Earle Edward Seaton (1924-1992)
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history
Earle Seaton’s career as an international lawyer took him from his native Bermuda to East Africa, the United States and the hallowed halls of the United Nations.
He possessed sterling academic credentials, having earned, on top of his law degree, a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.
With his appointment in 1972 as Puisne Judge, he became Bermuda’s first Black Supreme Court judge, but he made his greatest contribution in Tanzania, where he opened a legal practice straight out of law school and rose to prominence as that country’s legal adviser and United Nations representative.
Seaton was one of a handful of Black lawyers working in British East Africa when he opened his practice in Tanganyika in 1948. In 1952, he argued a landmark case at the United Nations. After Tanganyika became independent Tanzania in 1961, he was a familiar figure at the United Nations as legal counsel for the Tanzanian Mission and also an expert on the law of the sea.
He was Puisne Judge in Bermuda from 1972 to 1978 and Chief Justice of the Seychelles Islands from 1979 to 1989. At the time of his death at age 68, he had completed two years as an Appellate Judge of the Uganda Supreme Court.
Seaton was the second of four children born to Eva and Dudley Seaton, both immigrants from St Kitts. The family lived on Smith Hill (St Augustine Hill), off Parson’s Road, Pembroke. Eva worked as a maid and Dudley was a carpenter.
A man of courage and conviction, Dudley Seaton was a signatory to the 1946 Bermuda Workers Association petition, which called on the British Government to investigate a slew of injustices in Bermuda.
Eva and Dudley Seaton had high expectations for their children, and they did not disappoint. Wyonne, the eldest, was a tennis champion who became a physical education teacher and then retrained as a podiatrist; Ruth Seaton James became Registrar-General and the first Black person to head a government department in Bermuda, while Charles, the youngest, was a printer who was reported to have been the first Black graduate of Ryerson Institute in Toronto.
In 1951, three months after graduating from Ryerson, Charles’s life was cut short when he drowned while swimming off North Shore, Devonshire.
Earle Seaton attended the Central School and the Berkeley Institute, where he excelled as a student. He was also a talented violinist and tennis player. (Charles also played violin and was noted for his rich baritone voice.)
Seaton attended Howard University in Washington on a Bermuda Technical Scholarship, which was established for Blacks who were barred from applying for the prestigious Bermuda Government Scholarship.
Intent on becoming a doctor, Seaton studied biology at Howard, but his father — who pinched pennies to ensure that all four children would attend college — persuaded him to study law instead.
After graduating from Howard in 1945, Seaton entered the University of London. He qualified as a barrister in 1948.
Friendships he made with African students he met in London would have a marked impact on the direction his life would take. The students were among the first in their families to attend university and were preparing themselves to take on leadership roles in their home countries.
Seaton learnt Swahili. When a close friend, Tom Marealle, persuaded him that his talents were needed in Tanganyika, Seaton moved there in August 1948 and opened a law office. He later opened offices in Kenya and Uganda.
While at Howard, Seaton met Alberta Jones who was from Houston, Texas. They married in London 1948, and she joined him in Africa the next year, after completing her doctorate in biology from the University of Brussels in Belgium. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in Kenya in 1950.
Seaton’s first period of residence in East Africa occurred during the last years of British rule, and several of his cases reflected longstanding conflicts between Africans and colonial administrators.
In 1949, he represented, in two separate appeals, a group of Ugandan leaders who were charged with inciting riots. He was successful in having their first convictions thrown out, and getting their prison sentences reduced after their subsequent retrial and conviction.
In 1952, much of Seaton’s energies were devoted to the cause of the Meru people, who had been forcibly displaced from two farms in a region of Tanganyika to make way for Afrikaner and European settlers.
The dispute had been simmering for years, but matters reached a boiling point when the evictions began, with local authorities even setting fires to some homes, despite an appeal by the Meru for the evictions to be put on hold pending the outcome of a petition to the United Nations in New York.
Funds had to be hurriedly raised to pay the travel costs of Seaton and Meru leader Kirilo Japhet to New York.
Seaton argued the case before the UN Trusteeship Council in June and July, and before the full General Assembly in November. He also served as a translator for Japhet, who addressed the UN in Swahili.
While there was much sympathy for the Meru people from several countries, it was insufficient to garner enough votes to reverse the evictions.
The case is considered ground-breaking, however, because it raised political awareness throughout East Africa. It triggered Tanzania’s campaign for independence from Britain. Seaton later coauthored the book The Meru Land Case with Japhet.
In 1953, Earle and Alberta Seaton, by then the parents of two children, with the birth of son Dudley that year, left Tanganyika for the US. He began studies for a PhD at the University of Southern California. He received his doctorate in international relations in 1961 and spent the next year as a lecturer in international relations at USC.
In 1962, Seaton returned to newly independent Tanzania, where he directed legal research in the Tanzania Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He later served as a judge and as legal counsel for the Tanzanian Mission to the United Nations. In 1970, he was elected chairman of a United Nations Law of the Sea Committee.
In February 1972, he returned to Bermuda to take up the post of Puisne Judge. While there was widespread approval of the appointment, the opposition Progressive Labour Party said Seaton should have been appointed Chief Justice because of his academic credentials and experience.
At the time, Bermuda had been experiencing racial turmoil and more was on the horizon. The murders of police commissioner George Duckett in September 1972, and of the Governor, Sir Richard Sharples, and his aide-de-camp, Captain Hugh Sayers, and a supermarket owner and manager in 1973 sent shock waves throughout the island.
Seaton was presiding judge at the trials of the accused men, Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. Burrows, who was convicted of the five murders, and Tacklyn, who was convicted of the supermarket murders, were hanged in December 1977.
In 1976, Seaton, “very bravely”, according to one observer, turned down the prosecution’s request for a special jury for Tacklyn’s trial, which would have likely have resulted in a predominately White jury. (Special juries had long been abolished in the Britain and were not abolished in Bermuda for criminal cases until 2004.)
Tacklyn was, however, tried and convicted by a special jury as the prosecution made a fresh application in 1977, which Chief Justice John Summerfield allowed.
In late 1977, Summerfield resigned as Chief Justice. Seaton was passed over for the position, which went to fellow Black Bermudian James Astwood, who was then Solicitor-General. The PLP said Seaton was the more qualified candidate, and there was a heated debate in Parliament.
The controversy soon died down. The reality was that the appointing authority under Bermuda’s Constitution was the Governor, who although required to consult with the Premier, had an unfettered discretion as to whom he appointed. Seaton had the last word on the subject when he said in a 1979 interview: “It was not expected by me that any government in Bermuda would consider that I would be the best man to be Chief Justice.”
Seaton resigned as Puisne Judge in June 1978, and moved back to East Africa. In 1979, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Seychelles, the first Black to occupy the position in that island nation.
That post was likely a better fit for someone with his post-colonial legal experience, as Seychelles — unlike Bermuda — was part of the African community and was newly independent.
Throughout his tenure, the Seychelles was a one-party socialist state — Seychelles became independent in 1976 and its president was replaced in a bloodless coup in 1977. However, according to one newspaper article, the judiciary was said by a United Nations report to have been above reproach.
In1981, South African-based mercenaries tried unsuccessfully to restore the ousted president to power and were arrested and charged. Seaton presided over the trial that followed. Four of the six accused men were sentenced to death, and two received long prison sentences. They subsequently won a reprieve and freedom.
After retiring as Chief Justice in 1989, Seaton moved to Houston, Texas, and became a consultant with Bermuda commercial law firm Milligan-Whyte & Smith.
In 1990, he returned to Africa to serve as an Appellate Judge in the Supreme Court of Uganda.
In 1992, he was returning to Houston for a holiday by way of New York, where on August 30, he collapsed on a street and died of a heart attack.
On September 4,1992, six days after his death, he was honoured by Bermuda’s legal community at a special sitting of the Supreme Court.
On December 6, 1992, a memorial service was held at St Paul AME Church. Former Bermuda governor Sir Edward Leather and Asterius Hyera, the Tanzanian ambassador to the US, were in attendance.
Among those who gave tributes were Ian Kawaley, Bermuda’s Chief Justice, who worked in the Seychelles for two years and appeared before him in court.
Earle Seaton was survived by his wife of 44 years, Alberta, daughter Elizabeth and two granddaughters, Felicia and Sophia.
Because Seaton spent most his career overseas, the stature in which he was held, particularly in Pan-Africanist circles, was never widely appreciated in his homeland.
At various times in his career, he worked alongside Ralph Bunche, the celebrated African-American United Nations diplomat and winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, and Julius Nyerere, the President of Tanzania.
Seaton was a member of the legal team that defended future Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta and others who were charged with political offences in the 1950s. The trial received international attention.
In addition, Seaton was heavily involved in the early years of the Organisation of African Unity and the formulation of Tanzania’s immediate post-independence foreign policy, which saw the country play a pivotal role in supporting liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa long before those struggles achieved legitimacy in the West.
During the years he lived in Bermuda, Seaton, who was a tall, courtly man with an athletic build, remained out of the spotlight.
In June 1979, a year after quitting his post as Puisne Judge, he returned home to be guest speaker at a PLP Father’s Day banquet.
He told the audience Bermuda had nothing to fear from independence, that it would not necessarily lead to poverty, and that changing governments was healthy for democracy.
Seaton’s speech, described by one political commentator as “temperate”, did not create the kind of controversy one might have expected in the Bermuda of 1979, which had yet to see a change in government. His visit attracted significant interest, and was regarded as a coup for the PLP.
Three decades after Earle Seaton’s death, the only tangible evidence in Bermuda of his life and legacy is a memorial plaque at St Paul AME Church. On the same wall is a memorial plaque honouring his sister, Ruth Seaton James.
Earle Seaton’s life was marked by significant losses: the drowning death of his brother, Charles, in 1950; Ruth Seaton James, in 1970, and his son, Dudley Seaton PhD, in 1978.
Commenting on those losses in a 1979 Bermuda Sun interview, Earle Seaton said: “My view on life is that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord…”
Wyonne Paine (born March 2, 1923), the last surviving Seaton sibling, died in Britain, where she had lived since 1954, on April 12, 2020. She was age 97.
• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin and bermudabiographies.bm