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Bermuda’s first Government Leader: Sir Henry Tucker

“Governor, I can open up employment for them in the Civil Service, but our people in the private sector are not ready for that”

Sir Henry Tucker (as related by Calvin Smith, former senator and founder of the Department of Statistics)

The above comment by the former Chief Government Statistician was recounting a conversation he had with Government Leader Sir Henry Tucker during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as I sat spellbound in his living room more than a decade ago. I believe that conversation with the Governor of Bermuda was factual, as confirmed by the events over the succeeding half-century.

The issue in question? The opening of employment opportunities for growing numbers of educated Black Bermudians coming into the workforce.

Just to be clear: as related, this was a meeting demanded by the Governor, as he had been told in no uncertain terms by his political masters in London that Sir Henry and his White Anglo-dominated government had to comply with the order to open employment for educated Black Bermudians within an economy that the United Bermuda Party government, through most of its elected members like Sir Henry, Ernest Vesey and others, controlled directly.

Why was this so-called “public-sector reservation” especially set aside informally for educated Black Bermudians? There was emerging dissatisfaction, even frustration, with Britain and its allies such as the United States, leading to increased militancy and radicalisation of these Black Bermudian baby-boomers. This was as a result of their inability to secure employment in the private sector consistent with their levels of education, along with a general inability to practise political self-determination in a system thoroughly rigged in so many ways.

At first glance, the newly minted One Bermuda Alliance by-election candidate Robert King’s comments about the racial composition [read: Black] of his former employer, the Civil Service, caused my hopes to raise. Finally, it appeared that at long last we were about to have a substantive conversation on a topic that was largely considered taboo in the Black community.

My hopes, however, were misplaced, though, as the more I read, the more confused I became. By the time I got to the end of Mr King’s comments, it was clear that he was ultimately doing nothing more than providing red meat to the most racist elements of his White political base. The same base that lives anonymously in the comments section on this platform trying to convince — rather unconvincingly — that White Anglos and Portuguese are the new victims of racism in Bermuda. Not only that, but a faux racism perpetuated by the uppity and mediocre Black Bermudians such as those who toil in the Civil Service, and who in their view are not good enough or are unqualified to get “real” jobs in the private sector.

Perhaps these are the modern-day exemplars that Sir Henry was referring to in his response to the Governor, who was instructed to read the riot act to Sir Henry by his bosses in the British Government with his “ … our people in the private sector are not ready for that”.

Unfortunately, the responses from Bermuda Public Services Union president Armel Thomas and, worse, the anonymously published comments from the Bermuda Industrial Union on this issue were just plain confusing. No surprise there. But it was downhill from there, as the responses by the BPSU, which once represented Mr King, and the BIU left me even more confused and somewhat depressed.

Another opportunity for a learning experience on the topic of overrepresentation of Black Bermudians in the Civil Service had been squandered. Both seemed to be more intent in denying that they are Black or Black-dominated organisations.

For successive UBP governments, with a view to maintaining the dominance of the White Anglo-Bermuda oligarchy, the Civil Service would become a reservation for educated Black Bermudians to staunch the radicalisation of Black Bermudians mostly from the emerging middle class. This while leaving the private sector as a White-dominated space where the manufacturing of status and White voters could continue. This would be presided over by successive UBP governments as a way to also exert paternalistic control of this growing Black middle class and to ensure the selected patronage of some to obtain their votes for the UBP — a ploy that weakened as we moved into the 1990s.

Manufacturing White voters

Meanwhile, as author Walton Brown wrote in his book, Bermuda and the Struggle for Reform 1944-1998, the following was occurring as a significant source of that dissatisfaction within the Black community owing to its continued suppression:

“With universal suffrage now a reality, government made a concerted effort to encourage immigration by the thousands and clearly most of these were British citizens. A comparison of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies censuses reveals a remarkable increase in the number of non-Bermudians during the decade of the Sixties. In 1950, a total of 7,387 persons living in the island — excluding dependents of the United States and Canadian Armed Forces — were foreign-born. By 1960, that figure had grown modestly, by 18 per cent, to a total of 8,753. The following decade saw a significant escalation in the foreign-born population, an increase of some 66 per cent, to a total of 14,496 persons. A small portion of this was Black, only 15 per cent, while 83 per cent were White. Since more than half of these new residents (56 per cent) of these residents were from the British Commonwealth, they were all entitled to vote after living in the island for a period of three years. Well over two thirds of all the foreign-born persons living in Bermuda in 1970 (69 per cent) came to the island during the 1960s.”

Clearly, if immigration is being used to increase specifically the White voting population, then it is also necessary to find employment for them in the same private sector that Sir Henry asserted was not ready to accept educated and qualified Black Bermudians. This was a fundamental problem and the source of the racial animus that Sir Henry had to solve — and his solution, as articulated to the Governor, led directly to the bifurcated, informal and racially segregated labour market, the remnants of which we see today.

The wages of sin

By the late 1960s, this had already contributed to civil unrest on a number of occasions. By age 11, for example, I had participated along with the other neighbourhood boys from Key West, Spanish Point, in the 1968 riot — or insurrection, if one could call it that. I remain convinced that the riot act that Sir Henry was subjected to was just as much authored by the US, Canada and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as it was by the British Government.

They all knew that, historically, revolutions including those of the anticolonial variety are led for the most part by the disaffected and marginalised from the educated middle and upper classes. Those students coming out of The Berkeley Institute, Technical Institute, and US colleges and universities were viewed as a threat, not an opportunity by Britain and its Nato allies and Bermuda’s White, largely Anglo minority.

This bears repeating: well over two thirds of all the foreign-born persons living in Bermuda in 1970 came to the island during the 1960s.

Unearned privilege

By the 1990s, just under half of White Bermudians would be foreign-born. Many of those immigrants are still living in Bermuda along with their descendants. They were the beneficiaries of unearned White privilege in Bermuda at the expense of Black Bermudians within our labour market and in the context of our presumed democracy throughout that period — the impact of which resonates powerfully in our society today.

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

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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