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Lecture highlights island’s role in ending slavery

Tackling issue: ThinkMedia founder Ayo Johnson, left, with historian Clarence Maxwell (Photograph by Leah Furbert)

New details on Bermuda’s role in the toppling of slavery have been revealed by historian Clarence Maxwell.

Dr Maxwell’s lecture for the ThinkFest series was based on two notable figures from local history.

A Bermudian former slave, Mary Prince, became a pioneering voice in the British abolitionist movement, while Bermudian St George Tucker became a hero of the American Revolutionary War.

Published in 1831, Prince’s account of slave life, directed at the “good people of England”, represented a new tactic of “divide from below”, Dr Maxwell said.

Her story appealed to the British at home in a bid to “use the metropolitan elite against the colonial elite”.

Born in 1752, St George Tucker could have been a contemporary of Prince’s, although Dr Maxwell said it was unknown if the two ever met.

Both were contributing voices in the “humanitarian revolution” — the age encompassing landmark events such as the Haitian Revolution, to the backdrop of the momentous French Revolution — which, in 1794, saw a major European power abolishing slavery.

Tucker, who had moved to Virginia in the 1760s, proposed a gradual abolition in 1796 with his Dissertation of Slavery — but Dr Maxwell said Tucker’s views had been swayed by exaggerated accounts of slaughter in the revolution at Saint-Domingue, as Haiti was then known. Tucker concluded that “blacks and whites cannot live together”, Dr Maxwell said.

Bermuda’s population, meanwhile, shifted from white numerical domination in the 17th century to a larger black population by 1806.

But the island expelled black people, including free black people, and in the 19th century, with the coming of emancipation, devised laws in which “the distance between freedom and slavery had to be diminished”.

Dr Maxwell said: “Bermuda was the only place where complexion alone maintained certain disabilities against free people of colour.”

Bermuda’s rulers were prepared to disenfranchise some white people to impose tougher property laws for people to stand for office — in a bid to exclude free black people.

In the aftermath of the emancipation of 1834, Bermuda became a society in which “political, domestic and civil slavery had been ‘done up for ever more’,” Dr Maxwell said.

“However, in the private sphere, it was one of the most segregated,” he added.

Dr Maxwell is an assistant professor of Caribbean and Latin American History at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

Also a trustee for the National Museum of Bermuda, he specialises in topics concerning Bermuda, the Caribbean and Latin America, the African Diaspora, and the history of Atlantic enslavement.