Completing the connection with our roots
On the evening of August 4, Clarence Maxwell delivered an excellent lecture at the St George's Heritage Centre on the beginnings of the black African population from 1616 to 1684.
The lecture was informative and supports the narrative I have espoused over the years that Bermuda developed its own culture simultaneous to the West Indies and not because of or through it.
It begins with an African and a Native American pearl diver who were the first to be purchased in 1616; more than likely from Venezuela, which had a pearl industry. Then, between 1616 and 1618, at least two shiploads of stolen slaves from Portuguese ships, which came out of the Portuguese Congo experience, added to this early-seed population. By 1629, the first recorded slave birth had begun its firstborn Bermudian generation. It was reported by Dr Maxwell that the first generation of slaves, or indentured blacks, was ostensibly of the Latino experience. They had come out of the Roman Catholic hold on the Congo since 1440, providing Bermuda with an African people in the 17th century who were infused for 150 years with Mediterranean and Latino culture.
Dr Maxwell's research concludes that by 1684, which was the end of the Somers Isles Company, 90 per cent of the black population was by then born Bermudian, — in some cases conceivably second and third generation. He mentioned that in his future talk, which speaks beyond 1684, he will show the shift towards the more northern African Muslim countries where the next group of slaves will emerge.
The basic premise for an endemic or native local black population is made even more clear when we add that, in and around 1674, there was a law passed prohibiting the further import of African or Native American slaves because by then it was considered that the slave population was already unsustainable.
I wrote an article printed by the Mid-Ocean News many years ago that was titled the “West Indianisation of Bermuda history”, which Gloria McPhee (deceased) asked if she could include in her book (unpublished).
The article essentially talked about how Bermuda culture is a derivative of the same ingredients as that of the West Indies but with its own proportions, hence a natural similarity. However, because of the nature of its economy, particularly maritime, its experience is distinctively and uniquely Bermudian in its own right.
The more interesting and poignant significance of 1616 was that this represents not just the first Africans to Bermuda, but the first of the British slaves in the western hemisphere — and to a large extent the Bermuda black experiment in its first few decades — helped to shape what would become the British institutionalisation of slavery. This historical perspective as supported by the research of Dr Maxwell needs to be known as the bedrock of our Bermudian history that is taught, so as to reinforce the sense of pride that we as Bermudians can build as a self-identity. It helps to know your own history, so as not to become redefined by those who have no connection or regard to that base.
We need to support local research such as that of Dr Maxwell to fill in the blanks and to complete the connections with our roots. We as a complete family of black, white and other are not just a native population to these islands, but are also indigenous to it.
We are the DNA of a tribe, which, while it does not negate, knocks the breath out of our separate social experience filled with crossfire — we should reach up and claim our truer status.