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A legacy of cultural change

Bermuda as a continuously evolving country has moved to the point where its future may no longer resemble any of its past. The long and winding, at times twisted, legacy notwithstanding is still the most instructive tool to capture from where we came, where we are today and what we will look like in the future.

Bermuda's beginning, with its unique location and early fortification, allowed continuous growth and safe harbour for the new British adventurers without the disruption of wars in the US mainland or the 100 years of fluctuations experienced in the Caribbean islands with rivalling European nations.

Codependency, although inhumane, was established from the beginning between the British landlords, with African and Native American slave labour carrying it through the 17th-century agrarian period.

The 18th century's shift from agriculture to maritime brought a new dynamic lasting for 150 years that increased the level of codependency, as men in small boats — slave and master — were spending weeks and sometimes months together on sea ventures with a life-altering mutual alliance for survival at sea.

There was mutual benefit during a period when chattel slavery was a feature of the West. Of course the White population of merchant seamen gained the greater portion of that benefit, while Blacks became the skilled navigators, shipbuilders, sailmakers but escaped in the main the barbaric plantation treatment. This was by no measure a fair and equitable exchange; it set the basis for a new and unique culture.

The early 19th century brings a new dynamic again because of the war between Britain and the new United States, which involved also France. The maritime mercantile industry expands when it legitimised piracy against hostile nations.

This new mercantile industry on its own brought an array of commodities to be sold locally. New arrangements, too, between ship owners and slave crews meant those splits could in some cases be 50-50. This newly generated wealth to a slave society of seamen, now turning to freedom because of the anti-slavery laws passed in England, helped in many cases to generate enough income to purchase manumissions before 1834.

From the salt trade dominated by Bermudian sailors in the Turks Islands, who would sell to the Caribbean, all along the East Coast of the US, all the way to Nova Scotia up to Newfoundland — trading small goods along the way and returning to Bermuda, completing that circuit with codfish. Bermudian sailors, Black and White, became well known; we were the sailing hardware store of the Atlantic.

We can add whaling to that seafaring industry, which was also very lucrative, but it was privateering that brought the gold — at times, literally. Bermudian pirates would lurk for months in places such as Cayman and Bahamas, hiding and waiting for French ships to be ravaged and plundered. This was a dangerous occupation because people got killed in these battles. History properly understood that Bermudian sailors battled the Spanish over the Turks Islands and won.

At home, this maritime near-dominance by Blacks was the beginning of a burgeoning merchant Black economy that would grow during the 19th century as an established merchant community. Society became dependent on the commodities; in particular, high-end furniture, utensils and china.

The industry also proved the superiority of Bermudian-built ships, with about 70 ships built annually. The Bermuda ships were able to sail upwind and the four-riggers could not compete against Bermudian sailors, especially when loaded with a cannon. It is stated that of 1,000 American ships sunk in and around the Civil War period, 700 were sunk by Bermudian seamen who were particularly treacherous.

The sea was so lucrative along with all the spin-off trades that it caused a decline in Black males wanting work or have any interest in agriculture. Enter the Portuguese agricultural labour in 1857.

After the end of the Civil War of 1863, Britain had no ports on the East Coast of the US; Halifax and Newfoundland were the only ports.

Work was then assigned to build a naval port in Bermuda, making it the admiralty of the Atlantic initiative. Ireland island was chosen, causing a huge demand for tradesmen and labourers. Enter the West Indians during the 1880s, many coming from Nevis, St Kitts and St Vincent — basically the small islands.

Built for trade: a moonlight scene of maritime Bermuda with a classic sloop and shipbuilding on the shore.

At first there were hundreds, then by the turn of the century there were at least 1,000 or more coming from the West Indies.

Bermuda was of an entirely different population dynamic at the turn of the 20th century — as opposed to the old co-dependent alliance of the previous 300 years predicated on slave relations. The new century had become more diverse with competing cultures.

There was the established gentry and White community. Behind them were the Black merchants who had by then the tallest building on Front Street — still owned today by the Robinson family. Strewn throughout the city, in particular places such as King Street, there were wholesale shops, importers and every imaginable retail outlet — the proverbial “Black Wall Street”. Then we had the Portuguese now into their second generation. Then because of the new status as a British maritime port, we had now the presence of the British leading the military, the police and having prominence in the Civil Service.

The newest group was a fledgeling West Indian community who culturally were different, having come from plantocracies as opposed to the Bermudian Blacks, who for the greater part were maritime then eventually merchant seafarers — hence having a maritime culture.

Bermuda continued to stretch during 20th century, playing a significant role in the Second World War with American bases that dumped thousands of servicemen and families to be included in the population mix. Ultimately, Bermuda shifted from a domestic economy to one driven by international business. All these dynamics pushed population growth, diversity and the ethnic and racial struggle, unlike the previous 300 years.

To be continued...

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Published April 12, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated April 11, 2021 at 9:32 am)

A legacy of cultural change

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