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Exploding the myths about our West Indian heritage

There has been much chatter recently on the West Indies and Bermuda, and how the populations intertwine. Particularly by a writer who insists that the black Bermuda population's origins were primarily from the Caribbean.

His views are not only incorrect but they suggest there is no nativity, which is demeaning. The truth is that, aside from two pearl divers taken from possibly off the coast of Venezuela, boat loads came direct from the Congo, which gave birth to the African-Bermuda population (see Clarence Maxwell).

It is very difficult to give an accurate picture of the West Indies, even the reference to its name, without understanding the colonisation by rivalling European nations to gain any appreciation of how or when their populations interacted with Bermuda. Understanding that rivalry itself is also a study, which at times was religious and at other times had to do with national dominance.

Whatever the conflation resulting in conflict, they all impacted and at times exploded on the lands and waters of the islands we now call the West Indies. Bermuda was tangentially involved but, because of its extreme remoteness to the north, never experienced the resulting fluxion from escapades that caused the change of hands from one nation to the next, which American and the islands of the Caribbean endured.

The primary dominance for a significant period was by Spain, then by France, the Dutch and the British. Islands such as Trinidad had them all at one time or another. Bermuda was first used by the Spanish, but colonised only by the British and remained so from its inception; hence, its parliament was the first in the western hemisphere and has remained so, basically untarnished until now. As a result of its stability, it held a leadership role for the British initiative in the New World.

Many episodes such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House, the takeover of Jamaica from the Spanish, the founding of Bahamas and colonisation of the Turks Islands, and the salt trade were all planned in Bermuda because it was outside the conflict zones and free from warring invasions from other European nations and a better environment from which to plan. (This is an extremely important historical point.)

The West Indies, although basically colonised, became more stable as a jurisdiction nearer to the 1700s. Before then, land invasions and privateering at sea was open season; you certainly could not look at a stable cultural society or jurisdiction called the West Indies. They had an African slave population that was distinctly African.

The next important consideration that shaped the history is the nature of its economy and the shift in the diet of Europeans towards consuming sugar. While silver and gold were the initial lure for European traders, sugar became the commodity that drove trade during the 18th and 19th centuries. The sugar trade required plantations with cheap slave labour and gave nothing back to the country because the traders who owned the industry were in Europe and were satisfying the European demand while leaving the Caribbean poor. They built plantations with relatively very little urban development.

Slavery satisfied their need for labour until it was abolished. Then to replace it, they developed another format by using Asians from India under a system of indentured service and paying extremely low wages. That situation, owing to the economic structure, set the stage for out-migration — particularly for the former slaves. Bermuda during the 1700s had a maritime economy with sufficient natural labour and had no need for such large labour pools to drive agriculture; therefore, no need to steal workers from the West Indies.

Bermuda developed simultaneously with the West Indies and also had African slaves as its initial and main worker population. During the colonisation of America, in particular New England, with wars against Native Americans, those who would not surrender were brought to Bermuda and added to the slave population.

However, by 1656 according to a census report, there were 100 black babies being born per year, equalling the births by the white population. Those babies were signalling the arrival of the third generation of black Bermudians, the first being 1616. By 1675, there was huge concern about overpopulation and insufficiency of work, which resulted in the ban of importation of African or Native American slaves.

Bermuda had its religious disputes also and, as a result, two boat loads of individuals deemed as rebels were expelled from the island. They discovered Bahamas (Eleuthera) and caused its colonisation as well as Carolina. Captain William Sayle became the first governor of both Bahama and Carolina, having first been governor in Bermuda — a position he held twice.

Ancillary to that development became an extension to the Bermuda population in both Carolina and Bahamas. There was an out-migration of black Bermudians to the Bahamas and Carolina. The other island where Bermuda had influence and even control was the Turks Island, which also became an extension to the black slave populations and an area to where there was out-migration.

The result of these extended jurisdictions and Bermuda maritime economic involvement explains why — despite an annual black birthrate of 100 starting in 1656 and presumed exponential growth — the local black population appears only to creep past that of the white population rather than rush. Because persons who became free were intimidated to leave if not sent off island.

As the population of Bahamas gained new immigrants, in particular from Jamaica, eventually there became a shift in the social and political dynamics within the archipelago. They began to challenge the hold on the salt trade, which was a serious issue given the grip Bermudians had in Turks Island. This led to Turks Island becoming more the possession of the Bahamas circa 1810.

The picture being raised is that Bermuda grew its own native population simultaneous to the development in the West Indies and not because of the West Indies. The DNA of black Bermudians and the West Indies back in the early 1600s was the same because in both cases they were from Africa. The cultural differences and changes are a result of the differences in the nature of the economies.

The subsequent growth in DNA beyond 1700 was the result of the mixes between Native Americans, black Bermudians, and Irish and English assimilations that generated what was termed a significant coloured or mulatto population by early 1800. The Portuguese were added to that population profile in 1857 and, because of white discrimination against the Portuguese, they assimilated primarily with the black population.

In 1880, there was a similar population infusion; this time with the West Indies. Hundreds if not thousands of persons came from the West Indies between 1880 and 1900. That group totally assimilated into the black population to the extent that perhaps all existing black Bermudians have some of those West Indian ancestors. Every human has four grandparents and eight great-grandparents. I, for example, have three great-grandparents who came from the Caribbean and five from “deeper” Bermuda.

The false narrative is that there is no black nativity. The true narrative is that there is black nativity that stretches back to 1616 and that the vast majority of that Bermudian nativity DNA and profile, which was transported up to 1834, was ostensibly of native stock.

Naturally, there was inclusions, but those inclusions were not dominant and were not wholesale infusions. Rather, they were random occurrences mainly of misadventure. The largest evidence of nativity is dialect, which is not easily achieved and is a clear indicator of dominance. Bermuda has its own accent or dialect, which is distinguishable anywhere in the world. The West Indies also generated its own dialect, which is also distinguishable anywhere in the world.

I know individuals who came to Bermuda as children who after 60 years it is still very clear that their roots were in the West Indies. However, the dialect of their children, in spite of having two parents from the Caribbean, is Bermudian because of the dominance factor. It takes hundreds of years to develop a distinct dialect and that factor was shaped by the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, and needs no further proof of the issue on whether there was a native culture that was distinctly Bermudian.

If, as one writer consistently states, 90 per cent of black Bermudians up to 1834 were from the West Indies, they would indeed have become dominant, but they weren't because it was not so. Any dialectologist would agree with my assessment of the Bermudian dialect — dialectology is an amazing subject.

The nature and demands of our economy produced Bermuda's dialect, as it did in the Caribbean. The difference is entirely owing to the difference in the economies.

It is no accident that there are only slight variations between the islands of the West Indies, and a huge difference between those islands and Bermuda.

In the beginning: Captain William Sayle played a significant role in early Bermuda, not least in twice serving as governor

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Published August 03, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 03, 2020 at 8:44 am)

Exploding the myths about our West Indian heritage

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