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The Queen and segregation: ‘the blunder in Bermuda’

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Flashback: labour movement founding father E. F. Gordon meets the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in St George's Town Square in 1953. Dr Gordon is preceded by S.S. Toddings, MCP, who was publisher and editor of the Mid-Ocean News

In her long reign, the Queen witnessed the 180-degree transformation of Bermuda from a racist and insular economic backwater into a progressive, cosmopolitan powerhouse, punching above its weight in the world.

A quiet change: Collingwood Burch, a Member of the Colonial Parliament, and Mrs Frances Burch are shown being introduced to the new Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on November 24, 1953 in what is now King's Square, St George (Photograph submitted)

For 350 years, Bermuda had seen chattel slavery and rigid segregation, limiting a majority of its population from the franchise, economic advancement and education.

Arguably, it was in 1953 that the first real crack appeared in the edifice that racism had built.

The simple act of Buckingham Palace making it known that the Queen would not attend segregated events in Bermuda was the impetus.

But the move came only in the wake of public outcry after British newspapers — no doubt alerted by activists in Bermuda and their allies abroad — expressed shock at Bermudian social mores.

The eight years since the end of the Second World War had seen increasing attacks at loosening the grip of segregation, part of repeated legislative, legal and public protests.

A Member of Parliament, E. F. Gordon, frustrated at the insult of being addressed by just his Christian name, Edgar, rather than by the honorific of medical doctor, earned with honours at the University of Edinburgh, even changed his name to “Mazumbo” as a way of getting back at the elites.

It was on November 2, 1946 that Dr Gordon took to London a petition signed by the executive committee of the Bermuda Workers Association, forerunner to the Bermuda Industrial Union, appealing to Britain to intervene on Black Bermudians’ behalf.

Presented to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the association’s White Paper listed grievances about the civic, political and economic institutions in Bermudian society as they impacted on what the petition called “the great majority of the underprivileged and suffering in Bermuda”.

Meanwhile, it is known that during a visit to South Africa that year, Princess Elizabeth had witnessed her father, King George VI, being quite upset at the formal and informal apartheid laws and officials who dictated he could not shake hands with Black war veterans.

With his death and her coronation in 1953, the new Queen launched a world tour to introduce herself to her subjects.

Major change: the Queen shakes hands with Ken Richardson, the Cabinet Secretary, as the Duke of Edinburgh and Lord Waddington, the Governor, look on in March 1993

It was to start in Bermuda, the second successful English colony in the New World, and the empire’s oldest colony.

For the 119 years after emancipation from slavery, Blacks had been subjected to a form of Jim Crow segregation — “free” in law, but unable to participate fully in the island’s economic and social life.

While it is true that if they were property owners they could vote, few owned the requisite amount of acreage to cast a ballot.

Out of a population of 40,000 people of all races, only 5,066 could vote. And Bermuda’s peculiar laws allowed landowners to vote in each parish where one owned property.

The law also allowed people to form voting syndicates, which meant a large property could have multiple owners — and, therefore, multiple voters.

With the political and economic system controlled by wealthy White landowners, Black parliamentarians — Members of the Colonial Parliament — were a minority.

Ira Philip, the late Royal Gazette columnist and former editor and jack-of-all-trades at The Recorder, wrote that Black Bermudians formed political associations to put up candidates who had the best chance of getting elected and representing their interests.

In 1953, the Devonshire Political Association initially considered the firebrand Dr Gordon as a potential candidate, but ultimately decided to go with W. L. “Bip” Tucker, with Dr Gordon’s backing.

Tucker was more diplomatic than Dr Gordon and also financially independent, which made him less vulnerable to economic pressure from powerful Whites.

The 1953 election had produced the largest number of Black parliamentarians elected up to that point, a total of nine in the 36-seat house.

Other Black MCPs were Somerset physician Eustace Cann and lawyer and future premier E. T. Richards, both of them close friends of Tucker.

Tucker’s maiden speech was in support of a proposal from Black MCP Russell Levi Pearman for the establishment of an interracial committee to consider inequities experienced by Black Bermudians.

Later that year, as Bermuda went all out preparing for the royal visit, Tucker and Dr Gordon — operating as a sort of tag team -- spoke out in the House of Assembly about the preparations, with the former suggesting he was perturbed that leaders were focusing solely on the benefits of the visit to tourism.

He told Parliament that ordinary Bermudians should be given the opportunity to meet the Queen. Dr Gordon’s comments about the visit were more caustic.

He complained bitterly in the House of Assembly about the arrangements, citing the island’s demographics, in which the majority were being humiliated by being excluded from attending the state dinner.

Sir Henry Tucker, a prominent banker and businessman, responded that invitations to the dinner was limited to “the Precedence List, members of the Executive Council [now the Cabinet]” — glossing over the fact there were no Black people on the list or on the council.

When Dr Gordon demanded that a Black person be appointed, Sir Henry replied: “In my view there is no Coloured member of this House, who by reason of ability and training, experience in public life and, what is just as important, business and professional life at present who would be justified in accepting an appointment to the Executive Council.”

There were nine Black members of the House of Assembly.

As the date of her arrival approached, four British newspapers, The Daily Herald, The News Chronicle, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Telegraph, speculated about the propriety of Her Majesty attending segregated and Whites-only events.

The Toronto Star, editorialising, said it was inconceivable that such an incident could happen anywhere in the British Empire where a British governor was the chief executive.

Twice on successive days, the Herald attacked “the blunder in Bermuda”.

On the day of the visit, The Daily Mirror’s editor fired off an editorial to The Royal Gazette, demanding that it appear on the front page the next day. It appeared on page 12.

In it, The Mirror’s editor said that he had heard “that not one coloured guest was invited to the state dinner of welcome”.

“This is what Britain said. We hope you print it on your front pages. Bermuda’s 24,000 coloured folk — 60 per cent of the population — should know what we think of the way they were insulted. Three national newspapers here front-paged the story. They were The Daily Herald, The News Chronicle and The Daily Telegraph.

“The Daily Mirror headlined its comments: ‘No, No, No.’

“Twice on successive days, The Daily Herald attacked ‘the blunder’ in Bermuda.

“Now 48 Labour MPs have signed a House of Commons motion protesting against the colour discrimination.

“We hope these facts will be made known to the coloured people who have been so shabbily affronted. It would be shocking if anybody in Bermuda thought that their Governor’s puerile blunder was overlooked here.

“Here are details of what the newspapers said: The Mirror deplored your Governor’s pathetic excuses. He said he invited 30 guests to the royal dinner according to the list of precedence. He would have had to double that number to include a coloured official.

“The Mirror demanded: ‘Why weren’t the top thirty knocked off the stupid list! To blazes with the first families of Bermuda and an end to blind snobbery!’

“Said The Daily Herald: ‘Sir Alexander Hood, Governor of Bermuda, has contrived to celebrate the start of the Queen’s tour throughout the Commonwealth by insulting more than 500 million of its inhabitants.

“Bermudians should know how Britain has reacted. It does not wipe out what has happened. But it shows what Britons feel about colour discrimination, social snobbery and ham-fisted governors.”

A House of Commons motion signed by leftist Labour MP Fenner Brockway asked for Bermuda’s precedence list to be revised to include more Black representatives.

The matter was also hotly debated in Parliament here, but the guest list stood.

“It is a source of sincere regret, to my husband and myself, that our many duties have not permitted us to spend longer here,” the Queen told the state dinner.

In the end, several Blacks were invited to a garden party at Government House before the state dinner.

The Royal Gazette listed dozens of the 1,200 Bermudians and foreign dignitaries invited to Langton Hill.

Among them were F. S. Furbert, headmaster of the Berkeley Institute, and Mrs Furbert, Victor Scott, principal of the Central School, which now bears his name, and Mrs Scott, and the Reverend and Mrs J. Daniel Smith, the presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

During other events, the royal couple were introduced to many Blacks in prominent social positions, including Members of the Colonial Parliament, Dr Gordon and Mr Richards, and even Somerset Cricket Club president Warren Simmons.

Millie Neverson, the diminutive Black Bermudian teacher, Girl Guide and protector of disadvantaged children, was to be presented to the Duke.

Ms Neverson became hidden by the crowd and was visibly nervous that she would be overlooked.

However, the Duke’s White Bermudian escort, C. Vail Zuill, no doubt aware of the significance of the greeting, was on the lookout for her and brought her forward for presentation.

Aware of her worry, the tall royal bent almost double to chat — for longer than he did with anyone else.

A week later, Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, met Dwight Eisenhower of the United States and France’s Prime Minister, Joseph Laniel, to discuss the burgeoning Cold War.

At a less formal dinner during the “Big Three conference”, the guest list included two prominent Blacks, G. A. Williams and E. T. Richards, who was the first to hold the title of Premier of under the new 1968 Constitution.

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Published September 10, 2022 at 7:51 am (Updated September 10, 2022 at 7:51 am)

The Queen and segregation: ‘the blunder in Bermuda’

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