Thursday, April 19, 2012

To understand Bermuda, you must know its history

Last weekend the Titanic memorial cruise ship MS Balmoral floated above the wreckage of the Titanic precisely 100 years after this magnificent vessel sank, killing 1,514 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters ever.  Examination of what happened to the Titanic and the lives of the ill-fated passengers, the passage of Titanic tales into popular discourse all continue as the legacy of this tragedy lives on. It lives on because history matters.

In our own global niche that is Bermuda too many of us seem conflicted about how to embrace our history. While we celebrate old Bermuda homes and speak with pride about our history of sailing vessels, for example, many of us turn mute when our long quest for social and political reform is discussed. The society we live in today is a direct consequence of those struggles yet there are those who seek to sever any and all links with the past. 

Understanding our social and political history is critical for anyone who truly wants to understand modern Bermuda; without it, you will have no effective reference point. It is this lack of a reference point that unfortunately permeates our youth in particular but is not unknown among their parents. To have a perspective on our past is a qualitatively different matter than knowing the facts of events: It is useful to know that Sir George Somers shipwrecked on Bermuda and the island was subsequently colonized. But we see a bigger picture when we understand that joint-stock companies (like the Bermuda Company) were used by the English state to facilitate colonial expansion in the 17th century.  

History helps us understand themes that pervade our current discussions. Racial consciousness was inserted into our politics with the introduction of slavery, sustained during segregation and aligned with wealth and privilege during the heyday of the white oligarchy and white privilege. Who among us believes this has no relevance today?

History helps us to understand that immigration policy has always had a political dimension. From the 1840s Bill to encourage English immigration to Bermuda; to the successful  1920s campaign by Governor Willcocks to recruit English police officers to replace the mostly black police force; to the 1960s campaign by government to encourage Bermudian emigration to the United States, while simultaneously bringing the largest influx of British nationals ever to our island. In recent decades, immigration policy has been shaped by a freeze of acquiring Bermuda status by grant, the creation of the permanent residency status and term limits. 

And, history helps us to understand that the most important progress for people in Bermuda has been made outside of the formal political process. Parliament and Britain sat by and did nothing to end racial segregation and promote democracy. For progress on this front we have to thank the Progressive Group and the Committee for Universal Adult Suffrage. The Bermuda Workers Association and the Bermuda Industrial Union fought for and won important rights for worker—not parliament. These lesson should demonstrate the real power vested in people; something which is lacking today, in part I believe, because we are disconnected from our past. 

Ironically, many of us will enthusiastically celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year. As graceful and as charming as Queen Elizabeth is, it is worth noting that our head of state made no effort to bring Bermuda in line with 20th century sensibilities about freedom and democracy when we needed it most. This too is part of our history.

No one truly believes history is unimportant: the sports enthusiast will go into historical detail on his team’s performance, the fashionista can tell you which styles herald back to a bygone era, and the business tycoon reflects on the seeds of his success. Typically, those who argue against reverting to history to gain insight about modern Bermuda want to shape an argument rooted in some distortion. This distortion will provide no insight. 

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