Grave of the Week: James Darrell

Bermuda’s historic district is located in the town of St. George, on the northeastern tip of the island. This is where the first settlers landed in the 1600s, and where the majority of them remained for another 200 years. It’s where the government of the colony sat until its move to Hamilton in the early 1800s. It’s remarkable for its historic preservation; many of the buildings appear as they did in the 1700s and 1800s. Among the architectural centerpieces is St. Peter’s Church.

Slave Free Black Cemetery View
Slave and Free Black Burial Ground, St. Peter’s Church, St. George, Bermuda

Like most Anglican and Protestant churches in the 1700s, the churchyard itself served as the primary burial ground for the town in its early history. It contains the graves of several Bermuda Governors, some victims of warfare, and major citizens from Bermuda’s past, but in most ways it is an unremarkable example of an 18th century burying ground. What is notable about it, though, is the inclusion of a slave and free black cemetery – not integrated, but still attached, through an opening in the stone wall on the western edge of the grounds. The stones are worn and only a few still have visible names, but that there are stones and names at all puts it well ahead of slave cemeteries in the US, most of which are completely unmarked or have only small markers that never bore names.

James Darrell
Grave of King’s pilot and freed slave James Darrell

We didn’t take a formal tour of the graveyard, so I don’t know what stories there are buried here. But one burial – James Darrell – was someone who came up several times during our visit. Darrell (a good biography of him can be found here) was born a slave, in the Darrell family. Darrell was a tremendously skilled pilot for ships coming through Bermuda’s treacherous reefs (see yesterday’s post for info on this); this skill led, incredibly, to his selection as a King’s pilot after he successfully guided a large warship into deepwater port. Darrell was freed not long afterward. But his freedom came at a bad time for slaves in the Caribbean: Haiti’s successful revolution in the last decade of the 1790s was terrifying for slave-holding societies throughout the Americas (and was one major catalyst for tightening slavery regulation in southern US states in the first decade of the 1800s). Laws governing slaves and free blacks were particularly restrictive. Several new laws were introduced in 1806 having to do especially with free blacks, of which there were many in St. George. Here’s the story, from BermudaBiographies.bm, of Darrell’s successful challenge to one such law:

A third law made it illegal for free blacks to purchase property and to will it to their heirs. It also required blacks who were freed when they were in the prime of their lives—those under the age of 40—to leave Bermuda within three months.

That act sought to reduce the island’s population of free blacks and to prevent those who remained in Bermuda from owning property.

Darrell—who had purchased an undeveloped piece of land in St. George’s on April 19, 1800—and fellow King’s pilot Jacob Pitcarn were quick to take action the same year the new acts were passed. Bypassing the Governor, they appealed directly to the British Navy headquarters in London in a petition for the right to keep the property they had acquired.

In their petition they pointed out that while people of colour comprised the majority of Bermuda’s population, only nine free persons of colour out of a total Negro population of 5,058 owned land more than 100 square feet.

They argued they would be forced to sell their property and “become wanderers, in some other parts of the World, where they may find refuge.”

Darrell and Pitcarn, along with other signatories, sent at least two more petitions to the Colonial Office in London between 1808 and 1811. The 1808 petition was signed by 22 signatories, who described themselves as free persons of colour.

While London said law seemed to be severe and recommended it be repealed, it remained on the books for seven years.

In December 1806, Darrell and Pitcarn also petitioned against new measures that would leave them with less income from their piloting. Both men had recently purchased a boat, with the expectation they would receive an allowance for boats and crew. The allowance was about to be eliminated. It is not known whether that petition was successful.

Darrell did continue to live in Bermuda until his death in 1815, when he dies and was buried in the cemetery at St. Peter’s.

I have little good historical knowledge of slavery in Bermuda, but it’s clear that while the island did have a slave system, it was not a tremendous part of the economy; slaves themselves made up a clear minority of the island’s population, and there don’t seem to have been many major conflicts over the practice. I’ll have more to say on Bermuda and slavery in a post later this week about Bermuda’s role in the American Civil War.

 

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