Despite its peaceful facade, Bermuda has suffered its share of social and racial conflicts. In the 20th century, women led a decades-long campaign for equality, seeking specifically the freedom to vote. Suffragettes, like their American and British counterparts, held rallies, marches, and protests in a bid to force lawmakers to grant them voting rights, which, in an archaic island system, were restricted to male owners of land of a certain value. While British women won suffrage in 1919, their Bermudian sisters had to battle old-fashioned notions for another quarter of a century. When island women finally won their fight in 1945, their victory opened the door for universal adult suffrage in Bermuda later in the century, though black Bermudians had a long fight for full social and economic equality ahead of them.
The first labor union, formed by black teachers in 1919, was the vanguard of a bitter civil-rights struggle that would last many decades. Activists, including labor hero Dr. E. F. Gordon, spent the 1950s and 1960s agitating for change, inspired by the rhetoric of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and the black civic-lobby campaigns in Britain and North America. Bermuda’s white establishment continued to hold the bulk of power and wealth, and black resentment built up to a boiling point. The black-led Bermuda Industrial Union took shape in the late 1940s, representing the rights of mostly black blue-collar workers for the next several decades. In 1959, blacks staged the “Theatre Boycott,” a successful stand against racial segregation in cinemas, which also spread to restaurants, hotels, churches, and schools. As a direct result of the protest, discriminatory racial practices gradually ended, and blacks finally won the right to vote in 1963. However, black Bermudians continued to be largely shut out of economic power-sharing until the 1980s and 1990s.
Riots in 1965 and 1968 underscored the racial unrest, as did the violent upheavals of the 1970s, when Governor Sir Richard Sharples and his aide-de-camp Hugh Sayers were assassinated in 1973 while walking on the grounds of Government House. Two black Bermudians were convicted and hanged, sparking an overflow of racial tensions in the form of violent street riots in 1977, when British forces were brought in to quell the disturbances. Capital punishment remained on the island’s law books until 1999, though no one was ever hanged again.
The national crisis took a toll on Bermuda—financially, and in far more lasting ways—but change, while slow, did result, along with government promises to heal the island’s social wounds. Royal commissions looking into the unrest pointed to gross racial inequality and recommended better housing, education, and more support for black businesses. Bermuda evolved into a more democratic and inclusive society, though members of the black community argue that it will take many more decades to achieve true economic equality.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition