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New book ‘Island Flames’ details 1977 riots

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The 1977 riots in Bermuda. Photograph by David Skinner courtesy of Island Flames

A new book dedicated to providing a factual account of the events surrounding the Island’s deadly riots of 1977 is set to go on sale this month.

Drawing on already published works, as well as never before seen documents and first-hand accounts of what took place at the time, Island Flames delves into the political murders, executions and Bermuda’s chronic race problems that provided the backdrop to the riots.

“I was interested, in particular, in looking at the social, the political and the economic aspects of why Bermuda ended up in 1977 where it was,” author Jonathan Smith told The Royal Gazette.

“I hope that readers in Bermuda, the Caribbean and all over the world, can reflect on this volatile period when race, economics, politics, the death penalty, murders, executions, UK policy and the justice system collided with deadly results.

“My hope is that Bermudians will reflect on the past, understand why institutionalised racism was exercised and tolerated for so long, and forge a new path ahead which rips this legacy to pieces.”

The former Commissioner of Police said he started working on the project in 2012, when he realised that no one had ever written a book on the topic.

“In literally one minute I realised that nobody had ever written on the 1977 riots and all these events are interconnected: the political assassinations, the murders, the trial, the black power movement and the death penalty,” Mr Smith said. “All that collided in 1977.

“It was a very, very stressful time for many Bermudians and it was a very divisive time, and it’s the only time when people have been killed in civil disturbance in Bermuda, so it was hugely significant.”

The riots of 1977 were the most extensive and deadly riots ever experienced on the Island — Bermuda was on the brink of public order meltdown when US Marines, 250 UK troops and more than 1,500 other police, regiment, reserves, firemen and others were deployed to restore order.

Two tourists and a Bermudian hotel worker were killed at The Fairmont Southampton fire and extensive damage was caused to mostly establishment-owned businesses.

Mr Smith said the riots occurred against the backdrop of the murders of Governor Richard Sharples, Captain Hugh Sayers, Police Commissioner George Duckett and two shopkeepers, Victor Rego and Mark Doe, between 1972 and 1973.

Two men, Erskine Durrant ‘Buck’ Burrows and Larry Tacklyn were convicted of the murders and hung on December 2, 1977 — the last hangings to occur on British Soil.

“One of the real critical issues was the hanging decision,” Mr Smith said, adding that he was able to get to the bottom of the complex story behind it.

Mr Smith, who drew extensively on both the Wooding Commission of 1968 and the Pitt Commission of 1977 for his second book, added: “The real gold mine of information, as far as I was concerned as a researcher and a writer, was the information in the UK National Archives — the files of correspondences, the telexes, the telegrams, letters, the correspondence that went between the UK and Bermuda in those same years — all that had been under seal for 30 years.”

The 360-page book draws on close to 200 sources, including already published accounts and new material provided by critical players of the day.

These include David Owen, the British foreign secretary at the time, former Governor Peter Ramsbotham, former premiers Sir John Swan, Sir David Gibbons and Alex Scott, the last surviving Bermudian member of the Pitt Commission, social scientist Michael Banton and Dame Lois Browne-Evans.

“I’ve used their own words from 1977, their own telexes, letters, and I’ve tried to bring the whole thing back to life, quoting them extensively,” Mr Smith said.

Mr Smith, who was a teenager when the riots took place, said it took him less than 60 seconds to decide he would write the book.

He explained that he was reading a book about the political murders that took place in the early seventies when he realised that the underlying story was that this period was the closest Bermuda ever came to a revolution.

“It really forced me to go back and, for the reader I guess the book really chronicles the 1960s and the 1970s, because Bermuda was hit by four sets of riots in 14 years and two Royal Commissions — it was a really difficult time.

“Recognising that this is 1977, recognising that for many Bermudians this will either be a distant memory, or they’ll know very little about it, it was important for me to make some sort connectivity as to why Bermuda was that way in 1977 and are there any parallels now,” Mr Smith said.

While the book provides a factual account, Mr Smith invited former government statistician Cordell Riley to write an opinion chapter on how the riots have shaped modern-day Bermuda.

“I want an 18-year-old to be able to pick up this book and be able to say at the end of it, ‘OK, I can understand better now because some of these issues are still prevalent today’,” Mr Smith added.

Mr Smith said he had already received a “phenomenal response” to the book, which he said has been accepted into the Oxford University Library system as a textbook on the topic of race and resistance in the Caribbean and Bermuda.

The book will be launched at a special event to be held at Brown & Co on October 21. Island Flames will be available exclusively at the Bookmart from that date.

• For more information visit www.islandflames.com

Jonathan Smith recalls the riots of 1977 on Court Street in his new book, Island Flames. (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)