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Punishments were brutal here too

A statue of Sally Bassett, a slave who rose up against the injustice of slave owners (Photogaph by Akil Simmons)

Dear Sir,

On Shirley Dill’s show on Sunday a caller stated that no one in Bermuda had ever been “hung, drawn and quartered”. So far there is no evidence this happened in Bermuda, however, we have to understand that equally terrible things happened.

In 1704 an Act to legislate punishment for the “insolence of Negroes” allowing for castration was passed, a year or so later it was overturned by the British government who saw it as too barbaric. In 1730, Sally Bassett, a grandmother, was burnt at the stake for attempting to murder her granddaughter’s slave owner. Convicted on what today would be called circumstantial evidence, we can all too easily guess why she was so desperate to murder him.

Gibbet Island saw many, many hangings over the years where enslaved people were left to hang as a deterrent to others. Two young boys were beheaded and their heads put on stakes as a deterrent. And our own Mary Prince tells of when her owner, Robert Darrell, “often stripped me naked, hung me up by the wrists, and beat me with the cowskin, with his own hand, till my body was raw with gashes”.

She was also witness to the murder of another enslaved African-Bermudian, Hetty, who was beaten so severely by their owner, Captain Ingham that she aborted her baby and later died.

There is even a story of a shop owner in St George’s complaining of the blood spattered on his shop window following whippings.

There were many planned uprisings throughout Bermuda’s history, and enslaved African-Bermudians constantly fought for their freedom, so why the continued myth in Bermuda that slavery was “benign?”

In 1731 more than half the population were going to rise up and attack the slave owners while they slept. This was 30 years before the Haitian Revolution.

People do not risk their lives if they were being treated benignly. That uprising was foiled at the eleventh hour. We have much of this information from the research of Cyril Packwood, Kenneth Robinson, James Smith, Clarence Maxwell and Nellie Musson and yet so many in Bermuda know nothing of this past.

Then we have the myth that Bermudians didn’t trade in African slaves. Linda Heywood and John Thornton in their book Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas 1585-1660 tell the story of Capt. John Powell, a Bermudian privateer, capturing in 1617 “undoubtedly from a Portuguese prize, a large group of African slaves shipped to the island, whom Robert Rich believed would allow tobacco growing to take off”.

But with any narrative there are always two sides, even Mary Prince as a 12-year-old girl tells how she was fond of one of her owners who treated her kindly. So we need to tell the whole story, not just the dominant colonial narrative, which has been perpetuated by historians such as Terry Tucker, but the meta narrative ensuring the complexity and truth of Bermuda’s history is fully told.