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Benjamin’s story: I have witnessed so many travails

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“(1825) Hezekiah Frith Jr’s Notice in the Gazette, which read: One Doubloon Reward

Absconded, on the 26th May, Negro Man Tim, belonging to Hezekiah Frith, Sen, Esq, yellow complexion stout male, about 6 feet high, and a carpenter by trade, He is well known throughout the island, (particularly in St. George’s)”

Heritage (Kenneth Robinson, PhD)

“(1829) C.C. Hinson’s Notice to the effect that ‘Several very Valuable Negro Men, being carpenters and sailors’ were to be offered for Sale.”

Heritage (Kenneth Robinson, PhD)

The title page to an 1847 narrative by Benjamin Benson, an enslaved Bermudian who documented life before and after emancipation (Image supplied)

In the period that saw the expansion of the cotton-based economy in the Deep South consisting of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia largely financed by British financial institutions, the demand for enslaved persons even from Bermuda was extraordinary. In the Upper South of Virginia and beyond, those states had taken on the reputation as slave-breeding states. The pamphlet, for example, highlights the following:

“The Negros are raised and reared precisely as cattle.”

In Andrew Welch’s account, he states that some male slaves had a status akin to prized bulls. Many would even participate in prize fighting where significant amounts of money were wagered. Benjamin relates that his master gambled prodigiously on such fights and had a number of his males trained as prize fighters. Benjamin noted however that “four or five of the handsomest and most robust were kept in luxurious ease and idleness well clad and well fed, to be let out for purposes that must be unexplained”.

Certainly, though, he does go on to explain because in the next sentence Dr Welch writes, as Benjamin conveyed, that “it is sufficient to state that they were fathers to some hundreds of slave children”. Remember by this period after 1805, both Britain and the United States had banned the importation of enslaved persons via the Transatlantic Slave Trade centred on Africa. The additional wreckage this unleashed upon enslaved African norms of family formation and custom was unfathomable and the damage caused in the imposition of these perverse norms still resonates today.

Clearly, some Bermudian slave owners were more than willing to join in on this bonanza by selling enslaved persons to willing buyers in the US.

Benjamin Benson’s experience, which included a significant stint as a seaman after emancipation, was quite simply extraordinary in its breadth and scope. Like Mary Prince he, too, was a reluctant warrior. At the time he was approached on a London street by the English physician and author, Dr Welch, he was in ill health owing to a lifetime up to that point of unrelenting, dangerous labour and numerous tortures. But I must state that these claims contained in the pamphlet are the interpretive recollections of the writer, Dr Welch, who transcribed and immortalised Benson’s story.

Benson by the time of the fateful encounter was distributing Christian-inspired tracts promoting temperance, not the abolition of slavery.

As the author of the pamphlet that chronicled his life as an enslaved man, the English author Dr Welch highlighted that Benjamin Benson was born in St George’s to a parents who produced 21 children — among them a set of twins. According to Benson, there were at least one or two that didn’t survive childhood. Family ties clearly were precarious and could be disrupted in the cruellest way imaginable. Both Mary Prince and Benson were sold off to slave owners on estates separate from their parents and siblings. Benson’s mother, he relates, was born on Long Island in New York State and sold off at age 12 to a Bermudian slave owner named Davenport. Benson’s father, on the other hand, was by his account African-born and trafficked to the Caribbean before reaching Bermuda — similarly in a state of bondage.

The author of the pamphlet, Dr Welch, could not discern as to whether Benjamin’s parents were married. But does it really matter for the enslaved pre-abolition? Marriage would offer no protections from the depredations or evils of slavery for the unfree. They were (valuable) property or chattel and their offspring all inherited that status upon birth through the enslaved mother. But they were human, too, and the loss or sale of a child or sibling must have been heart-wrenching and psychologically devastating. Whether married legally or not, or blessed by the Church, those bonds were real and unbreakable. For the owner in a thoroughly perverse way, however, each birth represented no more than another asset to increase their wealth. The historian Sarah Churchwell, in a recent op-ed in The Guardian newspaper, characterised this phenomenon as follows: “…the more children a Black woman produced, the more human capital her enslaver acquired”.

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

As a boy, Benson witnessed his father and three siblings being sold off to Georgia. On another occasion, another sibling would escape to New York from his owner in North Carolina, and make his way to Trinidad and freedom. Other siblings, he states, were sold off before he was born. Two sisters, though, were freed.

And then it was Benjamin’s turn. While still enslaved in Bermuda, at age 12 he, too, would be sold off in 1830, as he outlined, and transported to the US. That sale took place only four years before slavery’s abolition in Bermuda. He was sold eventually to the owner of plantations in Alabama and Louisiana by the name of Sneed and then to another owner in North Carolina. That ship — which originally transported him from Bermuda to the port of Mobile, Alabama, in the Deep South — held 300 other enslaved persons of African descent.

A 12-year-old man

Contemplate that. A 12-year-old Bermudian born boy barely achieving puberty in the hull of that fetid ship, restrained below deck with 300 other souls on their way to a fate that they could hardly imagine. How many would never see their families again? These are but a few of the stories of the inhumanity endured by Benjamin Benson, especially those connected to this time as an enslaved person in the Deep South.

So many families were never reunited after abolition. How many Bermudian kin from Benson’s family remain here without knowledge of their ancestry? The same applies to Mary Prince’s family; after all, she had two sisters. How many of Benson’s siblings sold overseas, mostly to the US, never returned and would have remained enslaved in the US long after emancipation if they survived enslavement in Bermuda — slavery in the US to all intents and purposes being abolished after the end of the Civil War in 1865 and formally by way of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868.

By way of contrast, slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834. This, too, is our legacy. Even after making his way back to Bermuda and experiencing his liberty as a result of emancipation in 1834, he would find himself while serving on board a ship “re-enslaved” in the US during an encounter in a southern port after his captain reported him falsely as being mutinous. After a period of time, and with the help of an English sympathiser, he would escape to freedom as a runaway and was a stowaway on a ship that landed him in Providence, Bahamas, where he would gain passage on a ship heading to Bermuda, where his dear mother still lived.

End of Part 3.

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 August 01, 2022 at 8:00 am (Updated July 31, 2022 at 11:47 am)

Benjamin’s story: I have witnessed so many travails

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