Log In

Reset Password

Canon Nisbett demonstrated a concern for ‘we’

Canon Thomas Nisbett waves after visiting the War Memorial at the Remembrance Day Parade (File photograph)

The Reverend Canon Thomas Nisbett, a carpenter by trade, transcended barriers to become Bermuda’s first Black Anglican priest and subsequently was canonised. He wasn’t just a Black face in a high place; he demonstrated love, and his mission was evidently not only about “me”, but about ”we”.

I first heard of Canon Nisbett when he returned home in 1965 as Bermuda’s first Black Anglican priest. While my family were proudly African Methodist Episcopal, my mother sang the praises of this “breakthrough”.

While aware of the legacy of segregation in the Anglican Church, I had not — initially — understood the difficulties Canon Nisbett had navigated to reach that goal.

Early 1981 proved to be another milestone for this reserved “North Shore bye”, when he was designated as Bermuda’s first Black canon.

That spring, Bermuda was experiencing significant inflation. When government and hospital members of the Bermuda Industrial Union began a strike over wages on April 11, 1981, the grassroots Bermuda Workers Socialist Party set up the Striking Families Support Committee to foster community solidarity.

Introducing myself to Canon Nisbett, I invited him to serve as the committee’s co-chair and was pleasantly surprised that he immediately agreed. Subsequently, I approached the Reverend Larry Lowe, the pastor of St Paul AME Church, who agreed.

Mr Lowe was a veteran of social activism — committed to love thy neighbour. In line with the AME legacy, St Paul had served as a hub during the turbulent lead-up to the December 2, 1977, hangings of Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn.

However, having assumed a significant post in a conservative church — where several power elite were members — Canon Nisbett’s “acceptance” of the committee post was against the grain, demonstrating, quietly, substantial character. In our hierarchical society where “title” and “status” dominate, Canon Nisbett was exemplifying solidarity with workers considered poor working devils.

He was quietly leveraging a paradigm shift.

The collaboration of these faith leaders was impactful. People delivered quantities of donated “dry” groceries to St Paul’s basement. With a jam session at the Spinning Wheel and financial donations, $7,000 in cash was raised within two weeks.

As community tensions increased, the committee invited people to attend lunchtime vigils promoting peace. On April 28, 1981, we held a public meeting at St Paul’s hall, which was sparsely attended. However, attendees — including Canon Nisbett and Mr Lowe — developed a consensus, noting that picketing at the airport was impactful, but there was a danger of unintentional violence. The suggestion was floated for a peaceful procession in Hamilton on May 1, 1981, a pivot reaffirming peaceful resolution.

That Friday, May 1, 1981, a few hundred ”spontaneously” marched around Hamilton peacefully for an hour — serendipitously ”guided” by Police Sergeant Campbell Simons. On Sunday, May 3, 1981, we organised another meeting at Warwick Workmen’s Club; a crowd of several hundred attended.

The rest is history as the unprecedented dispute was resolved peacefully.

On June 26, 1981, the BWSP organised about 30 picketers who demonstrated at the Bank of Bermuda, protesting against a loan to a South African company, in violation of UN sanctions. This happened, to the widely expressed chagrin of the bank.

By the spring of 1982, the BWSP initiated the Anti-Apartheid Group of Bermuda. Canon Nisbett agreed to serve as the group’s honorary chair. This, notwithstanding his church’s major benefactor was a senior member of the bank’s board. The campaign had its ups and downs, but eventually $30,000 was raised with the support of US congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. The Government matched the funds raised, and the $60,000 was donated to the World Council of Churches, to the chagrin of many of the power elite.

That success opened doors to the global movement seeking South Africa’s transformation, including UN agencies, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement and the American Committee on Africa. Canon Nisbett attended a UN-sponsored conference of faith leaders, an experience that was matched — especially for him — when global campaigner Archbishop Trevor Huddleston visited Bermuda in 1985.

It was not all easy sailing as the group expanded into the Anti-Apartheid Coalition, which allowed the inclusion for various community stakeholders to address sanctions against South African interests. This proved to be thorny, given the implications that this had for our island’s financial sector. That said, Canon Nisbett’s presence and that of our “resident saint” — Margaret Carter — and others, such as Ron Lightbourne, proved crucial in sustaining a protracted campaign. Through pickets at certain offices and one “sit-in”, Canon Nisbett maintained his serene presence and support.

The breakthrough came when Nelson Mandela was released from almost three decades of imprisonment in February 1990 and several hundred local residents marched through Hamilton.

Our links with the global movement meant that we were invited to attend Mandela’s welcome to New York. Canon Nisbett, Ottiwell Simmons and I travelled to the Big Apple for the two-day event and at the conclusion at Yankee Stadium, Canon Nisbett joined selected guests in a Friends Box.

Since the early 1990s, Canon Nisbett continued his support in honorary roles for Beyond Barriers and Imagine Bermuda, demonstrating — calmly and quietly — a concern for “we”.

You must be Registered or to post comment or to vote.

Published April 24, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated April 24, 2024 at 7:31 am)

Canon Nisbett demonstrated a concern for ‘we’

What you
Need to
1. For a smooth experience with our commenting system we recommend that you use Internet Explorer 10 or higher, Firefox or Chrome Browsers. Additionally please clear both your browser's cache and cookies - How do I clear my cache and cookies?
2. Please respect the use of this community forum and its users.
3. Any poster that insults, threatens or verbally abuses another member, uses defamatory language, or deliberately disrupts discussions will be banned.
4. Users who violate the Terms of Service or any commenting rules will be banned.
5. Please stay on topic. "Trolling" to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations will be deleted.
6. To understand further what is and isn't allowed and the actions we may take, please read our Terms of Service
7. To report breaches of the Terms of Service use the flag icon