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James ‘Jemmy’ Darrell (1749-1815): a story of resilience, resistance and triumph

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Pilot James "Jemmy" Darrell’s grave at the burial ground for slaves and free Blacks at St Peter’s Church (Photograph by Meredith Ebbin)

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

A slave for most of his life, James Darrell was granted his freedom at the age of 47 because of his outstanding skills as a pilot. He was one of Bermuda’s first King’s pilots, as well as the first known Black person to purchase a house.

As a free man of colour, he challenged laws that imposed new restrictions on free Blacks and slaves, and also petitioned against proposals that would have led to a drop in income for King’s pilots.

Living in St George’s, Darrell belonged to a thriving community of free Blacks. Of the nine parishes, St. George’s had the largest number of free Blacks in the 30 years before emancipation in 1834.


Darrell was a slave who belonged to Captain Francis Darrell, of St George’s. Some researchers believe that Darrell, a light-skinned man, might have been Francis Darrell’s son. In 1793, Francis Darrell died and Joseph Laborn, of St. George’s, became the guardian of Francis Darrell’s son, John, and James Darrell.

That same year, the British Government purchased 41 acres of land at Ireland Island to establish a base that would become HM Dockyard. In preparation for the construction of Dockyard, British surveyor Lieutenant Thomas Hurd was sent to Bermuda to carry out the first comprehensive marine survey of the island.

James Darrell, Jacob Pitcarn and Tom Bean were among the slaves who assisted Lieutenant Hurd with his survey. It is likely they were chosen for their skill as pilots and extensive knowledge of the island’s bays, inlets and coastline because piloting was an occupation that Blacks dominated from Bermuda’s earliest days.


While carrying out his survey, Lieutenant Hurd marked several channels at the East End of the island to allow naval ships to navigate the treacherous reefs and enter protected anchorages without incident. That was a departure from previous access points—usually ships entered Bermuda from the west end or the south shore into Castle Harbour.

On May 17, 1795, two years after Lieutenant Hurd began his survey, Darrell manoeuvred Rear Admiral George Murray’s 74-gun ship HMS Resolution into a deep anchorage — now known as Murray’s Anchorage — on the North Shore near Tobacco Bay, St George’s.

It was a feat requiring great skill and Darrell came through with flying colours. He impressed everyone from onlookers to Murray, who wrote James Craufurd, the Governor, the same day, showering Darrell with praise.

Murray described Darrell as having “great merit for his ability and steadfastedness”. He recommended that the Government purchase Darrell’s freedom as an example to others who might also be inspired to become King’s pilots.

Darrell, along with Jacob Pitcarn and another slave, were appointed the first King’s pilots in 1795. Their main responsibility was to pilot British naval ships through the reefs.


Pilot James "Jemmy" Darrell’s house in St George’s remains in family hands more than 200 years after his death (Photograph by Meredith Ebbin)

Murray’s recommendation that Darrell be freed was approved by the Governor’s Council on December 1, 1795. The Governor paid Joseph Laborn £150 for Darrell, who was officially granted his freedom on March 1, 1796.

The manumission paper that freed him from bondage described “a certain Negro man, commonly called or known by the name of Jemmy Darrell, aged 47 years or thereabouts of a smooth skin and yellowish complexion and five feet eight inches high ...”

The change in status brought Darrell some benefits, but not total freedom. He could pocket his earnings, but could not serve on a jury or give testimony in court. In addition, the social climate for free Blacks had worsened as a result the 1791 Haitian Revolution, which had struck fear in the hearts of slave owners everywhere. Free Blacks were targeted because they were believed to be the ringleaders of slave uprisings.


1749: James Darrell is born

1793: Darrell’s owner, Captain Francis Darrell, dies and Joseph Laborn becomes his guardian

British naval surveyor Lieutenant Thomas Hurd begins the first marine survey and is assisted by James Darrell, Jacob Pitcarn and Tom Bean

May 17, 1795: Darrell pilots Admiral Murray’s ship HMS Resolution into Murray’s Anchorage; Murray recommends that Darrell be freed

December 1, 1795: The Governor’s Council approves and Darrell is purchased from Laborn for £150

March 1, 1796: Darrell becomes a free man

April 19, 1800: Darrell purchases property in St George’s for £50

1806: Darrell and Jacob Pitcarn petition against a new law banning free Blacks from purchasing property and willing to their heirs; they also petition measures that would lead to lower earnings for pilots

1808-1811: Pitcarn and Darrell send at least two more petitions to the Colonial Office

August 1813: Law that triggers Darrell’s petition expires

April 12, 1815: Darrell dies and is buried at graveyard for Blacks and free men of colour at St Peter’s Church, St George’s


Fears had not eased by 1806 when Bermuda’s legislators introduced new laws. Two were aimed at discouraging free Blacks as well as slaves from learning a trade because legislators felt too many Blacks and insufficient numbers of Whites were practising as tradesmen.

A third law made it illegal for free Blacks to purchase property and to will it to their heirs. It also required Blacks who were freed when they were in the prime of their lives — those under the age of 40 — to leave Bermuda within three months.

That Act sought to reduce the island’s population of free Blacks and to prevent those who remained in Bermuda from owning property.

Darrell, who had purchased an undeveloped piece of land in St George’s on April 19, 1800, and fellow King’s pilot Jacob Pitcarn were quick to take action the same year the new Acts were passed. Bypassing the Governor, they appealed directly to the British Navy headquarters in London in a petition for the right to keep the property they had acquired.

In their petition they pointed out that while people of colour comprised the majority of Bermuda’s population, only nine free persons of colour out of a total Negro population of 5,058 owned land more than 100 square feet.

They argued they would be forced to sell their property and “become wanderers, in some other parts of the World, where they may find refuge”.

Darrell and Pitcarn, along with other signatories, sent at least two more petitions to the Colonial Office in London between 1808 and 1811. The 1808 petition was signed by 22 signatories, who described themselves as free persons of colour.

While London said the law seemed to be severe and recommended it be repealed, it remained on the books for seven years.

In December 1806, Darrell and Pitcarn also petitioned against new measures that would leave them with less income from their piloting. Both men had recently purchased a boat, with the expectation they would receive an allowance for boats and crew. The allowance was about to be eliminated. It is not known whether that petition was successful.


“Your petitioners further, beg leave to state, that in consequence of an Act of the Legislature of this Colony, lately passed, they are deprived amongst the rest of the People of Colour of leaving their property to their wives, children or relatives, at their decease, but that it returns to the disposal of Government.” — Excerpt from 1806 Petition by James Darrell and Jacob Pitcairn for repeal of property law, the Fay and Geoffrey Elliot Collection, Bermuda Archives

“That your Memorialists from the time of their appointments as King’s Pilots by Vice-Admiral George Murray, former Commander-in-Chief of his Majesty’s Ships and vessels on this Station, have received three shillings sterling per day, and the usual Navy Allowance for their Services as Pilots.” — Pilots petition for increase in pay, December 11, 1806, the Berkeley Papers, 1805-1807, the Fay & Geoffrey Elliot Collection, Bermuda Archives


Despite these setbacks, Darrell’s status as a free man placed him among a thriving community. In 1806, 147 of the 717 Blacks living in St George’s were free persons — the largest free community on the island. They were attracted to the East End by employment opportunities created by the establishment of the British garrison in St George’s in 1796.

Darrell also earned a good living as a King’s pilot, at least until the time of his 1806 petition against the prospect of pay cuts. He continued to elicit praise. A Lieutenant Evans cited his “great coolness and presence of mind” for navigating a frigate through North Channel. Darrell continued to earn his living as a pilot until poor eyesight forced him into retirement.

By the time of Darrell’s death at the age of 66 in 1815, the law that banned free Blacks from willing property to their heirs had expired. Darrell left his property to his wife, Eusebia, son Thomas Cooper (Darrell), daughter Joanah and grandson James Darrell.

He was buried in the graveyard for free Blacks and slaves in St Peter’s Church, St George’s. The inscription on his headstone, which ascribes to him such qualities as “usefulness” and “integrity”, indicates he was held in high esteem.


Pilot Darrell’s story of resilience, resistance and of triumph over great odds has resonated through the centuries. His property, located on Aunt Peggy’s Lane, remains in family hands. Romano Ramirez, a direct descendant, restored the house in 1992.

On April 12, 2007, the 192nd anniversary of Darrell’s death, Ewart Brown, then the Premier, presided over a day of celebration in St George’s in his honour. A plaque at Darrell’s grave was restored as part of the celebration. A new tender for the sail-training vessel Spirit of Bermuda now bears his name.

Many of the documents pertaining to Darrell’s life are housed in the Bermuda Archives, which mounted the exhibition A Manifest Alteration in 2008. Further information about Darrell is being unearthed all the time. Darrell descendants live in Mexico, Tasmania, California, New York and New Zealand.

In November 2008, The Royal Gazette reported how New Zealander Bill Grant learnt he was a Darrell descendant. He was able to close gaps in the Darrell family tree with the assistance of Bermuda descendants and genealogist Clara Hollis-Hallett.

According to research carried out by Hollis-Hallett, Darrell married twice and fathered a son, whose name is not known, by his first wife.

That son was the father of James Darrell, Darrell’s grandson. Eusebia was the mother of Thomas Cooper (Darrell) and Joanah. Thomas Cooper fathered five children, and Joanah was childless. The Gazette also said deeds confirm that Darrell bought a property at 5 Aunt Peggy’s Lane and later purchased an adjacent plot of land.

• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin and bermudabiographies.bm

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Published February 06, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated February 05, 2023 at 4:26 pm)

James ‘Jemmy’ Darrell (1749-1815): a story of resilience, resistance and triumph

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