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First Gazette editor lost at sea for 11 weeks

Canadian-born Donald McPhee Lee was the first Editor of The Royal Gazette, serving in the post for 55 years.

Lee had an amazingly long tenure as editor, but a harrowing voyage on the high seas on his way to Bermuda nearly ended his career before it began. Setting sail from Halifax, he ran into stormy waters three days into the journey and was lost at sea for 11 weeks. His parents had given him up for dead and his brother, David Ross Lee, put out the first two editions of the newspaper.

When he turned up in St George's on board the storm-tossed schooner Sally Ann in January 1828, his family were overjoyed by his miraculous survival. Lee had a riveting story to tell, one that was published after his death. Its characters included a captain who went blind, a navigator who was illiterate, and two crewmen who were washed overboard by a wave and back on to the boat.

Lee was born on Prince Edward Island, and later moved with his family to St John's, Newfoundland, where he learnt the printing trade. Lee's father, Robert Lee, had served with the British military in Bermuda. After learning of a vacancy for a King's printer in Bermuda, he submitted his son's name for consideration.

A King's printer was needed to print official government documents, and according to Marion Robb in A brief history of The Royal Gazette, “in the simpler days of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the surest way to get a newspaper started in the ‘remote Bermudas' was merely to import a printer who could be depended on to bring along his type and press, and who was expected to shoulder the incidental responsibilities of editor and publisher. Even on a four-page journal, these were considerable.”

Lee arrived in Bermuda in late 1827 with his whole family — his parents, brothers and sisters, and his printing press. He then returned to St John's, where he picked up his type. He set sail from Halifax on October 29, 1827, the sole passenger on board the Sally Ann, an 80-tonne Bermuda schooner. The ship, which had a crew of six, including an elderly Bermudian slave and two boys, encountered the first of three storms on the third day, and things went from bad to worse.

They ran out of food and water, and Lee had to become skipper and navigator when the captain reached the depths of despair and then went blind. Lee was certain he would die at one point. Eventually, a Spanish ship came to their rescue. The ordeal ended on January 10, 1828 when a Bermuda pilot gig led the Sally Ann into St George's.

In his narrative about the voyage, which was published several months after his death in 1883, Lee said that when he made it to his parents' house, he found his mother, Mary, “still on her knees, returning thanks for my preservation”.

David Ross Lee put out the first two editions of The Royal Gazette, Bermuda Commercial and General Advertiser and Recorder — which was the newspaper's original name — on January 8 and 15, 1828.

Lee recovered sufficiently from his ordeal to publish his first edition the next week, on January 22. From then until his death, The Royal Gazette came off the presses every Tuesday without fail.

The Gazette was first published from a building on Front Street, near the “Yacht Club House”, where he lived with his brother, David, and sisters, Emily and Sarah. In 1831, he moved to Queen Street, and in 1853, to the corner of Reid Street and Burnaby Street. Lee's move to Bermuda was paid for out of the public purse — the Governor authorised £500 in funds. He was printer to two kings and one queen (Victoria). As King's printer, a post that was abolished during the early 20th century, he had the right to use “Royal” in the newspaper's title. Besides serving as King's printer, and editor, Lee also ran a stationery story and published an annual almanac.

Overseas news from England, the United States, Canada and the Caribbean figured prominently in the Gazette, weeks after the event, as the main source was foreign newspapers on arriving ships and first-hand accounts provided by ships' passengers and crews.

On the local front, Lee published reports of parliamentary proceedings, court cases and news from Dockyard and St George's, much of it filed by correspondents.

As editor for more than half a century, Lee bore witness to epochal events: wars, coronations and the abolition of slavery. He wrote an editorial about emancipation in 1834. In 1848, he called for the construction of a causeway to connect St George's to the mainland. He was in the editor's chair when the Causeway opened 23 years later in 1871.

Lee was a hands-on editor, who wrote and edited articles, set type and trained apprentices. The work was long and laborious. The four-page paper was printed on a manual press by candlelight — and press nights were all-nighters.

Lee, his parents and several siblings settled in Bermuda permanently. He and his brothers, George and David, married local women. George's wife was a daughter of Paget privateer Hezekiah Frith. Lee married Anne Lightbourn in May 1836. They had nine children — three sons and six daughters — four of whom died in childhood. Lee's youngest daughter, Alice, married George Simpson, Bermuda's first inspector of schools.

Lee remained in the editor's chair almost until his death. He had begun work on the January 30, 1883 edition, but took sick and died two weeks later, on his 79th birthday. He was buried at St John's Church, Pembroke.

His obituary, which unsurprisingly ran on the front page in the Gazette, said: “Mr Lee was not only a practical printer, but an educated man, moving in good society, capable of writing a sound article himself, of calling in extraneous aid and utilising it, and possessing both tact and good sense to allow his correspondents proper latitude without causing unnecessary irritation.

“Mr Lee was moreover a man of practical ideas, and endeavoured to get at the reason of things. He was at once Editor, foreman and journeyman.”

The article also noted his extraordinary work ethic: other than an occasional trip to England, New York, Halifax and Turk's Island, he was always on the job.

An obituary, which ran in a subsequent edition, noted that his long tenure as editor was “one of a most unusual character, if not altogether unequalled anywhere”.

His second-eldest son, Gregory Vose Lee, took over as editor and remained in the position until his death in 1898, when the newspaper's connection with the Lee family ended.

Donald McPhee Lee has descendants, but none are believed to be living in Bermuda. Gregory Lee did not marry or have children.

The newspaper he founded became a biweekly in 1900. In 1911, it increased publication to three times a week. In 1921, it merged with The Colonist and became a daily. The Gazette has been the island's newspaper of record from its first edition.

It has been the only daily for 50 years, and as of July 2014, with the closure of the Bermuda Sun, occupies a singular place as the island's only newspaper.

Its survival instincts and longevity match those of its founder.


“The rubicon is passed, the step from slavery to freedom has been taken, a step which for confidence and honest boldness stands unequalled in the annals of the world — and we sincerely trust that the movement has been effected with the same ease and security in the other British colonies that it has been in this” — excerpt from Lee's 1834 editorial about the emancipation of slavery

Courtesy of bermudabiographies.bm and Meredith Ebbin

Life work: Donald McPhee Lee edited the Gazette for more than half a century

February 11, 1804 Lee is born in Prince Edward Island; family later move to St John’s, Newfoundland, where he learns the printing trade

Late 1827 Arrives in Bermuda with his family and printing press to start a newspaper; returns to St John’s to pick up his type

October 29, 1827 Sally Ann sets sail from Halifax for Bermuda, with Lee as its sole passenger; three days later the ship encounters stormy seas

January 10, 1828 Sally Ann limps into in Bermuda; Lee later puts the harrowing story of his survival to paper

January 8 and 15, 1828 With Lee missing at sea and presumed dead, his brother, David, puts out the first two editions of the Gazette

January 22, 1828 Lee puts out his first edition from an office on Front Street, Hamilton

1831Gazette office moves to Queen Street

May 1836 Lee marries Anne Lightbourn; they have nine children, five of whom survive to adulthood

1853Gazette moves to corner of Reid Street and Burnaby Street, Hamilton

1880 Lee writes an account of his 1827 voyage to Bermuda while on a trip to Halifax. It is published posthumously in 1883

February 11, 1883 Lee dies on his 79th birthday; his son, Gregory, succeeds him as editor

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Published March 21, 2019 at 9:17 am (Updated March 21, 2019 at 11:28 am)

First Gazette editor lost at sea for 11 weeks

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