1981 General Strike: Canon Thomas Nesbitt, a ‛gentle and patient trailblazer’
Human societies undergo shifts from time to time; for the better or the worse. The sources of those shifts are never fully understood — shrouded in some mystery. In the spring of 1981, during a dispute that mushroomed into a general strike, there was arguably a shift in Bermuda society. It undoubtedly is a milestone for our less than perfect society, as since which we have been able to remain on a path of non-violently resolving significant community matters. The data is clear when we compare our island's record for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s with the four decades since 1981. Over the next few days, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1981 General Strike culminating in the fateful day on May 5, we reflect on this shared Bermuda story, highlighting some of the people, who accessed their out-of-the-box potential and played a monumental part in fostering that shift
Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett
The Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett was born to parents who had emigrated to Bermuda from Nevis and lived in the St Monica’s Road area. While he was baptised in the AME Church, at age 7, he became a choirboy at St Monica’s Mission. That was the beginning of a long journey, ending up being the first Black priest to have a permanent post in the Anglican Church in Bermuda.
When he left school, Thomas became a carpenter like his father, a passion he retained. That notwithstanding, he maintained an unwavering desire to enter the priesthood, despite getting little encouragement from the all-White church leadership. Bermuda’s Anglican Church practised segregation, with separate choirs and Sunday school for Blacks and Whites until the 1960s.
But the leadership at St Monica’s, which was built to serve the spiritual needs of Caribbean immigrants and consecrated in 1909, was Black. Thomas Nisbett had an active role there. He became a licensed lay reader, gave sermons and oversaw the growth of the Sunday school. In 1959, the Anglican parish of Pembroke, of which St Monica’s is a part, agreed to sponsor his studies at Codrington College in Barbados.
In 1962, he was ordained a deacon in Barbados. When Bermuda’s Anglican bishop refused to sponsor him for the final phase of his training, the bishop in Barbados took him under his wing. He spent the next two years in Barbados, attached to St Phillip’s Church. In 1963, on the feast day of St Thomas, he was ordained a priest.
In 1965, he returned home to take up his first position on home soil when a new bishop in Bermuda, John Armstrong, assured him there would be a place for him. He and his wife, Winifred, a schoolteacher and organist who had joined him in Barbados, returned home.
He has been called “a gentle and patient trailblazer” for achieving a long-overdue milestone upon his return that year, when he became assistant priest at St James Church in Somerset, the first Black to do so. He was then assigned to Chapel of Ease in St David’s and St Peter’s, followed by St John’s in Pembroke. In 1974, he was appointed rector of Christ Church, Devonshire, a position he held for 22 years.
During his long career, he served as chaplain to the bishop, chaplain to the Governor and the Diocesan Guild Council. In 1981, Thomas Nisbett became a canon.
Within weeks of his canonisation, a strike of 1,100 hospital and government Bermuda Industrial Union members began on April 11th. It was sparked by the impact of inflation on family budgets, and tensions grew as the strike extended.
On the weekend of April 18, the grassroots organisation Bermuda Workers’ Socialists set up the Strikers’ Family Support Committee to encourage solidarity across the wider community. Canon Nisbett agreed to be co-chairman and was soon joined by the Reverend Larry Lowe, of St Paul AME, as the other co-chairman. The committee encouraged the public to donate non-refrigerated grocery items and funds to assist families affected. They eventually staged lunchtime prayer/reflection sessions in order to calm the waters.
The reserved canon’s public stance was viewed as remarkable by many during that time. The Anglican Church had maintained its conservative track record, unlike that of the AME Church.
Within a year of that successful peaceful resolution, Canon Nisbett agreed to another invitation from the Bermuda Workers’ Socialists, which set up the Bermuda Anti-Apartheid Group. He willingly served as the honorary chairman during the 1980s and played his role in that solidarity campaign. Canon Nisbett was joined by Ottiwell Simmons and myself, among numerous guests of the New York City Council, for the welcome of Nelson Mandela to the Big Apple in 1990.
In 2012, he and his wife, Winifred, who died in 2011, were honoured by the Anglican Church with the launch of the Canon Thomas and Winifred Nisbett Lectures in Biblical Studies.
The couple were described a “longstanding and much loved pioneers in shaping the Anglican Church of Bermuda in the modern era, who through patience and the study of the Scriptures, modelled and enabled the church to move beyond the era of segregation”.
Canon Nisbett and his wife are the parents of two children, Thomas Jr and Michael. Thomas Jr has followed in his father’s footsteps and is a priest in New Brunswick, Canada.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda. Additional research was contributed by Meredith Ebbin