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Dame Jennifer backs Mary Prince Day

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Name recognition: Mary Prince, a Bermudian slave whose novel became the first account of the life of a black woman published in England. Although no pictures remain of the noted author, this image is often used to illustrate her life

A former premier is backing a call to remove the man who claimed Bermuda for Britain from the annual Cup Match holiday and replace him with a former slave who became a hero of the abolitionist movement.

Dame Jennifer Smith is supporting a proposal by Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda to drop Admiral Sir George Somers, who ran aground on the island in 1609 and started permanent colonisation, and honour Mary Prince, a Bermudian born into slavery whose story was published in Britain and helped fuel revulsion for the trade in human beings.

Dame Jennifer, who led the Progressive Labour Party to its first election victory in 1998, is a member of Curb and said that Bermuda was “now ready for a Mary Prince Day”.

She added: “Unfortunately, many do not know her story. A day would help to educate all.”

Cup Match — a two-day celebration of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834 — had its roots in an 1835 East versus West cricket match and picnic organised by Friendly Societies.

It was agreed by the organisers in 1901 to buy a cup to be presented to the winners of the cricket match and the first Cup Match was played in 1902.

The two days gained official recognition in 1947 and the holiday was set on the Thursday and Friday closest to August 1.

The first day of the holiday was named Cup Match and the second was used to commemorate Sir George.

Cup Match Day was renamed Emancipation Day in 1999 and continued the tradition of celebrating the end of slavery and Somers Day continued unchanged.

The move came after Dame Jennifer introduced legislation to the House of Assembly to replace Cup Match Day with Emancipation Day, which passed the House, but was rejected by the Senate.

MPs later agreed to retain Cup Match as the official name after Dame Jennifer tabled a government amendment allowing Cup Match to remain a legal term, but changing Cup Match Day to Emancipation Day.

Curb called for Mary Prince and her work to be marked on the second day of the holiday earlier this month and has included the proposal in its 2019 racial justice platform.

John Barritt, a former United Bermuda Party and One Bermuda Alliance MP, was the UBP spokesman for legislative affairs in the 1999 debate in the House.

Mr Barritt, whose 1999 amendment to keep the holiday’s official name as Cup Match was rejected by the House, threw his support behind Curb’s bid to recognise Mary Prince.

But he said Somers Day should be retained in some form to mark the arrival of Sir George and the Sea Venture, which was grounded off Bermuda on July 28, 1609 after a storm.

Mr Barritt added: “I firmly believe that the two holidays should continue to be known together as the Cup Match holiday. It is in so many respects quintessentially Bermudian.

“Considering the origin and history of Cup Match, I think it right and proper, and reasonable too, to celebrate heroes like Mary Prince, and for obvious reasons.

“Frankly, I think it would be appropriate to remember and acknowledge others who struggled in the fight for emancipation.”

Mr Barritt added: “This presents the opportunity to extract Somers Day from the Cup Match holiday, and to celebrate the day of colonisation annually on the actual date.

“It could become an event of some celebration in the St George’s calendar with a service at St Peter’s and a ceremony of some sort at Somers Garden.”

He said it “may not rival the Peppercorn Ceremony at the outset, but have some impact, and be of strong interest to our visitors as well”.

Christopher Famous, a PLP backbencher, said: “There is no way that someone who had nothing to do with emancipation should be included with an emancipation celebration. I’m not going to denigrate George Somers, but the reality is that he was anything but emancipated.”

He said he had no objection to Somers Day being moved to July 28. But he pointed out that, as Cup Match has no fixed dates, part of the holiday could sometimes fall on July 28.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Labour, Community Affairs and Sports said that it looked forward to reviewing Curb’s platform and “considering their recommendations to bring about greater equity and a healthier Bermuda for all”.

Cover of the book The History of Mary Prince
Time to tell story: Dame Jennifer Smith (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)