On this day in Bermuda history: saga of the Enterprise
On this day 186 years ago, an incident occurred in Bermuda that had wide-ranging implications for British-American relations, which were not resolved until two decades later.
Seven days earlier, the ship Enterprise set out from Alexandria, Virginia, bound for Charleston, South Carolina. It was blown off course in a hurricane and forced to put in for provisions in Bermuda. When local customs officers arrived on the ship, they discovered 78 enslaved Africans. These slaves were not listed on the ship’s manifest for cargo.
The slaves were young, American-born and spoke English. Their ages ranged from 7 to 25 years. There were 41 females and 37 males.
The captain, Eliot Smith, was told that slavery was illegal in Bermuda and subject to forfeiture, so they ordered him to bring them ashore. A gunboat and Royal Navy forces were summoned to put the crew under armed guard. Captain Smith defiantly threatened to leave, but he and his crew were detained.
Richard Tucker, a Black Bermudian, had founded the Young Men’s Friendly Lodge — a mutual aid society — in 1832. He applied to the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, thus compelling Smith to present the slaves at court for a hearing.
There was a large crowd waiting as the slaves disembarked at Barr’s Bay in Hamilton. Many were former slaves who were emancipated less than six months previously.
Chief Justice Thomas Butterfield presided at the Supreme Court hearing on February 18. He questioned each slave individually as to whether they wished to remain as slaves or if they wished to be free. Seventy-two chose freedom. A mother and her five daughters chose to remain as slaves.
There was much jubilation in the town and a journalist is reported to have written ”It would be difficult to describe the sense of joy and wonderment that prevailed”.
The Attorney-General took up a collection and $70 was quickly raised to help. Mayor of Hamilton William Cox offered them the use of his vacant storehouse as a place to sleep. The Friendly Society and other well-wishers provided help in finding housing and jobs for the newly freed persons, and they quickly integrated into local society.
Their US slave owners asked their politicians to intervene in the matter. Although both Britain and the Unite States made the international African slave trade illegal in 1807 and enforced it abroad, the US reserved unto itself the right to continue the practice domestically.
Some politicians threatened taking up arms against Bermuda. They apparently did not consider that less than 60 years earlier, conspiratorial Bermudians aided in the theft of gunpowder that was crucial in the US War of Independence in 1776; nor that George Washington wrote to Bermuda’s inhabitants seeking the gunpowder and promised every mark of affection and friendship that a grateful free country can bestow on its benefactors.
This contentious relationship endured until a negotiated British-American settlement via the Treaty of Claims in 1853. This included compensation to the slave owners, which was paid in 1855.
The Enterprise saga is memorialised by a bronze sculpture made by Chesley Trott, entitled We Arrive. It is located on the Front Street site formerly occupied by HSBC, at the entrance to Barr’s Bay Park (Albuoy’s Point).
The descendants of those slaves are now a part of the mosaic that is Bermuda. Perhaps some will share the stories of their journey since 1835.