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Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782. (Reviews).

Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda, 1616-1782. By Virginia Bernhard (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999 xvii plus 3l6pp. $37.50).

The first English colonists in the Americas crossed the Atlantic glorying in English liberties and without the intention of enslaving anyone. Yet, at the outbreak of the American Revolution English colonists owned more slaves than any of their European counterparts, and English merchants led the world in freighting African slaves to the Americas. England established a permanent foothold in Bermuda in 1612. This lonely archipelago, lying like a jagged fishhook in the North Atlantic more than 600 miles off the coast of North Carolina, had no indigenous inhabitants and offered settlers ample sustenance in a salubrious climate strategically located on the flank of Spanish domains. The first slave arrived from the West Indies in 1616, but plantation agriculture, despite some early success with tobacco, proved difficult on these cedar-strewn islands that together cover about twenty square miles-an area less than half the size of Nantucket. In 1663, most Bermudian landholders owned fifty acres or less, and the size of the average landholding diminished markedly during the next hundred years. Aspiring young planters moved elsewhere. Those Bermudians, black and white, who stayed behind shifted decisively in the seventeenth century into saltwater pursuits: fishing, shipbuilding, salvage, and seaborne trade. Although Bermuda never supported more than 6000 slaves, it developed one of the more unusual slave societies in the history of the Americas.

Virginia Bernhard vacationed in Bermuda in 1980 and was struck by the civility of the multiracial society. A tourist's curiosity about the present flamed into a professional historian's passionate quest for understanding the past. Masters and slaves, she discovered, had lived and worked together in a small world of cramped households in which an impressive degree of interracial intimacy and cultural sharing occurred. The first generations of white Bermudians appear to have had more trouble than their white Virginian or West Indian contemporaries in crossing that fateful threshold from servitude to slavery. Surviving contracts from the first half of the seventeenth century, Bernhard points out, speak almost exclusively of black and white indentures, not slaves, although, ominously, the customary term of service for blacks ran "four score and 19 years." Not until the 1680s does the word "slave" become a normative word in the public records. Bermuda never imported many African slaves, probably less than 5000 in its history. Indeed, white Bermudians, unnerved by the discovery of a slave conspiracy in 1673, passed a law the following year to prohibit the traffic in "Negroes, Indians, and Mallatoes." Bermuda's male and female slaves, present in roughly equal numbers, married, formed families, and reproduced themselves naturally within several decades of colonization.

The white population also grew steadily and would outnumber the black population by a small majority for most of the period covered by Bernhard. She estimates, based on a sample of wills and inventories dating from 1663 to 1707, that at least eighty percent of white heads of household owned slaves, although they typically did so in small numbers that included children. The largest Bermudian slaveholder in 1663 owned only seventeen slaves. About one third of Bermudian masters during the second half of the seventeenth century owned only one or two slaves. Slaveholding was far more widespread on Bermuda than in England's colonies on the North American mainland, but in Bermuda, Bernhard insists, no powerful, self-conscious slaveholding class emerged.

With the standard of the other English colonies in the Americas ever in mind, Bernhard characterizes Bermudian masters as generally responsible and concerned about their slaves' well-being. In a diversifying economy they recognized the value of skilled, acculturated, and literate slaves and presided over a rather loose, easygoing system of control. "From one end of Bermuda to the other, slaveholders of ordinary means as well as the affluent recognized and approved of slave marriages, often named slave children for themselves or for members of their families, usually bequeathed slaves to relatives, avoided breaking up slave families, sometimes manumitted individuals, and almost never sold them (p. 116)." Most members of Bermuda's overwhelmingly creole slave population lived within their master's home. Whites and blacks had frequent sexual relations. Restrictive laws existed, but they often went unenforced and their wording shows less of the racist poison to be found elsewhere in English America. White and blac k Protestants worshiped in the same churches. During his ministry in Bermuda from 1755 to 1772 the Reverend Alexander Richardson counted more black than white baptisms, 1,535 to 1,118. No Bermudian assembly ever passed a law forbidding whites from teaching slaves to read and write. Many Bermudian slaves traveled about the islands visibly armed, and in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whites mustered slaves into the militia.

In several of the book's six detailed chapters, Bernhard examines slave resistance. No major slave revolt ever broke out in Bermuda. Whites did preempt five alleged slave plots, in 1656, 1661, 1673, 1682, and 1761. But no whites were killed. No wave of bloody repression followed discovery. The five plots resulted in the execution of a total of only ten slaves. Rarely did Bermudian whites resort to torture and mutilation in the process of executing any slave. Bermudian masters, according to Bernhard, even seem to have grown disinclined to lash their merely recalcitrant slaves. In the 1760s officials created the post of "jumper" for those masters who wanted someone else to do the whipping.

For Bernhard, the opportunities for Bermudian slaves in the maritime economy mitigated the inherent brutality in slavery. Governor Alured Popple reported to his superiors in 1739 that Bermuda's celebrated cedar sloops were carrying crews that were one-quarter black. Bernhard claims that by the 1770s, "black sailors made up the entire crews of most stoops (p. 247)." Whatever the true proportions, increasingly large numbers of Bermudian slaves seized opportunity, made transatlantic contacts, and forged a strong sense of self-worth on the high seas. Bernhard admits that her portrayal of Bermudian slavery is far from rosy. Slave marriages had no protection in law. Blacks sat in the rear of those churches in which they worshiped together with whites. Some ministers refused to baptize slaves. Manumitted slaves and other free persons were at times targeted for expulsion from the islands. Slaves were hanged, if not broken on the wheel. Black sailors crewed Bermudian vessels headed by white masters and mates. "Four sc ore and 19 years" is, de facto, permanent bondage.

Bernhard's impressively researched book clearly establishes Bermudian slavery as a complex and fascinating departure from the plantation type. But, in the absence of black voices, how did Bermuda's slaves view their intimacy with whites? "Close bonds" to one can mean stifling supervision to another; slaveholder "laxity" can entail detachment without understanding. Bermudian slaves, like slaves in the antebellum South, had a rich and contradictory experience. The maritime economy may have given Bermudian slaves "a large measure of autonomy and a sense of identity (p. 275)." But identity with whom and autonomy toward what ends? Bernhard's assertion that in "Bermuda's small households the bonds of womanhood, of female companionship ... undoubtedly transcended race (p. 275)" seems more like a sop to academic fashion than a conclusion warranted by the evidence in her book. Given the leadership of privileged slaves in at least several of the insurrectionary plots that supposedly aimed at the destruction of whites, familiarity with masters must have bred racial contempt in many slaves in spite of (because of ?) the benignity of Bermudian slavery. In 1796 a Massachusetts newspaper reported the complaint of a white Bermudian that blacks were given a "shameful scope" on the islands. That scope, he continued, led blacks to assemble for entertainment that excluded whites. Another assessment of Bermudian slavery comes from the singular voice of Mary Prince, whose famous narrative, published in 1831, picks up the story where Bernhard's history ends. Prince grew up on a small farm in Bermuda in the late eighteenth century. She worked as a literate domestic slave in close contact with several masters and mistresses from whom she suffered whippings, beatings, and sexual abuse. Like many other Bermudian slaves, Prince was shipped out of Bermuda to spend years of grueling bondage raking salt under a scorching sun on the Turks Islands. After running away from one of her Bermudian masters, Prince was returned to bondage by her own fa ther. "Oh I was loth, loth to go back; but as there was no remedy, I was obliged to submit."
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Author:Paquette, Robert L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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