I wasn’t actually expecting to find anything about the Civil War while on vacation in Bermuda. I probably should have been: I knew about Confederate blockade runners dealing cotton for weapons; I knew about tacit British support for the Confederacy; I knew what and where Bermuda was. But I didn’t put it all together to realize that Bermuda was a critical location for British and Confederate smuggling operations until we toured the town of St. George.
I wrote the other day about St. George’s slave and free black population. Bermuda had slaves, but it’s unclear what the percentage of the population was; it certainly didn’t approach the ratio that could be found in the American Deep South on the eve of the Civil War. Bermuda, a thin series of volcanic islands, was not idea plantation land (though there were some) so large-scale slavery never truly took root. Still, Bermuda’s enslaved population endured until emancipation came in the 1830s, along with the rest of the British Empire.
After emancipation came to Bermuda, it became a safe haven for a handful of American slaves. Just a year after emancipation, in 1835, the Enterprise, an American ship carrying slaves from Virginia down to South Carolina. Blown off course by a hurricane, the Enterprise docked in Hamilton. British law dictated that slaves brought into British colonies would be declared free. The ship’s captain and crew were arrested after initially refusing to unload the cargo and enslaved people aboard. This was one of several incidents in the mid-1800s that showed Britain’s willingness to confront the United States over slavery when it appeared within British borders.
However, Britain’s morals extended only so far. They did not countenance slavery on their shores, but certainly had no problem with its results: the American south, after all, was the primary source of cotton for Britain’s booming textile industry. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, however, the subsequent Union blockade of southern ports left Britain in a difficult situation. It immediately began ramping up cotton production in both India and Egypt, but American cotton was still the most readily available. Despite the central role slavery played in the conflict, Britain began attempting to deal with the Confederacy.
On St. George’s waterfront today sits a large gray building with Bermuda’s traditional white roof. Two cannons and two flags – British and Bermudian – grace the entrance. Today it is called the World Heritage Centre and forms the main museum of St. George’s UNESCO World Heritage site, but in the 1860s it was the Penno’s Warehouse, and it served as one of the most active centers for shipping between Britain and the Confederacy. Cotton coming from Savannah and Charleston sat within these walls, as did British arms headed for Lee’s Virginia army.
The museum inside is a tour through St. George and Bermuda history, and deals a fair amount with the Civil War: exhibits on blocakde runners, a discussion of Bermudian ties to the Confederacy (both to slaveholders and slaves), and information on the transformation of St. George from a sleepy backwater to a bustling trading hub during the war. What it lacks, interestingly, is any reference to the hypocrisy of Britain’s role: publicly anti-slavery, but privately perfectly willing to profit from it. This is a rather famous conflict; it played at least some role in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and hasten the transformation of the Union effort into one expressly against slavery. That decision possibly prevented direct British entry to the war; Britain could go to war for cotton, but not to defend slavery itself. Still, smuggling continued in St. George through the war.
Though The city had many ties to Confederates, it also had ties to those fighting them. The most famous foe of the Confederacy to reside in Bermuda during the war was Joseph Rainey, a former slave who escaped South Carolina rather than face Confederate conscription in 1862. Rainey and his family settled in St. George, where he became a successful barber; the small Barber’s Alley (top photo) is named in his honor.
Rainey is most notable, however, for his life following the war: in 1866, he moved back to South Carolina where he became a central figure in Charleston’s black community during Reconstruction. In 1870, he won election to the United States House of Representatives, becoming the first African American to serve in that body. He remained there until 1879, a constant force in favor of equality even as Reconstruction gave way to white Redemption and white supremacy groups began to force blacks throughout the south into renewed subservience.
Bermuda didn’t play a large role in the Civil War, but the depth of commemoration of the war there – and the tone of that commemoration – surprised me. St. George was clearly deeply affected by the war, but nowhere in their public commemoration (at least as far as I saw) was that role critically examined. Even as the city and island honors Rainey – and his story was among the more frequent – it also seems to tacitly celebrate or romanticize the role the Confederacy and Confederate trade played in building the island’s economy in the 19th century.