jr’s recent book ‘Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform: Race, Politics and Ideology, 1944 -1998’ puts forward a bold, eloquent argument.

Mr Brown’s book, the subject of this review, contextualises our Island’s story from the birth of the Bermuda Workers Association in the early 1940s to the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) victory in 1998; the ossified apparatus of four centuries of white oligarchic rule; the individuals and organisations that rose up to challenge it; the role of labour in a country with a legacy of “racially structured capitalism”.

Mr Brown’s argument is that the fight for social justice in Bermuda was paralleled by the evolution of racial politics that then played out in the party arena.

The link between racial ideology and political struggle, he writes, found full expression as “the presentation and re-presentation of one’s racial self through the vehicle of political power”.

This marvellously evokes the often internalised nature of Bermudian politics.

Mr Brown captures the fact that the issue of race operated often as a “subtext”, rearing its head at unexpected moments in occasionally violent ways.

His book is especially powerful early on at charting the chilling and calculated institutional racism of Bermuda’s white establishment.

In Mr Brown’s view, the United Bermuda Party’s (UBP) concern to defend the status quo evolved into a skin-deep embrace of reform.

Similarly, he argues that for the PLP a radical, socialist brand of thought was adapted over years of repeated defeat to accommodate the interests of the black middle class.

This book is a gripping story told at breakneck pace. As a collection of facts, figures, dates and personalities, it is a useful handbook for those who want to know what happened and when.

Not only does it cover in intimate detail the birth of the Bermuda Workers Association and the Bermuda Industrial Union (BIU), but it also charts the channelling of these impulses towards reform into the realm of party politics.

The book highlights the importance of less well-known local organisations such as Bermuda for Bermudians, the Association for Bermudian Affairs, the Bermuda Workers Socialist Party and the PLP Members for Change.

Meanwhile, the pivotal events of recent history are brought to life; a highlight is the description of the 1981 General Strike that led to the UBP Government to station Regiment soldiers with machine guns on the grounds of Parliament.

Mr Brown evokes the nuances of the Labour Movement, the debates between the PLP and the BIU over the best way to achieve independence (referendum or general election), the disunity between the BIU and the more radical dockworkers, and the UBP’s internal divisions.

This focus on organisational undercurrents gives depth and texture to the study of a body politic all too easily mythologised into two opposing camps.

For all of its strengths, though, this is not a perfect book.

It possibly tries to cover too much ground in the space of 175 pages.

As a result it sometimes seems rushed towards the end, discussing elections and riots in the short spaces and not always having the time to dwell on the moment and tease out the atmosphere.

For instance, I would have liked to have read more about the mood of the first fully democratic election in Bermuda in May 1968.

More strikingly, the possibly politically motivated assassinations of Governor Sir Richard Sharples and his Aide-de-Campe Hugh Sayers, seem to be relegated to a footnote.

Notably absent from a story about reform, especially in the brief section on constitutional change in the mid-1960s, is discussion of the dynamics that arose in the political sphere between elected politicians and still powerful colonial bureaucrats.

Finally, the book lacks a conclusion to draw together and do justice to the powerful strands of argument.

That aside, this book is a considerable achievement.

It is highly readable and accessible; it is intelligently argued, beautifully written and contains a copious amount of direct evidence, making it a significant record of this period.

Mr Brown manages to find the difficult balance between polemical argument and balanced analysis.

In summary, this is a must read for anyone interested in Bermuda’s past, present and future.

Benedict Greening is a Bermudian PhD student at the London School of Economics. His thesis is on conservative politics in Bermuda during the 1960s and 1970s.

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Published September 16, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated September 16, 2011 at 9:37 am)

Walton Brown’s book, a gripping look at Bermuda’s racial and political struggle

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