by Larry Smith
HAMILTON, Bermuda -- Over a mug of Gosling's rum in the Rosedon Hotel's tea room here recently, the conversation turned to race relations. And retired policeman Ken McDowall reminded me that it was 40 years ago this month that the island's British governor, Sir Richard Sharples, was murdered by a black Bermudian named Erskine Burrows.
McDowall is from St Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean, but he has spent the last 40-plus years in Bermuda, most of them as a police officer. After the governor and his aide were ambushed in the gardens of Government House in 1973, police arrested Burrows and an accomplice named Larry Tacklyn, both career criminals.
Three years later Burrows was found guilty of murdering Sharples and his aide, as well as the earlier murder of the British police commissioner and two white shopkeepers. Tacklyn was found to be complicit in the murder of the shopkeepers.
Both men were said to have been influenced by a militant Marxist group called the Black Berets, and despite petitions for clemency they were hanged at the Royal Naval Dockyard on the island's western end in 1977. These were the last judicial executions under British law anywhere in the world.
On the second day of the disturbances most of the police force was posted to the Dockyard prison where the hangings took place, expecting rioters to turn up there. But hundreds of youths proceeded to tear up the city of Hamilton instead. On the next day McDowall and the riot squad had all they could do to cope with firebombs, rocks and bottles on the streets of the capital.
A commission of inquiry, headed by a black British peer from Grenada, concluded that Bermuda had to improve equality of opportunity, reduce immigration, and regulate the transmission of inherited wealth. In a later interview, the governor at the time of the 1977 riots pinned their underlying cause on "entrenched racism" that had made Bermuda “a one-party dictatorship” in the 1960s and 70s.
But conditions remained much the same for years, and in 1981 a general strike briefly paralysed tourism on the island. Even so, the elite power structure - known colloquially as the 40 Thieves and embodied by the United Bermuda Party - managed to remain in control under a successful black premier named John Swan until 1998, when the predominantly black Progressive Labour Party won the government for the first time.
The PLP remained in power until last December, when it was unexpectedly replaced by a new party called the One Bermuda Alliance, formed from the breakup of the old UBP and some former PLPs. In many ways, Bermuda's political history is eerily similar to our own. For example, the re-organisation of the island's trade union movement in the 1950s has been attributed to the intervention of the late Bahamian labour leader Sir Randol Fawkes.
In fact, although Bahamians pay little attention to Bermuda today, the historical links between the two island states are deep. The first European settlers of the Bahamas were 70 disaffected Bermudians, under the leadership of a one-time governor named William Sayle. They tried to establish a republican government on the island of Eleuthera in the mid-1600s, and many white Bahamians (and some blacks) are descended from these first immigrants.
Several years ago, archaeologists discovered six of these Bermuda puritans buried in shallow graves at Preacher's Cave on North Eleuthera. After being shipwrecked, they used the cave as a shelter, meeting place and cemetery. And DNA evidence has confirmed the relationship between their remains and the present-day inhabitants of the island. Five earlier Lucayan Indian burials were also found in the cave, which obviously had great significance for centuries.
According to Bahamian historian Keith Tinker, in a forthcoming book about Bermuda and the Bahamas, the Eleutheran constitution was radical for its time. "This bold and unprecedented attempt at democracy almost assuredly set the stage for the better known 1776 declarations made by later dissidents in the 13 mainland colonies that ...forever changed the course of Atlantic history," Tinker wrote.
And long before the British began exiling criminals and misfits to Australia, the Bahamas had become a dumping ground for white and black Bermudian undesirables. "While there is no specific reference to blacks in the enlightened social and religious rules established by the Adventurers, it can be assumed they were accorded a measure of freedom," Tinker says, because the preference was always to be banished to the Bahamas rather than elsewhere in the West Indies.
Bermuda was settled by the British in the early 1600s and was primarily a military base from the end of the American War of Independence until the mid-20th century. The old naval dockyard (where Burrows and Tacklyn were hanged) fell into disrepair when the military withdrew in the 1950s, but later the Bermuda National Trust restored a portion of it as a national museum.
As a dockyard commissioner once wrote to an American consul-general in Hamilton: "…without the independence of the United States there would be no Bermuda dockyard. Without America as an honourable enemy, none of the splendid buildings…and the massive fortifications...would exist."
The Americans, of course, later became British allies - and established their own military bases on Bermuda. The principal one was kindley Naval Air Station, which became Bermuda's international airport soon after the Second World War, just as the wartime training base at Windsor Field became Nassau International Airport in the 1950s.
Today, the 18-acre dockyard site is an amazing tourism asset. The imposing military-grade, cut-limestone buildings (built by convict and slave labour) enclose shops, restaurants and craft markets, while the port facilities now service cruise ships and ferries. The Frog and Onion Pub (with its own craft brewery) is a popular watering spot in the navy's former victualling yard.
Renowned Bermudian archaeologist Ed Harris was prominent in saving the historic dockyard from decay and demolition, as successive governments failed to appreciate the significance of the site and its place in what Harris describes as Bermuda's only true industry - tourism.
"A hand and glove relationship exists between tourism and the preservation of the built environment," Harris explained in a newspaper article. "Tourism ensures the preservation of heritage and that heritage ensures the delight and abiding interest of the visitor. The fact is that sound tourism depends on the preservation of the historic environment."
At the opposite - eastern - end of Bermuda lies another living museum - the old capital of St Georges, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. It is "an outstanding example of a continuously occupied, colonial town dating from the early 17th century, and the oldest English town in the New World". Sandwiched between St Georges and the Dockyard is the modern capital of Hamilton. The rest of the 21-square-mile island is a residential suburb studded by golf courses and connected by a superb public bus system.
Bermuda's current racial make-up is 54 per cent black, 31 per cent white and 8 per cent mixed - in a total population of less than 65,000. But there are few echoes of the troubles of the 1960s and 70s that a short-term visitor like me would be able to discern. The island is spotlessly clean, well-organised, quiet and prosperous - although the cost of living remains exorbitant.
Bermuda receives some 600,000 visitors a year - most on cruise ships, with air visitors supporting about 3,000 hotel rooms (compared to over 5,000 in the Bahamas). Visitor spending totals about $400 million a year (compared to $1.5 billion in the Bahamas). And - like the Bahamas - offshore financial services form the second pillar of the economy, providing about 10 per cent of Bermuda's $5.6 billion Gross Domestic Product.
"Bermuda is a very structured place" as Ken McDowall told me, but race and immigration continue to stir passions. During my visit, protesters staged a march on parliament to complain about 12 per cent unemployment. Yet every restaurant I patronised appeared to have foreign management and wait staff - something no-one could adequately explain to me.
The demonstration was mostly about immigration - ever a sensitive topic in Bermuda. Work permit rules and the granting of Bermudian status to permanent residents are big issues here, as they were in the Bahamas before and immediately after independence. The island's GDP has fallen by about 10 per cent since the 2007 financial crisis, and Premier Craig Cannonier told protesters that the government fully understood the fears of ordinary Bermudians.
Cannonier's government aims to restore business confidence, stem job losses, and create a smoother process for new developers. It is also exploring the introduction of liquefied natural gas as an intermediate energy solution while the Island moves towards alternatives such as solar and wind power.
Bermuda already has a well-developed recycling, composting and waste management programme that includes a waste-to-energy facility which meets 5 per cent of the island's energy demand. The residual ash is used in the manufacture of concrete blocks. This is something the Bahamas has been considering for years under successive governments without any progress achieved to date.
Violent crime is a top concern in Bermuda just as it is in the Bahamas. However, the comparison pales when we consider the statistics - there were only five murders in Bermuda last year, with 10 firearms and $14.6 million worth of illegal drugs confiscated.
The current British governor is a 56-year-old career diplomat named George Fergusson, who has had other postings to remnants of the empire now known collectively as the British Overseas Territories. He was left blind in one eye after being mugged in London last year, but has so far not run afoul of Bermuda militants. Meanwhile, the independence issue has been largely dormant since most of the electorate voted in 1995 to remain British.