It was a blistering hot day in June 1730 when the enslaved woman Sally Bassett was burned at the stake at the foot of Crow Lane in Hamilton, Bermuda. Her alleged crime: conspiring to poison her granddaughter’s enslavers. On the way to her execution, Bassett reportedly called to the gathering crowd, “No use you hurrying folks, there’ll be no fun till I get there.”
Bermuda trail brings island’s Black heritage to the fore
Bassett then became a folk hero, embraced by free Black people and enslaved people throughout the Caribbean as a symbol of willful defiance to White oppression. A 10-foot bronze statue unveiled in 2008 in downtown Hamilton commemorates her life, Bermuda’s first official memorial to someone who was enslaved.
Today, the statue is one of more than 50 “Sites of Memory” on Bermuda’s African Diaspora Heritage Trail. Created in 2001 as part of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, the trail is part of an international effort to document the bitter history of slavery by telling the stories of enslaved people across the globe.
For six days, my wife, Roxanne, and I, along with her sister and brother-in-law, followed the trail along the approximately 24-mile length of this fishhook-shaped island. We planned our itinerary from lists of the most notable sites, as identified and described by the Bermuda Tourism Authority and the African Diaspora Heritage Trail Bermuda Foundation. The 14 stops included museums, statues, parks, churches, graveyards, nature preserves and private homes.
Transport and escape
Set inside Bermuda’s largest fort, the National Museum of Bermuda on the island’s western tip is as good a place as any to begin the journey.
Six life-size carved wooden figures by Bermudian artist Bill Ming beckon visitors into the “The Slave Trade & Slavery in Bermuda” exhibit on the museum’s first floor.
The story begins in the 17th century, when Bermuda became the first British colony to transport Black people to the island to work as indentured servants. Less than a century later, repressive laws had forced the island’s Black residents into slavery.
Museum exhibits describe the transport through the dreaded Middle Passage from Africa across the Atlantic. Others highlight family life of those who were enslaved, the role of religion and the notable personalities of the 200-year-long slavery era. Another tells the story of the abolition movement in Bermuda.
I lingered by the information panel “Rebels & Runaways,” which recounted Black efforts to escape enslavement and the punishment for those who tried: a whipping from a “jumper,” an appointed government official charged with administering lashes that were “painful enough to make slaves jump.”
Another room tells the story of the foul trade itself. Diagrams of the layout of slave ships hang from the walls. They depict men, women and children squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the ship’s deck and in its dank hold. The anguished words of one trafficked man, Olaudah Equiano, virtually cries out from an explanatory panel:
“I wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me.”
A swinging historical hot spot
Front Street in downtown Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, is the epicenter of the island’s tourism. Trendy bars, hotels, restaurants and tourist-centric shops line the street. It’s the place to sip a dangerously potent Rum Swizzle, the unofficial national drink of Bermuda, or buy a pair of authentic Bermuda shorts at the English Sports Shop, established in 1918.
Some of the most important African Diaspora Heritage Trail memorials also are found here. The Bassett statue gazes defiantly toward the sky from the Cabinet Building grounds on the eastern end of Front Street.
A 10-minute walk west on Front takes you to Barr’s Bay Park, overlooking Hamilton Harbor. The American schooner Enterprise, blown off course by a hurricane, landed here in 1835 with 78 enslaved people. Enslaved people were freed the previous year, and the people from the ship were given a choice: Return to the United States or remain free in Bermuda. Only a mother and her five children opted to leave. The bronze statue “We Arrive” by Bermudian artist Chesley Trott rises near the water at the southern side of the park.
A few blocks north, another statue by Trott commemorates the Theatre Boycott of 1959, a milestone in the Black struggle for equal rights in Bermuda. Although enslaved people were freed in 1834, racial segregation persisted through the middle of the 20th century. Trott’s “When Voices Rise” statue commemorates the boycott that forced the integration of previously segregated movie theaters. Other segregated businesses followed suit. The statue depicting five stylized figures, arms raised high, is in Wesley Square near the Bermuda National Gallery.
The next day, we took a cab to the historic Cobbs Hill Methodist Church, passing streets of tropical-hued houses, all with scrupulously maintained white roofs that feed rainwater for drinking into below-ground cisterns. (Bermuda has no freshwater rivers or lakes.) The gray-and-white church lies at the end of Moonlight Lane and was built by enslaved people working at night after their day’s labors were done. Today, many of their descendants worship at the church.
Our day ended at Spittal Pond, the island’s largest nature reserve and a favorite of birders. Buffeted by a bracing ocean breeze, we followed an uneven trail to Jeffrey’s Cave, overlooking the roiling, sapphire-blue Atlantic.
Jeffrey fled his enslaver in the early 1800s and hid for about a month in a cavern notched into a shoreline cliff. A 15-year-old enslaved girl brought packets of food to the edge of the cliff and tossed them down to Jeffrey. He was captured when his enslaver followed her.
History happened here
Much of the early history of Bermuda happened in roughly eight square blocks in downtown St. George’s at the far northeast tip of the island.
Below Old Maid’s Lane on Water Street stands the whitewashed Tucker House Museum and Barber’s Alley. The museum is a lovingly preserved 18th-century house where Joseph Rainey, a free Black man from South Carolina, opened a barber shop in the kitchen. Rainey had fled to St. George’s with his family at the outbreak of the Civil War and returned when the war ended. Rainey later became the first African American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Two blocks to the east, weathered brick steps cascade down to York Street from the open front doors of St. Peter’s Church. The church was established in 1612, the oldest Protestant church in continuous use in the New World.
A narrow brick path passes through a gap in the weathered limestone wall that surrounds the old Black cemetery on the western side of the church grounds. Free and enslaved Black, Native American and Carib Indian people were buried here. The area to the east was reserved for White people.
Pilot Darrell’s Square on Aunt Peggy’s Lane lies a block west of St. Peter’s. James Darrell, a legendary marine pilot, owned the tiny house with the sharply peaked roof at the head of the square. In 1795, Darrell guided the 74-gun HMS Resolution through the island’s treacherous reefs to safe harbor. As his reward, he was granted his freedom a year later.
Darrell was the first Black person to own a home in Bermuda. One of his direct descendants lives in the house.
The Bermudian Heritage Museum is about a three-block walk up York Street. This quirky, privately held museum exudes grass-roots authenticity. Photos of prominent Black Bermudians, newspaper clippings, period clothing, depictions of life for enslaved people and period bric-a-brac crowd the museum walls, tables and display cases.
When Joy Wilson-Tucker, the museum’s president and exhibits director, was growing up, Black history was not taught in the schools, she said. For residents, particularly older Bermudians, the museum provided an introduction to their own history.
For tourists, the museum offers a window into Black Bermudian history. “When they walk into the museum and read what some of the slaves had to endure, it hits the heart,” Wilson-Tucker said.
Some, she added, “leave in tears.”
Not all notable Sites of Memory are open to the public (or at least were open to us). The Verdmont Museum, a restored 1710 home outside Hamilton, was closed the day we visited. But my real interest was in the adjacent kitchen house where enslaved people prepared meals; it is now a private residence. The renovated Mary Prince home also is in private hands. And the old State House in St. George’s was locked tight when we walked by.
Our final trail stop lay on the edge of the Atlantic on St. David’s Island. The imposing Lost at Sea Memorial in Great Head Park features a stylized boat perched upright on its stern, the bow pointed toward the sky. Inside, sculptor Bill Ming positioned a life preserver, hourglass, oar, navigational dividers and ship’s log.
When we visited, the near-gale-force winds of previous days had moderated. Visible through a tangle of sea-grape trees, swells gently foamed over the inshore reefs. To the northeast, the cerulean Atlantic stretched to the horizon.
The poem “The End of Time” by Allan E. Doughty Sr. is inscribed on the logbook. If you substitute the word “slavery” for “the sea” in its final line, the verse could read as a celebratory ode to the story told by the African Diaspora Heritage Trail:
“Victorious, glorious, — NO MORE THE SEA.”
Morin is a writer based in D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @richmorin.
Where to stay
Royal Palms Hotel
24 Rosemont Ave., Pembroke
Located a short walk from Front Street and downtown Hamilton, this elegant boutique hotel is tucked into a lovely tropical garden. Rooms from about $385 per night.
Rosemont Guest Suites
41 Rosemont Ave., Pembroke
With spectacular views of Hamilton Harbor and the Great Sound, this 47-room hotel offers Bermudian charm and attentive service. Rooms from about $238 per night.
Hamilton Princess & Beach Club
76 Pitts Bay Rd., Pembroke, Hamilton
This full-service hotel near Front Street offers luxe accommodations, including a spa, outdoor pools and on-site restaurants. Rooms from about $665 per night.
Where to eat
24 Rosemont Ave., Pembroke
Ascots, located in the Royal Palms Hotel, is Hamilton’s special-occasion restaurant. Not to miss: pan-seared mahi-mahi, carrot and ginger soup, and grilled eggplant terrine. Open Monday through Saturday, 6 to 9 p.m., for dinner and Tuesday through Friday, noon to 2 p.m., for lunch. Closed Sunday. Three-course prix fixe dinner $68 per person, plus 20 percent gratuity.
The Pickled Onion
53 Front St., Hamilton
This is the place to enjoy a good meal and a Rum Swizzle on an expansive outdoor patio. The menu features Asian-inspired dishes, plus standard seafood and steak offerings. Try the Korean fried cauliflower in a coconut batter with spicy gochujang dipping sauce, and the line-caught and pan-seared rockfish. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; bar open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Entrees from about $24.
8b Crystal Caves Rd., Hamilton
You haven’t really experienced Bermuda until you’ve had a traditional Bermuda fish sandwich. This dish features fried fillets of fish (typically grouper), plus coleslaw, tartar and hot sauce between two slabs of toasted raisin bread. Open daily 9 a.m.; closing times vary. Sandwich $17, homemade lemonade or root beer $3.
What to do
African Diaspora Heritage Trail
The African Diaspora Heritage Trail was established in 2001 as part of the UNESCO Slave Route Project and is part of an international effort to document and highlight the history of slavery. Major sites include: the Sally Bassett statue and Barr’s Bay Park, both in downtown Hamilton; Pilot Darrell’s Square near St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s; and the Lost at Sea Memorial on St. David’s Island. Other notable sites include museums, churches, historic homes and Spittal Pond. Most sites are open to the public; some are privately held and closed to visitors. Some charge admission, but many are free. Depending on the time of year, several tour companies offer trail tours. Do-it-yourselfers can locate many of the trail’s most significant sites with Bermuda Tourism Authority’s reference map, free at most major hotels and the airport.
National Museum of Bermuda
1 The Keep, Sandys
Collections reflecting centuries of Bermudian cultural history are displayed here, a must-see for visitors. Located in the Royal Naval Dockyard, the museum includes exhibits devoted to the slavery era, island history, immigration and tourism. A personal favorite: the exhibit featuring Bermudian coins and currency. Summer hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends and holidays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; winter, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admission 4 p.m. Admission $15 per adult, $12 seniors over 65, those under 16 free.
Cobbs Hill Methodist Church
6 Moonlight Lane, Warwick
This church just outside Hamilton proudly describes itself as being “built by the slaves in the moonlight,” a nod to the enslaved people who constructed it. The sanctuary itself is beautiful, but the draw here is the church’s history, which members and staff are eager to tell. Call or email ahead to schedule a visit. Free.
Spittal Pond Nature Reserve
South Road, Smith’s
This 64-acre reserve is the largest wildlife sanctuary in Bermuda. A trail encircles the pond, a favorite of migratory shorebirds and birders. The trail runs past the “Checkerboard,” a limestone pavement formation, and Jeffrey’s Cave. Park open daily sunrise to sunset. Free.
St. Peter’s Church
33 Duke of York St., St George’s
Established in 1612, it is the oldest Protestant church in continuous use in the New World. Cedar beams and an elaborate latticework ceiling glow in the reflected light. On display is the church’s restored and rebound copy of a Geneva Bible printed in 1594. A graveyard surrounds the church. Church open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Requested donation $2.
Tucker House Museum
5 Water St., St. George’s
Learn the history of old St. George’s, Bermuda’s first capital, in a home meticulously maintained by the Bermuda National Trust. It features collections of silver from the slavery era, fine porcelain, Bermuda cedar furniture and hand-sown quilts. Open Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., but schedule and hours vary; check with Bermuda National Trust. Admission $5 per adult, children 11 and under free. Cash only.
Bermudian Heritage Museum
29 Water St., St. George’s
Scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings recounting Bermudian history and personalities are piled on tables, and the walls are crowded with photographs, posters and other memorabilia. Exhibits feature mannequins in clothing from the slavery era and depictions of life during that time. A large exhibit upstairs is devoted to island music and highlights Bermudian Gombey, a type of performance art. Museum open Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission $5 per person, children 5 and under free. Call for details.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.