Sunday, September 22, 2013

Terry Tucker and the Poverty of History: A Book Review

NOTE: This book review was rejected by the editors of both The Bermuda Sun and The Mid-Ocean News in 1983; the former declared "This sort of thing is not done in Bermuda!" and the latter simply stated "Terry Tucker is a friend and I will not publish it." Three decades later after being found in my mother's 'archives' it is published here for the first time.

Bermuda:  Today   and Yesterday  (1503-1980s) by Terry Tucker

(London: Robert Hale Ltd./Bermuda: Baxter's Ltd.,1983)

Terry Tucker stands as one of Bermuda's most prolific writers. Having written on many aspects of Bermudian society for more than 40 years has become, perhaps, the person most closely identified with the study of Bermuda, particularly that which is of a historical nature. Tim Hodgson refers to her as "one of the Island's treasures". (l) It has also been pointed out that in addition to writing hundreds of thousands of words, Tucker has spent countless hours of research time in an attempt to "bring alive the historic events of this Island". (2) For her efforts she was awarded an O.B.E. and given the title of "Bermuda Specialist" at the Bermuda Library.

While prolificacy    may well be the quest of some writers in their desire for fame, is in no way synonymous w ith quality, with scholarly and disciplined literary production. It is on these grounds that serious objections can be raised against the work of Terry Tucker, and the argument  vis-a-vis the book presently under review is that it does a great deal to distort one's understanding  of the historical development  of Bermuda. That previous editions of this book have been so uncritically received by the academic community in Bermuda is a sad comment on that sector of society, especially in light of their widespread use throughout the schools.

A good point of departure for critiquing this book by   Tucker is to assess it against the standards she herself establishes. In this respect she makes the following observation:

[T]hat some careless pseudo-history is compiled as tourist bait….is probably inevitable in a resort and is easily rectified by studying early records or such standard scholarly works as those written by Dr. Henry Wilkinson…ln fact, for those who will take time and trouble, Bermuda [sic] history is well documented.(pg. 158)

The perceptive reader will readily see that it is indeed Tucker who is engaged in the writing of pseudo-history and often succumbs to the "baiting up", if you will, of tourists.

There are at least two levels on which to levy this critique—in terms of the empirical data and the theoretical presuppositions—and each of these shall be discussed in turn. Empirically, the most serious shortcoming of the book is its treatment of blacks and their struggles, which is both scant and scurrilous. That Tucker neither uses nor mentions the two important books on slavery in Bermuda by Cyril Packwood (3) and James Smith (4) simply astounds the imagination.  But let us study more closely her perception of blacks. As she explains for the reader”

White victims of wars and economic conditions, Red Indian captives from the Indian raids, and Negroes sold by their chieftains in West Africa for work­ gangs in the New World  were all enslaved.  The Negroes quickly out-bred and out-numbered all others. (56-57) (5)

Two observations can be made in response to this. First, blacks were able to 'outbreed' and outnumber other racial groups on the island with not a little help from the white slave owners (most of whom were of course male). It is perhaps noteworthy that Tucker indirectly admits as much later on when she speaks of those of "Negro descent" (pg.76). Secondly, by pointing out the higher birth rate of blacks over whites and Indians Tucker seems to be suggesting   that it is for this  reason  that black slavery became dominant. This has no basis in reality, for the historical record shows to the contrary (and here we are including North America as well) that there was a conscious choice (by whites) for blacks as slaves. Indians were not viable partly because they could escape back to their homes, but also because they were killed off in large numbers by the diseases carried by whites, to which they had no resistance (having never previously encountered them). Poor whites were first sent to the colonies in various forms of bondage owing to over-population in England; however, by the late 17th century, with manufacturing developing there and the need for labour in larger supplies, this practice was halted. (6) So it is mainly for these reasons, coupled with the relative ease of obtaining African labour that black slavery emerged as the prevalent form.

Tucker's treatment of the abolition  of slavery  is very misleading,  and this is primarily because it suffers from the non-inclusion  of readily available information.  For one, she totally ignores the prolonged and vigorous campaign waged by the abolitionists in England, who were really only listened to when it was convenient to do so. And then,by  peculiar and unclear reasoning she manages to quote with approval the comment by the Archdeacon at that time that the Emancipation Act is "one of the most altruistic acts of justice ever performed by any nation in history" (pg.115).That this "altruistic" act was not followed by the granting of de facto political power to blacks (this was only realized in 1968) is of course ignored in this "most comprehensive book" (as described in the inside cover). As a historian of Bermuda, Tucker should be well aware of the various measures introduced to decrease black political participation; and considering the subsequent impact they had on Bermudian society, it is remiss, to say the least, for her to disregard it entirely.

The distortion of the historical process is further perpetuated by Tucker in her treatment of the labour and desegregation movements. These two movements are of special importance in Bermuda's history insofar as they mark a watershed  in socio- political life. With respect to the labour movement (which she manages to cover in less than a page), she attributes its origin to the work of a single individual, Dr. E.F. Gordon. "Actually", she argues, "the movement  evolved from the activities of Dr. Edgar Fitzgerald Gordon, a Trinidadian of Coloured and Portuguese parents who came to Bermuda  in 1924 in his thirtieth  year" (pg.162).First of all Tucker is wrong to state that the struggle to form an organization  for labour developed out of Gordon's activities. The decision had already been made by the workers at the US military base to form a workers' association owing to the unfavourable working conditions there, prior to the involve­ ment of Gordon. (8) The fact that the possibility of forming a workers' association soon gained wide acceptance amongst Bermudian workers is indicative of a far more pervasive 'labour problem'. As a corollary to this and implicit in what has just been stated, broad-based movements  are never the result of action taken by a single individual, although there can be great leaders,as was Gordon. Movements such as this, which fought for the right of workers to organize collectively must be understood  in the context of fundamental changes in the social structure in conjunction with the conscious action taken by individuals. It is quite obvious that Tucker is either unable or unwilling to write history with these very basic criteria in mind.

Tucker’s treatment of the end to segregation is nothing short of scandalous: this is dealt with in one sentence. All that is said on this is that 1959 "saw the voluntary end to segregation for dining and dancing in the islands' major hotels" (pg.162, emphasis added). Conspicuous in its absence is any discussion of the successful theatre boycott, which set the pace for desegregation in other areas. Perhaps more than anything else, the success of this boycott forced the hotel owners to realize that it was in their long term interest to desegregate, despite the all too frequent claim that to do so would drive away American tourists. To describe this as "voluntary"   is to accord an entirely new meaning to the word.

At one point when discussing the criminal code brought to Bermuda by Governor Tucker, which listed twenty crimes as being punishable by death and scores more by whipping, Tucker does not moralize on the rights and wrongs of it. The historian that she is, she states that "[h]istory must be considered in its context and in perspective"(pg. 85), which is fair enough, for the role of the historian is (at least in part) to explain past events. The problem, however, is that Tucker is not prepared to be consistent on this. Whereas she can understand that so many crimes could      be punishable by death, she calls those slaves "evil"(pg. 89) who attempted  to take action (of a diverse nature) against the slave owners. Surely this is an example of blatant double standards and is most unbecoming of someone making pretense to be a scholar, and a "specialist" at that!

This same unwillingness to comprehend reappears in her treatment of the United Bermuda Party (U.B.P.) and the Progressive Labour Party (P.L.P.). It is repeatedly pointed out that the U.B.P. is biracial and the P.L.P. mainly black (pp.163, 164, 165,175) which is, of course, quite correct. But in view of the significance Tucker attaches to this, one would think that it is as a consequence  incumbent upon her to explain why this is so. Because no such effort is made in this direction, she leaves the reader with the impression that the P.L.P. consciously organizes itself along racial lines, whereas the U.B.P. strives for racial integration. Not only is this ahistorical, it is incorrect. When the P.L.P. was formed it was committed to advancing the cause of the working class voter and its allies; because most of the working class was (and still is) black this was naturally reflected in the P.L.P.'s composition. There is also a not insignificant white working class, although historically it has not identified with the P.L.P. (There are indications that this is now beginning to change.) On the other hand, the U.B.P., which since its formation has represented the interests of the (white) ruling class, has never had a problem in getting black support since there has been and continues to be a growing black elite or those who identify with the dominant class.

Although Tucker is critical of those who seem to be writing for tourists, the very structure of the book appears to be directed towards them; illustrative  of this is the listing in the appendix of sight-seeing locations as well as the names of hotels and guest houses. This "tourist-bait" evens finds its way into the text itself: at one point she observes that "[c]harming Walsingham  is well worth a visit as one of the very few houses remaining from the seventeenth century"(pg.l03; and then later on she supplies a brief note for Canadian visitors concerning the Canadian  exiles  banished  there for thirteen  weeks in 1838.(pg. 117)

These then are a few of-the criticisms which apply to Bermuda: Today and Yesterday in terms of the information presented, or more often the lack of it. The next section will examine the book at the level of theory, where the main concern is to address its theoretical underpinnings, or in other words, Tucker's approach to historiography.

The common answer to the question "What are your theoretical presuppositions?" by historians writing in the tradition of British empiricism (the tradition in which Tucker writes, but to be fair to the British empiricists who have had in their ranks scholars   of an extremely high calibre, Tucker is perhaps of the worst sort) is that they are simply dealing with the facts and have no theory. Serious historians no longer accept this and now recognize that facts are not innocent—they are used or not used in a particular way to make a particular point. As the late E.H. Carr noted:

The facts speak only when the historian calls on them; it is he [or she] who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context. (9)

This has numerous implications which would require further elaboration, but the point is simply that Tucker does have a particular way of studying society irrespective of her consciousness of it. Her approach is typical of what has become known ashistory from above", explaining events from the perspective of the ruling elites. We read a great deal of the events affecting those in power: the privateers and the accumulation of capital; the various exploits of the propertied class—the Tuckers, the Triminghams,              the Outerbriidges, and so on.


Absent is any serious treatment of working class people: what were the early experiences of blacks in Bermuda? What forms of struggle did they engage in? And what of the very significant role played by the Portuguese in the development of Bermuda, who have never been given adequate coverage? This is all quite alien to Tucker. But this is not to suggest that a "history from below" is an effective palliative, for it is important for the dominant and dominated classes to be understood in terms of a dialectical relationship, where neither is independent of the other. As the noted English historian E.P. Thompson argues, making a similar point: "We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers". (10)

Also problematic in Bermuda:  Today and Yesterday  is the independence  of action given to individuals.  Tucker tends to attribute most action to the activities of an individual (as was seen in her treatment of Gordon) totally removed from structural relations.  But to study important figures out of historical context leads one to confer on them more power than they as lndividuals possess.  Neither Gordon,  Governor  Reid nor Gladys Misick-Morrell  (the staunch  advocate of women's  suffrage)  would have  been  the persons  they  were  had they  lived  in different times: circumstances  called forth people of their ilk and so it is these circumstances which should be studied. It is now time to dispense with the notion that it is fruitful to study history via the actions of people qua individuals. To invoke E.H. Carr once again:

The desire to postulate individual genius as the creative force in history is characteristic of the primitive stages of historical consciousness. (11)

Far more helpful is the recognition that people do in fact make their own history, although not entirely as they please; this history is made within the confines of the present situation in addition to those circumstances inherited from the past.

To conclude then, this review has not portrayed Bermuda: Today and Yesterday in a very positive light, but if the critique has taken on a particularly incisive tone, in no way is it meant as a personal affront. The attack has been against a book which does many injustices to Bermudian history and the people who made it, and it is this brand of history which needs to be abandoned. Bermuda's history is well-documented and the time for scholars to engage in serious research in all aspects of  it is long overdue.


  1. Tim Hodgson "My Brother's Keeper:  In Her Own Write  -- A Profileof Terry  Tucker"  in The Bermudian   Vol. 52  No.8 September 1981, pg. 27

  1. Eric Hopwood "The Other Tucker Treasure" in The Bermuda Sun 18 June 1982, Section B pg. 2.

  1. Cyril Outerbridge   Packwood Chained on the Rock: Slavery in Bermuda (New York: Eliseo  Torres & Sons/Bermuda:   Baxter's  Ltd.,1975)

  1. James Smith Slavery  in Bermuda   (New York:  Vantage  Press, 1976).

  1. The implications contained   in the juxtaposition of the "quick breeding" Negroes with (in the first line of the paragraph immediately below) the "invading army" of rats, will be left for the reader to reflect upon.

  1. For a more detailed discussion of this see George M. Fredrickson White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African  History  (London: Oxford University Press,1981) pp. 56-63.

  1. This year saw the first election in Bermuda based on universal adult suffrage without a plus vote for those who owned land.

  1. See Gerald Brangman Thank You, Dr E F Gordon (New York: Vintage Press, 1973

  1. E. H. Carr What is History?  (New York: Vintage Books,  1961) pg. 9.


  1. E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin Books, 1980 pg. 8

  1. Carr op. cit. pg. 55.