What is resilience and what does it mean to be resilient? The term itself can be applied to a range of subjects from communities and ecosystems to individuals and institutions. It is the ability to withstand, adapt to, respond to and recover from adverse conditions. It is persistence and adaptability and it is a characteristic that is ingrained in us as a people, as a community, and as a country. In recognition of this year’s Heritage Month theme, “Bermudian Resilience”, we wanted to share a few stories from our collections that highlight examples of Bermudian resilience from the past and present.
Our first story came from our most recent collection, United Together, a crowd-sourcing project aimed at collecting electronic mementoes of people’s experiences as our community grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. Like everyone else in the world, when the NMB team left our offices over a year ago we thought it would be back to work as usual in a few months. How wrong we were. As we rapidly adapted to a new and unprecedented way of life, we recognised that we were living history and it was important to document our collective experience.
The Museum launched #UnitedTogetherBDA in April 2020 to help record this moment. This digital archive documents the varied experiences of living in Bermuda during this time and will tell future historians how the pandemic shaped our lives and how as a community we withstood the challenges a global pandemic has presented. The images submitted fit into five main areas: Everyday Life, Virtual Community, and Learning, Public Health and Frontline Workers, Art and Activities, and Environment and Landscapes.
To see some of the submissions visit the United Together online gallery. Our community’s resilience in a time of global unease is something that is rooted in our cultural heritage and the Museum’s collection has a number of photographs and objects that reflect moments of resilience throughout our history. We will continue to collect objects and images that document and preserve these moments of resilience for future generations.
Human resilience and space exploration
Spaceflight and space exploration tests everything from the resilience of the human body to the resilience of the human spirit in overcoming tragic disasters and setbacks. It requires not only adaptability to the inhospitable environment of space but also a global community of scientists, technicians, researchers, and organisations working together for the successful completion of every mission.
With the recent successful splashdown of SpaceX’s aptly named capsule Resilience in May, we thought we would share an object from the collection that recognises the Bermudians who were an integral part of Bermuda’s role in humankind’s exploration of space for our next story of Bermudian resilience.
The Bermuda Tracking Station at Cooper’s Island opened in 1961 to support NASA’s Project Mercury and was one of NASA’s first international outposts. The station closed in 1997 but was reestablished in 2012 and remains an integral part of NASA’s global tracking network.
This map identifies the international network of technicians, scientists, and researchers including 50 Bermudians employed by the Cooper’s Island Tracking Station.
For a first-hand account of what those early communications sounded like and the atmosphere in the Bermuda Control Room during those historic missions over 50 years ago check out our blog post by former NASA employee Bermudian Robert Burgess.
Individual stories of resilience
Bermudian Resilience is also exemplified by the stories of strength and steadfastness shown by individuals whose stories remind us of what we are capable of in the face of insurmountable odds. Stories like that of King’s Pilot James Forbes and his crew of five men and a boy who were driven offshore in their pilot gig by a gale on 13th December 1824, and dismasted. Lost at sea at the height of the North Atlantic winter, they drew on their reserves of mental and physical fortitude and resilience, and resourcefully employed all the knowledge and materials at their disposal to return home to Bermuda.
They rigged a replacement mast, and Forbes used dead reckoning and a compass to keep track of how far the gig might have gone and in what direction. After 5 days—by which time they were “obliged to suck lead” to keep their mouths moist—they reached the Gulf Stream and encountered the first of two ships that provided them with provisions, water, and sailing directions for Bermuda.
A final obstacle occurred when the gig grounded west of North Rock at night and lost her rudder. Using two oars to steer, Forbes and his crew finally made it home to general rejoicing after three harrowing weeks.
To get an idea of what Pilot Forbes’ boat was like, check out ‘Rambler’, the only surviving Bermuda pilot gig, which is currently on display in NMB’s Boat Loft. Can you imagine 3 weeks at sea in winter weather in an open boat like this?
Forbes’ account of his voyage can be found in the Bermuda Gazette of 15 February 1825.
Resilience is not just the ability to adapt to adverse conditions in the moment but also to recover, rebuild and grow beyond the initial event as exemplified by Mary Warfield’s story. Ten years after Pilot Forbes and his crew’s harrowing experience at sea Mary was nine years old and was kidnapped from the Warfield plantation in Maryland, US. Along with 77 other captives, mainly women and children, she was forced onto the American brig Enterprise and was bound for Charleston, South Carolina. While en route, Enterprise encountered bad weather and was forced into Hamilton.
Once in Bermuda, customs officials boarded the ship and discovered the captives. The captain of the vessel was informed that slavery was illegal in Bermuda and any slavers found in Bermuda waters were subject to arrest and seizure. Word of the Enterprise and the captives on board quickly spread throughout the island. Members of the local Friendly Societies immediately petitioned the court for the captives’ release, arguing that the vessel contravened Island laws. The individuals were brought onshore, taken to Court, and asked separately if they wanted to return to the US or live free in Bermuda. Most of the captives chose to stay in Bermuda.
Resilience is the ability to withstand, adapt and grow in the face of adversity, trauma, stress, and tragedy. Mary’s experience at the age of nine is only one part of her story. After her emancipation and like many of those on board the Enterprise, Mary stayed in Bermuda and built a life for herself.
Her descendants include Bermudians and Americans and this portrait of Mary, photographed at the age of 62 with her grandson Brownlow Charles Williams hints at the life she lived and is a testament to her strength and resilience in forging that life for herself. Many of the survivors of the Enterprise have generations of descendants in Bermuda and abroad and there are many stories like Mary’s throughout our history. Sharing them not only recognises the people they are about but are also vital in helping us understand our history and ourselves.
Our community is made up of incredible individuals but our strength as a country is never more evident than when we come together to face the challenges before us and never more keenly felt than when a hurricane hits. Bermuda is a small island in the middle of the Atlantic and makes for a difficult target for most of the storms that develop, but when we do get hit, the consequences can be devastating. As an isolated island with few natural resources, our strength and resilience during these moments lie in our ability to unify as a community.
Community resilience is the ability of a community to prepare, adapt, withstand and rapidly recover from any disaster together. Though we have our differences – Somerset vs St. George’s, plain bread or raisin bread for your fish sandwich – we always come together in times of need, especially during a hurricane.
Whether it’s helping your neighbour or elderly relative put up storm shutters before a storm strikes or checking in after a storm— helping with clean up, offering access to showers and electricity to those who lost power or tarping over roof damage— our capacity to come together and help one another is one of the magical things about our community and fundamental to our resilience as a small island nation.
The challenges that lie ahead of us are unknown, but with our deep reserves of resilience ingrained in us, I have no doubt that we will weather whatever storms lie ahead and will come out stronger together.