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A perspective on Cup Match

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Scenes from 2018: Cup Match represents the best of who we are, free of uncomfortable emotion (File photograph by Akil Simmnons)

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”— Henry Miller

The 2019 Cup Match holiday is soon approaching. This holiday is a time to exhale and breathe a sigh of relief because there is a two-day holiday just before the weekend. It is an opportunity to enjoy picnics, concerts, raft-ups or the opportunity to just unwind, rest and relax. We will undoubtedly expect and enjoy the banter between fans supporting their favourite team while enjoying the spectacle of the venue and related scenery.

However, Cup Match is evolving to be a far more important occasion with a substantial impact on where Bermuda is heading as a nation. With the exception of Bermuda Day, Cup Match is the only holiday steeped in the unique history of our country. Otherwise, our holidays tend to be imported or shared with other nations. In fact, the uniqueness of the Cup Match holiday has a lot to do with the historical process of how it became a statutory holiday in the first place.

In 1999, during the first year of the Progressive Labour Party government, the first day of Cup Match was officially named Emancipation Day. This rebranding came as a surprise to many and a revelation to others that our friendly cricket match had such deep roots to the abolition of slavery. The recorded history of this connection is sketchy and has been debated many times.

This should not be a surprise because there are many distortions and omissions of the recorded history of blacks who were for a long time excluded from recordings and recorded history.

The official ending of the enslavement of blacks throughout the British Empire was very unique. So far, what conventional history says is that it began with the Somerset case of 1772. The King’s Bench decided that a slave named James Somerset should go free because no one has the right “to take a slave by force to be sold abroad”. The verdict contributed to the belief that slavery was contrary “both to natural law and the principles of the English Constitution”. It also decided that slavery in the colonies was not supported by law. This case is identified as the springboard for the predominantly white abolitionist to push the emancipation movement that led to the Parliament of Britain passing the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The British Empire officially abolished slavery on August 1, 1834.

What the Act did and did not do may help to shed light on why the celebration of the end of slavery was disguised in a cricket game or even muted. Slavery didn’t end at the same time for everyone. It took place over six years depending on the age of the slave — under 6 — and then on the land ownership of slave owners.

Ultimately, slavery ended with the former slave owners throughout British colonies being compensated for the loss of their human property. The amount paid to the slave owners as wages today is equal to approximately £20 billion (about $25 billion). The slaves themselves were never provided any compensation at all. In essence, the slaves were told that their new status of slavery, apprenticeship, was a favour to them. The slaves were to pick up from this point into a clearly unequal relationship between them and their slave owners. This sheds much light on the seeds of racial turmoil that continues into this time.

The black Bermudian friendly societies who dared to commemorate the end of this era via a community cricket match would have been doing so in a dangerous and racially polarised period. They would have to contend with the powerful white oligarchy and generationally cultivated attitudes of racism. It would have taken courage and bravery for the participants and the spectators to defiantly take two entire days off from work without their bosses’ approval.

It is also worth noting that the present Cup Match holiday literally has two dimensions: the first day is Emancipation Day and the second is Somers Day. The latter commemorates the beginning of the settlement of Bermuda after the fortuitous shipwreck of Sir George Somers and crew in 1609. Slavery would begin after Bermuda was settled.

Meredith Ebbin (The story of Somers Day and Cup Match holidays) and LeYoni Junos (Cup Match and Somers Day — a chronology of holidays) have written insightful pieces recently about the historical accounts of when and how the two days were merged officially into the two-day Cup Match holiday that we now enjoy.

It is clear when one follows the story of the Cup Match holiday it is still developing and evolving. However, it provides an important resource to help Bermudians to determine the kind of country we wish to live in and the country we wish to leave for our children. It also provides us with choices and consequences.

On the one hand, slavery was undeniably brutal, cruel and unjust. It was reprehensible in the way it was practised and even more so in the way it ended. The legacy of slavery leaves much room for the descendants of slaves to be caught up in anger and bitterness. On the other hand, the descendants of enslavers who have financially benefited and those that benefit from their complexion may be tempted to succumb to fear, suspicion, guilt and continued racial bigotry.

At times, we see both of these extremes in our society. Sometimes they are stoked for political gain and to justify stubborn obstacles to progress or to maintain the status quo. However, for the most part, Cup Match represents the best of who we are. The holiday is a celebration generally free of anything that deliberately stirs uncomfortable feelings and emotions. The longevity of the holiday and the joyous atmosphere are testaments of what is important to Bermudians.

The dual nature of the holiday suggests that we have not forgotten the good and the bad that brought Bermuda into existence. It also suggests that we have reconciled them or recognise the importance of reconciling them. The ambiguities, contradictions and uncertainties say that as a nation we are a work in progress, but we are optimistic in spite of our past and the great challenges ahead. Most of all, it suggests that we are fortunate to have the opportunity to build a better Bermuda for each other.

To conclude, I will share a light-hearted story of the seven dwarfs who were walking along the Railway Trail on their way to St George’s for Cup Match 2019. Somehow, they all managed to fall into a deep, dark hole. Because of the seriousness of this tragic event, the police chief and the fire chief were summoned to this massive rescue attempt. The police chief received a large bullhorn to be able to shout down into the hole. The police chief shouted: “Seven dwarfs, are you hurt? Are you OK?”

Out of the deep void, one of the dwarfs responded: “Somerset will win the cup.”

The police chief then says to the fire chief: “At least we know that Dopey is OK!”

Vic Ball was a One Bermuda Alliance senator from November 2014 to July 2017

Vic Ball