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When Mary met Benjamin: together at last

“Benjamin’s owners disfigured his face with a knife to discourage him from running away, and others from kidnapping him, then branded his shoulder as an additional identifier. Both marks he bore for the rest of his life.”— Andrew G. Welch, the author of The Life of Benjamin Benson

Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage

My St David’s mother-in-law, Beryl Foggo from the St David’s Foggo clan is a Cup Match fanatic much like I am, having probably having attended her first Cup Match during the early 1940s. And we had a brief conversation in the kitchen on Saturday morning as I was continuing the task of completing these next instalments in this series. So anyway she made the observation like many have done of late that we desperately needed rain, which is a growing obsession because of its excruciatingly lengthy absence from our shores in any meaningful way. I, however, while concurring and agreeing with her sought the opportunity to be mischievous:

“Moms,” I said, “we do need rain but don’t you think we also need your relative Onias Bascome, the young captain of St George’s, to win the Cup Match classic and bring the cup back home for us?” To which she nodded her head somewhat solemnly.

But then I added: “Moms, just to put it in perspective, despite the drought-like conditions we are facing, if I had to put the wish list I have just discussed with you in order, wouldn’t you agree that the need for Onias as captain to lead his team to victory is more important than rain right now?”

To which she nodded affirmatively with a faint smile on her face.

Then I added: “Winning the cup is No 1 on the wish list, while rain, being important, is still a distant second by way of comparison with true believers. Let the heavens open up either before the first ball is bowled on Thursday or not until about 7.45pm on Friday.”

During the writing of Part 1, entitled “The Mary Prince we know”, Bermuda was blessed with the appearance of another in this case newly rediscovered anti-slavery 30-page pamphlet A Narrative of the Life of Benjamin Benson, which had been missing from public access and appreciation for many years. This transcribed testimony similarly to Mary Prince’s was the recorded life story of a formerly enslaved man of African descent by the name of Benjamin Benson, although there is some doubt as to whether that was his real surname. Born in the Town of St George in 1818, his story was transcribed by English author and doctor Andrew G. Welch. The pamphlet, although described as a book, itself is not that long, consisting of only 35 pages and was self-published by Welch in London. We owe a debt of gratitude to Neil Kennedy PhD at the Department of History at Memorial University, of Newfoundland, and to the National Museum of Bermuda — although I still do not understand of which “Nation” they are referring to in their title — for bringing to the public domain another important look into the lives of the enslaved persons of African and Native American descent ( lest we forget) that characterised life here over the first two centuries of settlement of Bermuda.

In this regard, I also am indebted to the Reverend Nicholas Tweed, who through diligent research found the golden fleece, if you will, by sourcing a copy of the original publication online. Benson’s story, long lost as mentioned, now represents a perfect companion piece to Mary Prince’s.

Another Cup Match gift for the people of Bermuda.

So the question I asked in Part 1 was whether slavery in Bermuda was benign. Certainly, if one examines the life of enslavement that Mary Prince endured, or for that matter that of the aforementioned Benjamin Benson, the answer as stated emphatically previously would be “No”. But you be the judge.

As it relates to Mary Prince:

• Prince near the end of her time in Bermuda was sold while still belonging to a Captain John Ingham whose estate was situated in the Pembroke area of St John’s Road near where Western Stars Sports Club sits today, and where the Foggo-Reid family (yes, that name again) of St George’s purchased the remaining part of that estate a few decades ago, which is now being beautifully restored and managed by Ronita Botchway, the honorary counsel of Ghana, and my mother-in-law’s beloved niece. It was there in honour of Mary Prince that Ms Botchway presided over, along with researcher Meredith Ebbin, the attaching of a plaque located at the entrance to the estate honouring Prince.

It was also there where Mary witnessed the horrific murder of a pregnant young female named “Hetty”, who was enslaved by their common master. I say murder but not in strictly a legal sense because as the property of her master, he in essence held the power of life and death over her and, in fact, over Prince herself. Hetty was a young woman who was flogged (beaten) to death. This beating was especially heinous because the younger enslaved female was not only pregnant but the act was witnessed by another interested observer — that being Ingham’s wife. The speculation is that the young woman was likely carrying the master’s own child.

• Additionally, Prince also describes her work on a Bermudian-owned plantation located not in Bermuda but in a de facto colony of Bermuda in the Turks & Caicos Islands. She described the back-breaking and debilitating labour and severe illness she and her fellow enslaved persons had to endure in producing salt, Bermuda’s “white gold” — which was one of the most important commodities necessary for the economy — as the salt in the salt pens ate away at her exposed legs and those of her fellow enslaved. This was a commodity that white Bermudian slave-owning merchant families sold to willing markets up and down the East Coast of America.

• When one adds that, even in the absence of the above-described conditions, enslaved persons were legally considered chattel or property and that any children born to the female slave transferred her status of enslavement to her offspring. The legal status of the mother, in fact, was heritable. Thus the fundamental status of the enslaved was one that could not be considered benign. Mary Prince herself was sold off to a master at a fairly early age and separated or severed from her familial relations, as she also chronicled. The spectre of sexual exploitation of the enslaved by masters was also ever-present, as likely occurred on the Ingham estate and is a practice that Mary herself alludes to while enslaved to one of her masters in her account in captivity. This same reality may have informed the actions of Sally Bassett in attempting to murder her master, although that was never clear. Mary Prince’s two sisters were also sold that same day as she, but I assume to a different owner or owners.

End of Part 2 ...

Rolfe Commissiong was the Progressive Labour Party MP for Pembroke South East (Constituency 21) between December 2012 and August 2020, and the former chairman of the joint select committee considering the establishment of a living wage

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Published July 26, 2022 at 7:47 am (Updated July 27, 2022 at 10:00 am)

When Mary met Benjamin: together at last

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