‘His contribution was immeasurably significant’
He knew the treacherous waters around Bermuda so well that his skill as a pilot for British sea captains earned him his freedom from slavery.
And on Saturday, almost 200 years after his death, the life of trailblazing sailor, landowner and champion of the oppressed James (Jemmy) Darrell was celebrated in a small but moving ceremony at his grave in St Peter’s Their Majesties Chappell in St George’s.
Mr Darrell was born into slavery in 1749. Little is known about his early life and there are no surviving images of him.
But it is known that in 1795 he safely piloted the Royal Navy’s 74-gun
HMS Resolution to its mooring at Murray’s Anchorage near Tobacco Bay.
The ship’s captain was so impressed with the slave’s sailing skills that he recommended Mr Darrell be granted his freedom.
The request was granted by Governor James Craufurd in March 1796.
Mr Darrell went on to become a King’s pilot and is understood to be the first black property owner on the Island, buying a home on Aunt Peggy’s Lane, just yards from where Saturday’s ceremony took place.
As a free man, he was able to challenge laws that imposed restrictions on both free blacks and slaves. He also fought for the rights of pilots.
Saturday’s ceremony, which took place to mark the anniversary of Mr Darrell’s death at the age of 66 in 1815, was attended by some of his descendants and Marine & Ports pilots, while ceremonial duties were performed by Sea Cadets.
Conducting the service at the graveside, Rev David Raths said it was a remarkable tribute to Mr Darrell that the Island was still celebrating his achievements two centuries later.
“For 198 years we have been the custodian of the remains of James Darrell,” Rev Raths said.
“It’s a bit extraordinary that we are gathered here today to remember a man who died so long ago, who was born way back in the 1700s, a man for whom there’s not even a known picture or drawing.
“A man who was born a slave, born into obscurity yet made such a significant contribution to Bermuda. His contribution was immeasurably significant.”
A wreath was placed at Mr Darrell’s grave before a number of hymns — including the Navy hymn — and Bible readings were conducted.
And one of Mr Darrell’s modern-day successors also paid tribute to the work of “an icon of national pride”.
“This is the seventh year that we have held the James Darrell service and as the years have gone by, this man and how he did what he did has resounded deeply in my heart,” deputy pilot warden Mario Thompson told the congregation.
“They were people who took those ships in and out under sail with great skill and I am proud to say that I am a part of that lineage.
“James Darrell was a remarkable man and I am glad that we can celebrate him and we would like for his legacy to continue.”
After the service was completed at the graveside, dignitaries and guests boarded a Marine & Ports pilot boat to Murray’s Head, where a wreath was lowered into the water.
Sisters Peggy Parfitt and Marjorie Johanson, great-great-great granddaughters of Mr Darrell, were touched by the fact that their ancestor was being recognised.
“I used to play in this churchyard as a child but didn’t know anything about him,” Mrs Parfitt, who is in her 80s, said.
“Back then people didn’t tell you about your ancestors so it’s wonderful that he is being remembered now.”
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