Log In

Reset Password

Compelling story of Bermudian slave, abolitionist and noted anti-alcohol speaker discovered

First Prev 1 2 3 Next Last
The title page to an 1847 narrative by Benjamin Benson, an enslaved Bermudian who documented life before and after Emancipation (Image supplied)

A rediscovered account of slavery in Bermuda has shed new light on its brutality after the story was “lost in obscurity” 175 years ago.

A Narrative of the life of Benjamin Benson was written 16 years after the story of Mary Prince, a Bermuda National Hero, riveted British readers and added fire to Britain’s movement to abolish slavery across its colonies in 1834.

The researcher who tracked down Mr Benson’s account, printed in 1847, said the story “exposes aspects of slavery in Bermuda that are little documented: branding, mass sale to Americans on the eve of Emancipation, and arbitrary cruelty”.

Mr Benson’s childhood on the island was traumatic. His father and siblings were sold; his face was disfigured with a knife to stop him from running away or others kidnapping him; and he was branded on the shoulder as an additional marker.

Neil Kennedy, an associate professor with the Department of History at Memorial University, Canada, said Mr Benson, who was born into slavery in 1818 and sold to forced labour in the American South as a child, “experienced the cruelties and violence of enslavement that tend to be deflected in the archive”.

Dr Kennedy is a specialist in 17th-century Bermuda and the Caribbean, whose work on the island included archaeological research in Bermuda in the 1990s.

He said that the story “tells us much about enslavement in Bermuda, through the eyes of a man driven by the importance of family and the opportunities provided by Bermuda’s Atlantic location”.

After he was sold to an American when he was 12, Mr Benson returned to Bermuda “on the eve of Emancipation”, only to face “the limited opportunities available to Black Bermudians” after 1834.

“This forced him further out to sea, employed in the merchant marine, drawn by the higher wages of ever longer voyages.

“Here he faced the perils of re-enslavement and escape, and systemic prejudice.

“But he also found the buoying friendships of the maritime world, and, above all, the vital communication networks of the maritime world.”

According to the National Museum of Bermuda, Dr Kennedy discovered references to the lost narrative two years ago.

Neil Kennedy, associate professor at the Department of History of Memorial University, Canada (Photograph supplied)

The hunt for the story was sparked by mentions in a history of coffee houses and documents on the Irish Temperance Movement – an anti-alcohol campaign for which Mr Benson became a leading public speaker in the 1850s.

Deborah Atwood, the curator at the museum, said details from Dr Kennedy’s “ground breaking research” would be added to the NMB’s educational resources and exhibits.

“Current research like this is integral to a comprehensive understanding of our history and highlights that there is still so much more to learn about the past,” she said.

In Dr Kennedy’s blog online, which the museum published yesterday, he recounts Mr Benson’s birth in St George’s in 1818, possibly in Esten House off King’s Square.

Esten House, circled, in the watercolour “The Market Square, St George’s – from Ordnance Island" from an album by Johnson Savage MD, Royal Artillery, between 1833-36 (Image supplied)

Mr Benson describes his African-born father getting trafficked to the Caribbean before ending up in Bermuda.

His mother, born in Long Island, New York and believed to be named Phillipa, was sold when she was 12 to a man in Bermuda named Davenport.

Dr Kennedy said her enslaver was “almost certainly St George’s merchant John Davenport or his father, Robert”.

Mr Benson writes of his siblings being sold away, some to an unknown fate.

Dr Kennedy wrote: “Not surprisingly, he had very conflicted memories of his childhood, the somewhat lighter duties of a house boy being measured against the arbitrary cruelty often associated with domestic slavery in close quarters.

“No Benjamin is listed with Davenport as owner in the 1821 Slave Register, but Davenport’s parish assessment includes £10 value for `Phillipa’s Child’, the same valuation given until 1829, so this is likely him.”

Sold as a youngster, Mr Benson was taken to Mobile, Alabama, by a merchant named Sneed who forced him to work on a cotton plantation near Mobile, and then on his rice plantation near New Orleans.

He managed to be reunited with his mother after another enslaver who was “almost certainly Bermuda’s Thomas SJ Trott” returned him to the island.

With Emancipation in 1834, Mr Benson described the end of a “dark cloud of tyranny”.

But he turned to seafaring to support himself and his mother, and his account, told to an English physician named Andrew Welch, covers “a complex history of maritime labour”.

Mr Benson ultimately travelled to England with a Bermudian arrowroot merchant.

He met Dr Welch on the streets of Worcester in 1847, and the 30-page narrative was self-published that year.

It garnered little attention, and Dr Kennedy said a copy acquired in 1949 by the Library of Congress in Washington DC could be “the only surviving original”.

Later Mr Benson toured as a speaker as a founding member of the abolitionist group “American Fugitive Slaves in the British Metropolis”.

Slavery persisted until 1865 in the US, which passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 – prompting the formation of the group of fugitives in exile in London.

Christine Kinealy, a history professor at Quinnipiac University in the US, documented Mr Benson’s later career as a celebrated speaker on temperance in Ireland.

But his fate after 1866 remains unknown.

Dr Kennedy wrote: “Freedom narratives like Benson’s have often been treated with suspicion.

“Either the enslaved were not believed to be reliable witnesses to their own lives, or their voices were assumed to be obscured by White editors.

“Historians now emphasise the verifiable details, the remarkably precise memories, and the individuality of these sources.”

According to Dr Kennedy, the narrative reveals Mr Benson’s reverence for “the sanctity of his parents’ marriage, the importance of kinship, and the possibilities offered by the maritime world”.

He added: “Though enslaved until 16, Benson was not defined by slavery.

“Above all, his is a human story, one that resonates with modern concerns: the individual search for identity and purpose among the turmoil of wage labour and labour migration, and the future of an island people set in a broad ocean.”

You must be Registered or to post comment or to vote.

Published July 08, 2022 at 8:11 am (Updated July 08, 2022 at 8:08 am)

Compelling story of Bermudian slave, abolitionist and noted anti-alcohol speaker discovered

What you
Need to
1. For a smooth experience with our commenting system we recommend that you use Internet Explorer 10 or higher, Firefox or Chrome Browsers. Additionally please clear both your browser's cache and cookies - How do I clear my cache and cookies?
2. Please respect the use of this community forum and its users.
3. Any poster that insults, threatens or verbally abuses another member, uses defamatory language, or deliberately disrupts discussions will be banned.
4. Users who violate the Terms of Service or any commenting rules will be banned.
5. Please stay on topic. "Trolling" to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations will be deleted.
6. To understand further what is and isn't allowed and the actions we may take, please read our Terms of Service
7. To report breaches of the Terms of Service use the flag icon