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New history describes how we first became Bermudian

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Fresh perspective: Isle of Devils, Isle of Saints by Michael Jarvis

Who is it who determines what becomes history? This is an important question.

Whatever their discipline, all writers of history engage in a form of narrative storytelling. They sift through information from primary sources, analyse visual images and the detritus of material remains, and question what earlier historians have already committed to print.

Then they tell the story that they have decided to tell. Any history is therefore both fact and the interpretation of facts. This allows history to change.

Michael Jarvis, in his rich and rewarding new study of 17th-century Bermuda, Isle of Devils, Isle of Saints, wants us to join him in this change by imagining, first of all, a larger Bermuda Triangle than the one we’re used to, one that extends throughout the Atlantic.

Within this great space, Jarvis sets out to recontextualise a Bermudian history that links us more closely to that of colonial America. He himself comes from the USA.

Bermuda works very well as fulcrum in the study of the Atlantic World. This is in line with the current focus of our National Museum as witness to understanding history from the lived experience of people with linkages within this wider world.

We all know that uninhabited Bermuda was settled at the beginning of the 17th century by the venture capitalism that landed people of wildly disparate backgrounds on a small, isolated landmass miles from anywhere.

Jarvis takes this, Bermuda’s unique geographic setting, to explore the factors that led to the formation of a distinctive social identity, one, he argues, with sharp outlines that predates those of other English Atlantic colonies.

Between 1612 and 1622 our island became home to more than 2,000 residents, some already native born, and even by this early date occupying most of the land that could be farmed. They included English settlers (both shareholders and Bermuda Company servants), native Americans, Hispanic Africans, and Africans from Angola.

Michael Jarvis (File photograph)

This early interracial composition in a close society, Jarvis suggests, is what set us apart in the Atlantic world. People had common goals for survival, and slavery was yet to be formally codified.

For Jarvis, becoming Bermudian was born of both the need to survive (and then to prosper), and of the necessary resistance to the owners of the joint-stock Virginia and Bermuda Companies, most of whom were based in London and had scant understanding of the day-to-day the circumstances that settlers faced.

His underlying subject, then, is to explore Bermuda through the lives of its people. Some of these lives can be found in the written record, but many more must be imagined through indirect evidence.

So exactly how did this community of widely disparate people form and then evolve? The story takes us through 70-plus years, from control by London to local self-governance.

This is not a new sequential framework, and the earlier chapters of the book sometimes felt like an updated version of the work of Henry Wilkinson, the best of whose historical trilogy was a volume that also ended with the island’s quasi-independence in 1684. But Jarvis has added material to expand our awareness of the day-to-day challenges that had to be overcome by the first generations of Bermudians.

There’s a lot more evidence, too, of who these first Bermudians were. There is also information on the importance of the knowledge they brought with them.

African and Afro-Hispanic slave populations were critical to the success of tobacco, Bermuda’s all-important first cash crop. And they contributed other necessary survival skills.

Bermuda’s tobacco troubles and the accompanying crash in prices in the 1620s meant islanders became acutely aware of the need for self-sufficiency, and diversification of crops both for local sustenance and rent payment to landowners in England drew on the combined abilities of this diverse group of people.

A viable model for the colony evolved, even as the turmoil of English Civil War changed and changed again the political landscape in the parent country.

The island was always a stop (or a beacon) for Atlantic shipping, and as Bermudians solidified their identity, they began to explore the Atlantic around them.

Despite prohibitions, they had built their own trading ship by 1635. The dissolution of the Bermuda Company was perhaps after that an inevitability as Bermudians traded outside the restrictions of the Company, became privateers, and took colonies for themselves.

Starting with Providence Island Company, a base for privateering, a web of connections grew as they strategically investigated other settlements in the West Indies, moving from Guiana to Tortola to St Lucia before finally settling the long, arid New Providence and Eleuthera islands in the Bahamas.

Gradually they turned little Bermuda into a central Atlantic trading hub, one operating more and more outside of English constraints.

The title of the book, Isle of Devils, Isle of Saints, refers both to Bermuda’s early reputation as a danger to navigation and to its strong religious foundations: the clergy played a powerful early role in this, England’s first puritan colony.

The conflicts of the Civil War had resulted in an overly moralistic society, and Jarvis argues that this must have reinforced Bermuda’s “turn to the sea”.

Entrepreneurial networks could now inform Bermuda’s sailors of what was happening in the rest of the Atlantic. The struggle for financial independence after the Restoration would eventually lead to freedom from the constraints of the failing Bermuda Company.

History is far more than just written convention. But a problem inherent in its writing is in balancing the ratio of documented information with that which was not considered significant enough to record, but which we are now eager to understand.

Much of what would flesh out a vibrant and accurate social history was never written down. Today we want to know far more about largely unrecorded Black lives.

Jarvis, as an historical archaeologist as well as a social historian by training, is acutely aware of this, hence the dig (which helps you to read between the written lines).

In this a multidisciplinary study, he opens up the very idea of which stories could be told, paving the way for more research into questions about race and slavery Bermuda.

Whether a true historical reality exists, and whose reality is being represented, are always questions to keep in mind. Any historian trying to understand a past through the lens of the present is, by definition, an outsider, and I am sure Michael Jarvis has often felt that way.

Yet his 30 or more years of visiting Bermuda and getting to know it very well have given him an enviable perspective. Ultimately it is this perspective that becomes history, and in this informed book Jarvis, as both insider and outsider, has been able to create a nuanced and multifaceted narrative of how we first became Bermudian.

This comprehensive study of Bermuda’s pivotal role in the formation of the early English Atlantic holds powerful implications for when and how ours could become part of an even more inclusive world history – and that’s a positive perspective from which to write into the future.

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Published March 11, 2023 at 7:53 am (Updated March 11, 2023 at 1:58 pm)

New history describes how we first became Bermudian

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