Pink Beaches and a Blue History
Jonesing for a getaway, my boyfriend and I wanted to go somewhere with light blue waves and a doable location for a weekend. From JFK, Bermuda is less than two hours away. We booked an Airbnb and plane tickets. Then another set of tickets when we missed our flight because airport wine became too important…and American Airlines could do us all a favor by announcing over the loudspeaker when they begin the boarding process (dammit).
I didn’t know anything about the island that’s just a few hundred miles off the coast of the Carolinas. It’s a popular spot, however, for East Coasters. We were surrounded by nothing but water for as far as we could see.
We stayed on an estate called Norwood in the Pitt's Bay neighborhood. Named for Richard Norwood who was considered “Bermuda’s outstanding genius of the seventeenth century". I have been called the same. He was a mathematician, diver and surveyor. Which brings us to another coincidence because I only do math when I’m diving.
The most popular towns on the island are St. George’s and Hamilton. English names, as in United Kingdom-English. With a population that’s 54 percent black, mostly from the West Indies and West-Central Africa, how did Bermuda end up with these english names?
Good ol’ Colonialism is the answer.
I kept thinking about Colonialism and then I kept on getting angry. I was about to go away on a quick vacation with a man I love, on a beautiful island and I can’t stop thinking about slavery. My thoughts kept running and running and it begged the question, “how do I enjoy this vacation knowing this information?”
Beginning in the 1600’s (and lasting until the 1800’s),people from Africa and the West Indies were brought over to harvest the bountiful crops produced on Bermuda. Plantations sprung up around the island producing sugar, salt, molasses, rum, rice, cocoa and different types of fruit and then exporting them to the Colonies and Europe. But, of course, the white people couldn’t do that themselves…or could they?
To my surprise (sort of), there were also white slaves. Back in the UK, due to the very trendy religious persecution, Catholics (mostly Irish) were booted from the country. They were sent to Bermuda and Barbados and other islands in the Caribbean.
And to clear up any suspicion that I am about to claim that the Irish had it as rough as anyone with a darker skin pigment- stay with me… The Irish that were sent to the Caribbean and Bermuda were actually called Irish ‘indentured servants’. So, they completely avoided the label “slave”. To be an indentured servant means to provide free labor against their will for a set amount of time. Usually roped into this work to repay a “debt” to their captors or transporters. It reads like old-school pimping. Even so, the Irish and other white slaves still had rights, they were treated somewhat humanely, their indenture wasn’t passed down to their children while their African and Indian counterparts had no such rights or privileges.
In response to their captivity, organized group escapes were planned. Irish, African or Indian, they would all help fellow slaves try to escape. There were some sympathetic Europeans on the island but it was illegal to hide an escapee.
One slave, named Jeffery, escaped from his master and hid in a cave for a little over month. He evaded capture for a month. That’s a big fucking deal. Eventually though, a woman, also a slave was caught bringing Jeffery food during that month. She was followed and he was caught. It remains unknown what happened to him. The cave, however, is a landmark on the island and is available to visit.
The most horrifying realization I had was that even when slaves would escape, the island’s area is not even 21 square miles. That’s small, if you weren’t aware. I wasn’t, I couldn’t possibly describe to you, without a dictionary, a square mile. But I know roughly what a mile looks like and Bermuda is about 3,000 miles away from the U.K. and 5,000 miles from Spain. Its closest neighbor is North Carolina which almost 1,000 miles away. In other words, these people were held captive. They were trapped on an island with only a sliver of hope of an escape. That sliver of hope only existed on ships docked in St. George's. Bermuda was a major exporter of goods. The only way off the island was if you hopped aboard a ship filled with sugar and tabacco. Contrary to my own experiments, humans cannot walk on water.
I had an amazing time in Bermuda while being mindful of the history of the island.
When we travel, to tour and so on...it is not enough to acknowledge a culture but we have to try and understand that there were others who came before us. Perhaps, where we take pictures, where we walk, that someone else, someone who was far less fortunate was running for their life.
Acknowledgment takes a moment but understanding is a lifetime practice.