“Remembrance is not in monuments, images and texts, but in our engagement with them.”
— (Simon, Di Paolantonio, and Clamen 153).
Bermuda seems well advanced in regard to bringing black history to its public spaces. The territory's African Diaspora Heritage Trail, for example, which is officially designated a UNESCO slave route project, is a self-guided tour that takes a person to many different sites of enslavement in Bermuda.
The African Diaspora Heritage Trail is an international initiative that promotes socially conscious travel to sites in Africa, the Americas, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Europe. Sites along the Trail tell the stories of people of African descent as well as foster economic development and educational experiences.
In Bermuda, the African Diaspora Heritage Trail includes the Commissioner’s House, situated at the Royal Naval Dockyard, which features artifacts and displays about slave life in Bermuda and about the transatlantic trade in captive Africans. Cobb’s Hill Methodist Church, Warwick Parish, which was completed in 1827 by free blacks and slaves of Warwick Parish, is also part of the Trail.
Two other important sites on the Trail are St. Peter’s Church, St. George, which features a slave graveyard, and Verdmont House, Collector’s Hill, Smith’s Parish, which features possible slave quarters.
Bermudian sculptor Carlos W. Dowling created bronze plaques that mark the different sites along the Trail. Dowling’s plaque for Verdmont reads “VERDMONT-SLAVE HOUSE—In 1782 the owner of Verdmont had 14 slaves. The men were labourers or skilled sailors and the women took care of the house, kitchen and garden.”
Verdmont is grand, located on a ridge with views over the South Shore. In 1782, the house sat on a 50-acre estate, which included food gardens kept by slaves. The kitchen is in a separate building, and below it are rough quarters thought to have at one-time housed some of Verdmont’s slaves.
Dowling also created a ten-foot-tall statue of Sally (Sarah) Bassett that was erected in 2008 on the Cabinet Office grounds in Hamilton—the seat of Government in Bermuda. Bassett, an enslaved 68-year-old black woman, was burned at the stake in 1730 for the alleged attempted poisoning of her granddaughter Beck’s slave-owners, Mr. and Mrs. Foster, and Nancey another slave of the Fosters.
The Bassett statue was erected to both remember the struggle of blacks against slavery and to publicly recognize their contribution to Bermuda’s heritage. Nonetheless, there was opposition when plans were made to erect the statue.
For some Bermudians, the idea of erecting a statue to honour a woman convicted of a crime, was wrong. "Though they declare that slavery was wrong along with its cruel and inhumane punishments, they still preface this belief with 'it was not a license to kill'" (Pope n. pag.). Others viewed Sally Bassett a heroine, believing that "her act was heroic and comes under the category of self-defense" (Pope n. pag.).
It seems that the controversy was divided along colour lines—black and white. Initially, the statue was to be situated at Hamilton's City Hall, but the Corporation of Hamilton, which was comprised of mostly white members, did not want it on City Hall grounds. This caused a wrangle with the ruling Progressive Labour Party (P.L.P.), which had mostly black members.
Quito Swan explains that the process of publicly remembering slavery is fraught with contention, particularly in such a small colonial space as Bermuda, “a society that has historically criminalized black protest but now features a black government committed to the promotion of Bermuda’s ‘national’ heritage” (Swan 71).
The issue was not so much the Bassett statue, but the memory of enslavement the statue brought forward. As Edward A. Chappell points out, “burning convicted poisoner Sarah Bassett at the stake did little for the reputation of slaveholding Bermudians” (Chappell 68).
As discussed in “Mary Prince & Bermudian Enslavement,” which is under the Learn tab of this website, historically, Bermudian enslavement has been perceived as comparatively benign, or gentle. But historians such as Chappell and Packwood have reinterpreted evidence of the past. They tell revised stories of Bermudian enslavement—stories that support Mary Prince’s recollection of brutality at the hands of slave-owners.
In the piece "Why the Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts," which you can find at the Historical Concepts section of this website, I explain that the stories historians tell about the past are influenced by their unique interpretive lenses. Each historian collects, and selects, evidence—perhaps archival, architectural, or archaeological—which he or she then uses as the foundation for his or her historical arguments and storytelling.
Different historians might use the same evidence, some of the same evidence, or completely different evidence, to build their stories. Edward A. Chappell, for instance, used Bermudian architecture to inform his work. He analyzed historic big houses in Bermuda, and their outbuildings, as well as inventories, newspaper advertisements, and registers.
Chappell finds the notion of Bermudian enslavement being gentler than enslavement in Caribbean or American mainland colonies doubtful. Instead, he finds Mary Prince's story about the severity of Bermudian enslavement more truthful. He writes: "Prince had face-to-face relations with her Bermuda owners, but she found that their intimacy was no defense against brutality" (Chappell 90).
Remembering enslavement history is important for the future. How do we remember persons such as Sally Bassett and Mary Prince in a way that promotes democratic betterment? Roger I . Simon suggests that “While some may naively think that others should put their past differences behind them in the search for workable peace, others are wise enough to recognize that the task of working for social transformation is not to forget the past, but to remember it otherwise” (Simon 9).
Remembering otherwise means to take the stories of others into our lives and to live as though they matter. It means working through cultural grief and, in the process, rethinking both past and present relationships in a way that affects how we will live our lives in the future. Put another way, remembering otherwise is an awareness of links between the past, present, and future—historical consciousness—that prepares us to manage the present with the future in mind.
A place to begin is with the lives of individuals, given through testimony, rather than generalized histories of mass violence. The History of Mary Prince, which is testimony in a told-to format, is a powerful narrative that I have confirmed with archival evidence. Mary’s story is a place to begin.