An exercise in ‘muscle, money and power’
This is the epilogue to the report of the Commission of Inquiry into Historic Land Losses in Bermuda, which was submitted to the House of Assembly yesterday.
One complainant described the process by which his ancestors had been unjustly dispossessed of their land as “the use of muscle, money and power”. Another described the process as “official misconduct and greed, aided and abetted by a cast of characters eager to exploit those least able to defend against economic bullying”.
Bermudian academic Dr. Theodore Francis, an expert presenter to the COI, opined that the expropriations of land in Tucker’s Town in the 1920s and St. David’s Island in the 1940s were executed by “a matrix of international power brokers”.
Unfortunately, very little about these two events has been recorded in the written history of Bermuda. They have become a historical vacuum, a black hole in the Bermuda story, a cultural void in the developmental narrative of Bermuda and its people. The poignancy of the emotional trauma wrought on the psyche of those who lost property through unjust and/or irregular means in Tucker’s Town and St David’s Island still reverberates through the descendants of the dispossessed landowners. Similar outcomes are experienced by the descendants of landowners who lost their property through unjust and/or irregular means in other parts of the Island also.
The little that has been written about the expropriations in Tucker’s Town and St. David’s Island has focused in the main upon how the expropriated land was used, ostensibly for the betterment of Bermuda. In the case of Tucker’s Town, few authors have cared or dared to explore the effect that the loss of land and domicile, the destruction of habitat and comfort, the loss of industry and economic security, the destruction of family and social life, the disruption of religious practice and the dismantlement of schools and graveyards had upon the dispossessed landowners and their descendants.
In 1940, the Base Lands Act dispossessed St. David’s Islanders, some of whom had moved to St. David’s from Tucker’s Town following the expropriation of land there two decades earlier. They too were now removed from their homes and property by expropriation. Many of the descendants of those Tucker’s Town and St. David’s Island residents who lost their lands unjustly suffer the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the past. For them there has been no closure, no acknowledgement of negative psychological impact on the dispossessed inhabitants and their descendants. There has been no official acknowledgement or apology from either the Bermuda Government or the UK Government for the unfair treatment meted out to the original Tucker’s Town and St David’s Island landowners, Bermudians who sacrificed so much in the interest of the ‘public good’.
Historically, land loss in Bermuda by way of adverse appropriation by individuals or land loss by way of Government expropriation have been responsible for the transfer and change of ownership of hundreds of acres of land. With the transfer and loss of land, the result has been the transfer or loss of potential wealth as well as loss of political and economic power by one group of people and their shift to another. In the analysis of the demographic make-up of the two groups, those who experienced land loss and those who had land transferred into their possession, there is a systemic pattern which shows that those individuals and institutions with money, influence and power took land from those persons who were poor and did not have either economic, legal or political power to resist successfully.
The COI has been on a journey through the annals of Bermuda history, through its pre-abolition past, post slavery and through the ethos of colonial governance. We have been provided with an opportunity to hear from claimants the stories that were told to them, to witness firsthand and in their own words the anguish and pain, the inner turmoil and sense of loss, the unfairness, powerlessness, frustration and despair, anger and hopelessness that are the inevitable consequences of having no voice, feeling rejection and worthlessness, anger and hopelessness.
The historical range of systemic land losses covered by the COI spanned from 1828 to 2021. We heard stories of systemic land loss by adverse possession assisted by lawyers, real estate agents, surveyors, powerful businessmen, bankers and politicians. We heard stories of family members who aided and abetted the theft of the inheritance of siblings. When the COI asked claimants what they hoped to gain from the Inquiry, they frequently responded with the following words, or words to this effect, “Truth and closure. Truth and closure. At least we’re now being heard.”
The claimants wanted answers. The mission of the COI was to find answers to questions long unanswered. However, in efforts of discovery, there were, perhaps unsurprisingly, sometimes more questions than answers.
This COI has been given insight into the development of the Bermudian culture and economy through the ‘lens’ and ‘perspective’ of landownership and land loss, especially by black Bermudians. The COI was reminded that even prior to Emancipation in 1834, freed blacks owned land throughout the Island, with claimants identifying Bulla Wood and James Darrell, for example, as pre-Emancipation landowners. In this regard, the COI has recorded testimony of black Bermudian ownership of substantial holdings of land in not only Tucker’s Town and St. David’s Island, but also in Pembroke, Paget, Warwick, Southampton and Sandys. In several instances, the landowners were dispossessed of their land either by expropriation or by adverse possession whilst holding the title deeds to their property. The COI has documented evidence to support this fact.
Noted Bermudian archaeologist and historian Dr. Edward Harris informed the COI that approximately 15 per cent of land once held by Bermudians has been lost through expropriation. The following questions then beg: “What effect has this dispossession and dislocation had on the inhabitants of Bermuda? If stability and a sense of wellbeing and security are products of living in a stable domicile, what is the net effect of trauma associated with the forced removal from one’s domicile such as occurred in Tucker’s town between 1920 and 1923 and during the 1940s in St. David’s Island?”
The trauma experienced by some descendants of dispossessed Tucker’s Town and St. David’s Island landowners and by some descendants of dispossessed landowners in other parts of the Island is palpable even today, as evidenced by the tears shed by some claimants as they recounted their families’ history. The US Base Lands Agreement remains especially egregious to the St. David’s Islanders because there are elements of that Agreement that have not yet been resolved to their satisfaction.
The Land Development Act 1920 which enabled the expropriation of Tucker’s Town lands cited tourism development as its stated goal. The Act was exceptional because Furness Withy, a private foreign company, was given permission to take land forcibly by expropriation from the lawful 502 Bermudian owners. Consequent to passage of the Land Development Act, approximately six per cent of Bermuda’s total land mass was given over to foreign control and ownership. The former owners were removed, some, like Ms Dinah Smith in 1923, forcibly and were then barred from returning to Tucker’s Town even as visitors unless they were given permission to enter.
Tourism development was the mantra by which the Tucker’s Town expropriation was justified. It was also touted as a windfall event and by-product of the US Base Lands Agreement which offset the displacement and dispossession of St. David’s Islanders.
In the case of Tucker’s Town, the developers’ first option was the Riddell’s Bay area; however, the wealthy Riddell’s Bay landowners were influential enough to redirect the expropriation and development effort to locations where less influential people resided. The power matrix of influential wealthy Bermudians, local, US and British corporate banking interests prevailed to overpower the Tucker’s Town landowners and, two decades later, the St. David’s Island landowners. The result was to benefit the vested interest groups primarily with benefit in the public interest, if at all, only a secondary consideration.
The importance of this COI was expressed by claimants who expressed gratitude to the COI in the following terms, inter alia:
“Thanks to the COI for giving voice to those who have no podium.”
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to the heard.”
“No one would listen. I needed to tell a story. Thank you.”
The COI thanks the claimants themselves for coming forward and telling their stories.