Slavery in Bermuda
The first slaves were brought to Bermuda in 1620s soon after the British colony was established in the island. The indentured or debt bonded contract labor in Bermuda continued until 1684. White population in Bermuda remained the majority until the 18th century despite a continuous influx of Latin American and African blacks, native Americans, Irish and Scots.
The first Blacks to come to Bermuda in real large numbers were free West Indians, who emigrated from territories taken from Spain. The slaves initially worked under seven years of bond, as did most English settlers. This was to repay the administrators for the cost of their transport.
As the size of the Black population started growing, the administrative company made many attempts to reduce the number of blacks in the island. They changed the terms of indenture for the Blacks and raised it to 99 years in order to discourage blacks to come to the island. An indenture of 99 years meant that one became a slave for life.
A white owner could obtain the slaves by sale or purchase, auction, legal seizure or by gift. The price of a slave varied based on the demand. Throughout the 17th century, black children were sold for £8, women from £10 to £20, and able bodied black and Indian men for around £26.
Blacks and Indians never willingly accepted their status as slaves and used all opportunities to escape or rebel. It was not easy to escape because of the small size of the island. Also the nearest land was about 680 miles away. But still slaves ran away from their masters and hid in the caves along Bermuda's coast.
Check out Jeffrey's Cave to know about the story of a young slave who could once manage to hide for over a month in a cave which is now named after him. He was finally re-captured though. Others attempted to plot against their masters. One such plot occurred in 1656 when a dozen of black men led by a free Black man William Force plotted to murder their English masters.
As the target night arrived, two of the slaves lost their nerves and reported the conspiracy to authorities. The conspirators were rounded up and tried by court martial. Two were hanged and William Force was later sent on exile to Bahamas with most of the island's other free blacks.
In 1673 in another attempt, 15 Blacks conspired to kill their masters. Again, one of the conspirators lost his nerves and reported the conspiracy. While the conspirators were all punished, this conspiracy resulted in enforcing more stringent laws on movement of slaves. A slave found outside his estate without a ticket from his owner could be beaten up with a rod or whipped. A second offense would result in an ear being cut off.
Native American slaves were brought in large numbers from as far as Mexico. They were preferred as house servants because they proved less troublesome than the Blacks and Irish who were constantly plotting rebellion.
The slave trade was finally outlawed in Bermuda in 1807 and all slaves were freed in 1834. This day of freedom is celebrated as the Emancipation Day in Bermuda.
At the end of the 17th Century, Whites were majority of Bermuda's population. Blacks and Native Americans were both small minorities. However about 10,000 Bermudians emigrated prior to American independence, most of who were Whites. This had left Blacks with a slight majority in Bermuda. Portuguese immigration, which began in the 1840s was offset by the black immigration from the West Indies which began at the end of the 19th Century.
Bermuda's trade relationship with the Caribbean and particularly with West Indies had been quite good. This resulted in the large influx of blacks from West Indies.
Today, about 60% of Bermudians are of African descent and many others have European ancestry. Most Bermudians would be able to relate themselves to ancestors and relatives of either African or European descent.
Check out African Diaspora Heritage Trail to know about a self guided tour that traces the legacy of slavery in Bermuda. The sites on the trail includes several monuments and museums having exhibits & artifacts reflecting the life of the slaves, and also the culture, achievements and heritage of the blacks in Bermuda.
By Raj Bhattacharya
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