The First Great Mass Migration of West Indians to Bermuda 1894-1906

By Dr. Clarence V. H. Maxwell

History | February 13, 2020

Reading time: 9 minutes

*From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes 2002 Vol 15. No 1.

One late summer afternoon a conversation between a legendary Bermudian educator and her former student was drawing to a close. The year was 1995, and both sat on her porch that overlooked Harrington Sound. The year was significant. It marked the 100th anniversary of an event that unified the heritage of this teacher and student, despite their disparity in age by at least two generations. The event was the first great mass migration of West Indians to Bermuda.

For many great social events in history, the date that marks their beginning or end is often unclear. But this is not the case for this massive movement of West Indians to Bermuda. And this migration was truly massive: at its height, West Indians came to constitute nearly one-quarter of the overall Bermuda population.

As the teacher and her student spoke, and the long shadows of a declining sun began to stretch across a darkening Sound, the conversation drifted to the question that began the conversation. What caused this massive influx of persons to Bermuda from the islands to the south? What forces stirred so many people to leave their families and their homes? A discussion of the forces that had precipitated and surrounded this great social movement follows.

Roots and causes

In 1897 an urgent letter from the British West Indies wended its way through the corridors of Whitehall. The author of this letter was the governor (at times called president) of the British Leeward Island Federation, an association of islands in the British Leewards created under the approval of fiscally conservative Whitehall bureaucrats. The islands of St. Kitt’s and Nevis were included in this group.

Emanuel Bowen Map of Bermuda and St. Kitts (1747)

The governor, F. Fleming, was writing in the midst of a major crisis in the principal sugar economies of the British West Indies. This crisis was economic depression, a great depression, which had sunk its teeth into the fragile jugular of the all-important British Caribbean sugar industry. When President Fleming was relating his dire diagnosis, the Great Sugar Depression was already two years old; and it was within three years of getting worse. “It has been a year of great depression in trade,” he wrote in his letter to the Secretary of State of the Colonies, “of drought (as shown by the fact that the rainfall was over six inches short of average) and of painful uncertainty as to where the cultivation of the staple product, sugar, would not shortly become impossible. A number of estates have been put out of cultivation and the labour employed on all reduced to a minimum, while wages were reduced as low as possible.”

The situation was notably dire on the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, which had become, through the dominance of the sugar industry, very dependent on imported food. As the sugar industry declined and unemployment increased, the capacity of otherwise independent men and women to purchase goods deteriorated. Virtual starvation spread among the Caribbean masses of the once-productive sugar islands, and many people were reduced to begging for basics. And there were knock-on effects. As one governor remarked: “The average attendance at elementary schools and the amount of school fees received have both decreased in 1897 when compared with the year before.”

Previously things were not this hopeless. Not too long before, in fact, hope had reigned in the place of despair. With the end of slavery in 1834 and the collapse of the apprenticeship system (a non-remunerative but regulated labour system that replaced slavery in all but the islands of Antigua and Bermuda until 1838), newly-freed men and women expanded the social revolution. The social revolution, in unity with British Abolitionists, had before 1834 brought to an end nearly two centuries of slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.

Cutting sugar cane, Jamaica. Vignette from Fullarton’s 1860 map of British West Indian Possessions.

The greatest push among the newly emancipated went to the desire for land and the quest for education; and in the early period, British liberalism could be counted as an ally in these endeavours. But the bulk of the efforts came from the Caribbean masses. Co-operative organisations, emphasizing the power of pooled resources, weakened the effects of centuries of virtual monoculture and economic concentration.

Yet the worm in the apple was the very industry on which many in the Caribbean depended—and on which responsibility rested for enslavement and the morally problematical apprenticeship scheme. That industry was the sugar industry. And while many travelled from island to island (especially to newly converted sugar economies of Guyana and Trinidad) to find work, they inadvertently laid the groundwork for the contradiction whose effects fully sprang upon their fortunes as the century drew to a close, the Great Sugar Depression of 1895.

West Indians carrying sugarcane, woodcut print “Sugarcane, a halfpenny a stick – Barbados” c 1888.

By the 1890s, the collapse of the Anglo-European market for sugar was more notable for its occurrence. Its effects, in especially St. Kitts and Nevis, were not dire due to the sugar sales to the United States. The US sugar market, having increased in size over the course of the century, supplanted the European market; and it took according to a Royal Gazette article in 1900, by far “the largest share of exports.” This trade would render the colonial planters as dependent on the US as a market for this sugar as they had been on the British. Indeed, if 1892, three years before the Great Sugar Depression, is recorded as one of the better years for the price of sugar, one might be inclined to attribute such a price to trade agreements signed between the US and the British West Indies. According to a government-commissioned report on the state of the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis, by 1893, experienced growth in the value of sugar to a peak of £23,960—for even less sugar than was produced in 1892. But let anything happen to that market and disaster would descend on Caribbean sugar. And then the disaster happened.

The date for the beginning of the Great Sugar Depression—1895—is also the date of the end of preferential treatment extended by the US government to the British West Indies. This was further exacerbated when the US ensnared itself in the Spanish-American War. And with its triumph over Span, US trade officials began to grant the territories of Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Brazil preferential duties on sugar. The ability of West Indian planters to compete collapsed. It took a year for the effects of this abandonment to influence the price of sugar in the British Caribbean. Not surprisingly, the period from 1895 to 1904, when these new economic pacts were in formation or existence, had the lowest numbers for the price and the quantity of sugar.

A sugar mill in St. Thomas

Women in Barbados c 1900

The tragedy of Caribbean sugar dependency and depression were to deliver very pessimistic wailings for the future of the industry. It is possible to quote Fleming again: “No-one at the present day can expect that sugar will fetch again the prices it has fetched in the past.”

Exodus and arrival

Thus, emerged the strategy of migration and exile. The year 1895 marked the beginning of the mass exodus of West Indians northward. During the worst year of the Great Sugar Depression (1900), the governor of Antigua lamented that a “very large proportion of the best artisans and labourers has left, and still continues to leave Antigua in search of employment elsewhere as now there is no inducement for them to remain, owing to the small wages which they receive.” They were joining the throngs of Kittitians and Nevisians making their way to the hub of Basseterre, St. Kitts. They were on their way to, among other places, Bermuda.

But the Caribbean migrants arriving in Bermuda found their reception growing steadily icier as their numbers grew larger. The Bermuda government, by 1898, began to construct restrictive legislation. Schemes established to encourage the immigration of Swedes and other Europeans were side-stepped by the Immigration Act of 1898. However, the Act placed costs on shipping firms serving Bermuda and the Caribbean—those facilitating the immigration of West Indians. It was expected that the costs would be passed on to the migrants, an expectation duly rewarded.

Immigration Act, 1898. Bermuda Archives

Before the Immigration Act of 1898, a converse policy had prevailed. Funds were allocated from the Bermuda Public Treasury to provide incentives to British soldiers and Swedes to settle in Bermuda. This paradox caused some, like Bermuda Assemblyman J.H.T. Jackson, to attack the new immigration legislation as specifically designed to prevent the migration of West Indians. He angrily referred to this previous policy of encouraging Swedes as an example of racial favouritism. His charge of a prejudicial intent behind the Immigration Act was firmly denied by one of his colleagues as “utterly false.” But Jackson’s assertions were supported to some degree by this statement made in an official report: “To say nothing of the remote effects of bringing in a lower class of coloured people to replace our own by forcing the best to emigrate to the United States and the weakest to a lower vitality by less of employment and food, I came at once to conditions that West Indian immigration produces.”

Stonecutters at work on Trinity Church, 1890. Bermuda Archives, Plimpton Album

Official hostility reduced in intensity after 1900, when work began on the Dockyard Extension project. This project, which included the construction of a southern breakwater at the Royal Naval Dockyard, was undertaken by private British contracting firm, Messrs. C. H. Walker & Company, and paid for out of the funds of the Imperial Treasury. There was also the installation of a floating dock, built and sailed from England to Bermuda and finally located in the southern portion of the Dockyard.

West Indians at work on the building of the Dockyard Extension, 1902

Recruited labour was employed at the Dockyard Extension Works and obtained mostly from Jamaica. But ‘non-recruited’ West Indian labourers were already arriving at their own expense, not a few having worked in Panama. Many of these non-recruited labourers, like the migrants who had arrived before 1901, left from the British Leeward Islands. Many also came from the Dutch Leeward Islands such as St. Eustatius and Saba. But the majority of migrants during this period came from the sugar-producing island of St. Kitts, putting Kittitians in a strong position to affect the culture and society of their adopted home.

The road beyond

The end of the first mass migration, domination by economic depression, and the Dockyard Extension Works, occurred about 1906. With the completion of the extension project, many began to return to their homes and families in the islands to the south. But not all left. Some began to settle in the areas around King’s Point in Sandys, and at Friswell’s Hill/Happy Valley in Pembroke and Devonshire. The King’s Point community would not survive, but that around Friswell’s Hill persisted and grew.

Paradoxically, it was in these communities that Caribbean unity was to some degree achieved. And around Friswell’s Hill and North Hamilton, this occurred under numerical domination of Kittitians and Nevisians. Individual Caribbean identities, so it is said, were submerged and inter-island rivalries to some extent sedated. But around this alleged haven of West Indian unity in the expanding settlement of North Hamilton was the hostile ocean of contemptuous treatment by many: by people who derisively described this area as “back of town” and pelted West Indians with phrases not worthy of repetition here.

Nonetheless, in spite of this, more Caribbean migrants entered, and with their predecessors bought homes, built innumerable businesses, staffed schools (around Pembroke and, indeed, around the island), educated a generation of Bermudians, and promoted the education of their own children. Often this went on quietly with little celebration of either their hard work or their vision.

Berkeley Institute class with the school’s first principal, Jamaican educator, George Da Costa, 1901. Bermuda Archives, Carol Hill Collection.

From 1906 a second period of Caribbean migration stretched to the end of the Second World war. Another period succeeded it, reaching from 1945 to the present. Each period was shaped by new “push and pull factors” encouraging and sustaining migration to, and settlement in, Bermuda/ But the discussion of these subsequent migration periods must be left for another narrative.

If you would like to learn more about Bermuda’s connections with the West Indies visit our exhibit in Commissioner’s House.

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