When Tourism Caused the People to Riot (Historical Review)

It seems like we need a riot every few years to get things done in this country…they are a positive relief.  It is damaging to the tourist dollar but sometimes when you feel those frustrations the tourist dollar seems so remote…[A Bermudian riot] is not malicious because I truly think if people were all that malicious we would have had more than the dollar value of damage done.  I think it is a token of dissatisfaction…Bermuda riots are a little different.  [1]

 Dubbed by one historian as a “decade of violence,”[2] the years between 1968 and 1978 saw three occasions of spontaneous civil disturbances, beginning with two days of rioting after an altercation between a white man and a black youth at the annual Floral Pageant took on racial connotations.  The situation degenerated, ultimately resulting in  one million dollars worth of property damage and numerous injuries.  The Government declared imposed a curfew, declared a state of emergency, mobilized the Bermuda Regiment and invited the arrival of British forces. [3] Two years later, in 1970, three further incidents exposed fissures in the façade of racial progress: a protest against racial injustice on New Years Day, an April gathering outside the Magistrates Courts when Black Beret Cadre activists were taken to trial, and a number of acts that occurred between September 24th and October 10th.  Punctuating this decade of disturbance were its most dramatic events: three days of rioting surrounding the executions of black Bermudians Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. Again, the Government  mobilized all Bermudian police units, called in British reinforcements, and announced a state of emergency by the Governor that included a dawn to dusk curfew.

Naturally, the United Bermuda Party (UBP)-led Government commissioned investigations into the nature of the disruptions and how they could be resolved.  As a result, the decade between ’68 and ’78 is a particularly fertile period for official documentation, both partisan and bipartisan.  As sociological studies, the Wooding, Clark, and Pitt Reports, published in 1969, January 1978, and July 1978 uncovered the opinions of social actors ranging from Government officials and civic and opposition leaders to the rioters themselves. Both the Wooding and the Pitt Commissions had statutory powers, enabling them, by law, to compel informants to testify to their respective committees.   They are surveys of social, political, and economic conditions, and as such, documents of rich historical importance.

In 1978, the commissioners responsible for the Pitt Report made an extraordinary claim:  they told the Bermuda Government that one of the causes of the previous year’s riots was that Bermuda “catered to a select tourist market.” What made tourism so successful was also what led to the rioting:  Bermuda meticulously manufactured an image of itself as a colonial get-away, which included targeting a racially and financially exclusive clientele. Tourism depended then (as it depends now) on the appearance of harmony.  As Sir John Sharpe, Bermuda’s shortest standing Premier, noted on page 10 of his discussion paper “Independence for Bermuda,” Bermuda’s brand depended on the “judicious exploitation” of, and “harmonious relationship” between, Bermuda’s physical assets, such as its climate, beauty, and beaches, and our cultural assets, such as political and social stability, colonial aura, cultural assets, and friendliness. The continued success of Bermuda’s tourism industry depended on consistently delivering to its predominately North American market this aesthetic: an endeavor that required a degree of exclusivity and social engineering.

For instance, Harper’s Magazine applauded Bermuda for its presumably rare tact and class, for “in its handling of the color problem does the ruling class show how to be conservative gracefully.” Foreigners did not merely imagine Bermudian colonial affectations:  The Bermuda Almanack deliberately advertised the “Britishness” of the colony, as well as the docility of its racially and economically subjugated classes. Bermuda – our land and our society – was commodified and exported, arriving in the pages of the New York Times and Canadian Magazine as the glossy ideal of an island paradise in which politeness and sociability was innate, crime was non-existent, political and social stability was to be assumed, and social hierarchy was quaintly and quietly enforced.

But why were black, working class people so unhappy with tourism?  For one, the rise of the tourism industry gave rise to a shift in local social relations.  Inasmuch as black Bermudians were unofficially barred from accessing beaches, lands, and areas designated as tourist areas to which they had previously had access, [4] the novelty of this particular form of disenfranchisement allowed disgruntled blacks to easily trace it to the ascendancy of the tourist economy.  A particularly memorable moment in the history of race and tourism is the eviction of black residents from their Tuckers Town Community, the apple of the TDB’s eye for tourism-related development, by law and, in one instance, by police force. Black people couldn’t have  been too pleased about the legacy of the Hotel Keepers Protection Act (1930),[5] which allowed hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses to refuse guests at will, and was customarily employed to exclude most Jews and Asians, and all blacks.[6]  It is also true, though, that by the 1960s some things had changed: through the Bermuda Tourist Association (1950), black executives successfully lobbied the TDB for an advertising budget to attract black tourists. By the early 1960s, seven leading hotels voluntary ended policies of racial discrimination due to the persistence of E.T. Richards, a black lawyer and politician, and the majority bill report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee that had recommended the criminalization of racial discrimination.  But all of these changes came about through direct action by blacks.   And, as they say, legacy lives:  and so black Bermudians come to link the tourist economy to racial injustice.

But it wasn’t just the laws that tee’d off black Bermudians, but the power structure behind tourism itself.  The composition of the Tourism Development Board served as a signifier of the injustice of Bermuda’s minority rule. Into the late 1960s the TDB had not a single black member on its board at least into the 1930s. [7]  And economic and political power overlapped:  the same wealthy white men that dominated Bermuda’s commercial sphere were the unelected members passed legislation to their benefit through the Legislative Council.[8] Henry Tucker, as mayor of Hamilton, also began building Bermuda’s first hotel in 1852, ushering in an age of hotel construction that would lay the groundwork for Bermuda’s rising acclaim as a summer resort.[9] During a debate in the UK Parliament on the introduction of Bermuda’s first Constitution (1968), a speaker articulated the problem of Bermudian oligarchy in this way:

The general manager of the Bank of Bermuda is Sir Henry Tucker, Parliamentary leader of the U.B.P., who is also a director of the Bermuda Electric Light Company and of the Bermuda Telephone Company, and chairman of the Bermuda Broadcasting Company. Front Street is feared by the mass of the people… [10]

[1] The Hon. Lord Pitt, Michael P. Banton, Reginald C. Cooper, John I. Pearman, Walter N. H. Robinson, and William A. Scott, “Pitt Report,” 10.

[2]Frank E. Manning, Bermudian Politics in Transition: Race, Voting, and Public Opinion, (Hamilton, Bermuda: Island Press): 13.

[3] Sir Hugh Wooding, Hugh Worrell Springer, and Lawrence Peter Reginald Browning, “Bermuda Civil Disorders 1968: Report of Commission and Statement by the Government of Bermuda,” Also known as the Wooding Report, (Hamilton, Bermuda: The Government of Bermuda): 25.

[4] McDowall, Another World,, 130.

[5] Ibid., 5, 172, and 205; Eva N. Hodgson, Second Class Citizens; First Class Men, Third Edition, (Hamilton, Bermuda: The Writers Machine): 117-120.

[6] Quito Swan, “Connecting the Diaspora:  The 1954 Brown Decision and Segregation in Bermuda,” Black History Bulletin 67, no. 1-4 (January-December 2004): 35.

[7] MacDowell., 41-2, 130, 211.

[8] The Hon. Lord Pitt, Michael P. Banton, Reginald C. Cooper, John I. Pearman, Walter

N. H. Robinson, and William A. Scott, “Pitt Report,” 9; Sir Hugh, Hugh Worrell Springer, and Lawrence Peter Reginald Browning, “Wooding Report,” 80.

[9] McDowall, Another World, 47.

[10] Hansard Digitisation Project, “Bermuda Constitution Bill,”  HC Deb 19 June 1967, vol. 748 cc1031-64, (Hansard: 2009), http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1967/jun/19/bermuda-constitution-bill#S5CV0748P0_19670619_HOC_18 (accessed August 12 2009): 1049.


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