Slavery in Bermuda
Slavery existed in Bermuda for some 200 years, beginning in the early days of colonization—when blacks and some Native American slaves were brought from the Caribbean and the Americas—and lasting until in the Slavery Abolition Act took effect in 1834. It evolved from the insidious roots of indentured servitude into full legal enslavement. Though the culture of Bermuda slavery differed greatly from the plantation system of the Americas’ sugar and cotton economies, the prejudices that allowed its existence were the same. Slaves frequently rebelled against their owners, staged revolts, and ran away in protest.
Bermuda’s slaves were natives of the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa, who arrived at the island in many circumstances. Some were sold off by sea captains to pay debts when they made port. Most were brought from the Caribbean. Female slaves were generally kept busy with domestic work, including the care of children of white families; male slaves commonly worked as house servants, gardeners, or farmers. Slave families were housed in cottages or cellar-like quarters attached to the main house of Bermudian estates. Slaves were also master artisans and craftsmen. Notably, many of Bermuda’s ship crews were black—slaves or free men, who worked in overseas maritime trade, or as pilots trained to guide ships through reef-lined channels. Sometimes, slaves who excelled at such work were granted their freedom in exchange. After slave emancipation was legally established in 1834, many slaves continued to work in maritime trades, running their own businesses and participating in the Atlantic trade network.
In the 1700s, Draconian laws were laid down to control Bermuda’s slaves, who by then made up a third of the population. Banishment to other islands was not uncommon for certain crimes, including any form of rebellion, and men, women, and children were sold, hanged, and punished at public venues such as King’s Square in St. George’s.
Due to its geographical location, Bermuda was intimately tied to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The island’s reefs are a graveyard of ships, including those of slavers traveling from Africa’s Gold Coast via the infamous Middle Passage. In recent years, items found at these wreck sites have included shackles used to restrain captives on voyages and beads and other artifacts used for barter in the slave trade. Many of these are now on display at heritage institutions such as the Bermuda Maritime Museum, which also serves as a site on the island’s African Diaspora Trail.
By the 1800s, blacks had established their own churches, graveyards, and schools, some of which were run by Methodist missionaries who came to the island. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and after a massive humanitarian lobby effort by the Anti-Slavery Society, finally outlawed slavery itself in 1833. Bermuda followed suit the next year, and the island’s blacks celebrated Emancipation Day on August 1, 1834. Freedom brought its own challenges, however, and blacks heavily relied on their communities’ “Friendly Societies” as a social network to help raise funds, facilitate lending, and encourage education and arts. Long after slavery ended, racial friction and legal segregation continued in Bermuda until the 1960s—still a sore point in black–white relations.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition