I have long been interested in Bermuda. Like the island that I studied for my PhD thesis, Mauritius, it has no indigenous population. It was settled during the age of European expansion, and developed using indentured servants from Europe and African slaves. In Mauritius the call for a new form of unfree labour in the aftermath of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and gradual emancipation during the 1830s, was met by the importation of some half a million indentured labourers from India and China. In contrast, Portuguese indentured workers (some from African islands like Madeira) migrated to Bermuda during the same period. Factoring in the historic mobility between Bermuda, North America (including Halifax in Canada), and the Caribbean, Bermuda has a distinct population base and the associated forms of creolised culture that we see in places like Mauritius today. Descendants of Europeans, Africans and Portuguese all live in the islands now. But the islands are decidedly not post-colonial. Along with thirteen other former colonies, they are a British Overseas Territory. The Queeen’s head appears on the Bermudian dollar, and on postage stamps, and islanders travel on British passports. There are distinctly ‘British’ touches all over the island; bright red postboxes, zebra crossings, and cafes serving afternoon tea.
The Dockyard, Bermuda. Photograph by the author (2014).
So where does the Carceral Archipelago project fit in all this? The answer is that I chose Bermuda as one of my project case studies because it is often mentioned, but rarely incorporated properly, into British histories of criminal justice. It received around 9,000 British and Irish convicts during the period 1823-63, in a system managed by the Home Office. The convicts were mainly kept on board prison hulks, most moored off the naval dockyard and for a brief period the town of St Georges. They undertook massive publics works, most notably the building of the dockyard, which was partly directed by the Admiralty. I am keen to understand the relationship of the Bermuda hulks to the larger history of prisoner incarceration, convict transportation, and labour exploitation. I want to trace in detail some of their connections to other penal sites, notably Spike Island prison in Ireland, Portland Prison on the Isle of Wight (the first juvenile reformatory in Britain), and Upper Canada, the Cape Colony and Western Australia. My goal is to draw the attention of British historians to the huge importance of Empire in their understandings of the history of punishment at home; and using some of the tools of New Imperial History and historical geography, to articulate the importance of metropolitan/ imperial and colony/ colonial connections and networks in understanding both the flow of convicts and ideas about punishment.
“Prisoners In Paradise” Exhibition Plate, National Museum of Bermuda. Photograph by the author (2014).
A further aim is to think about the legacies of a system that, unlike the penal colonies of Australia and the Andaman Islands, was completely homosocial (only men were sent.) Neither convict ticket of leave holders (under probation) nor ex-convicts were granted the right of settlement in the islands, and those still under sentence were taken away when the system wound up. Thus there is no convict-descended population or community in Bermuda today. How, in this context, I am asking, is the role that convicts played in land clearance, quarrying, public works, and fortification understood and represented in the islands’ various museums and historic sites?
Convict hulk, Bermuda. Image: www.bermuda-online.org
On my first visit to Dockyard, I had already completed a substantial body of research on the hulks in the National Archives. It holds a rich collection of Bermuda papers, in the CO37 series. Readers interested in this collection might be interested to know that a few years ago, Dr Kristy Warren (now a research associate on the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project at UCL) produced a digitized catalogue of this collection, item by item, including governor’s despatches, and “offices and individuals” records. This means that it is exceptionally easy for archive users to find the precise location of items of likely interest, by keying in search times and date ranges, confined to the CO37 series. Given the volume of petitions sent from Britain on behalf of convicts on the hulks, this catalogue also has massive potential for family historians looking for their ancestors’ traces in the archives. For my part, I have been reading papers on a diversity of topics relevant to the overall aims of the Carceral Archipelago project, including on work, punishment, resistance and agency, and sex and sexuality.
When the ferryboat from the Bermudian capital of Hamilton pulled up at the dockyard jetty I was immediately struck by the dockyard’s scale – its massive scale. More than this, I realized that I had not previously appreciated the vastness of the expanse of hard limestone rock, to be cut, sawn and moved by convicts. It is difficult to properly understand this from textual descriptions of ‘convict quarrying’. It is easier to see what quarrying meant to each individual convict when one walks through deep cut paths, bordered by tall smooth sides of hard rock, from seeing the size of the long two-man limestone saws hanging in the museum, and from walking through convict-built structures, made of huge lumps of rock and mortar. No wonder, as curatorial researcher Dr Debbie Atwood told me, many convicts succumbed to what was called “limestone blindness.” The spatiality of the site is also best appreciated on the ground. Bermuda is shaped like the letter “J,” lying on its side, with Dockyard at the top of the curve. St Georges is right at the opposite end; closer by sea than overland. Convicts could be taken off hulks for labour daily; with relatively little mixing with the enslaved and later apprenticed and emancipated island population. It was only after 1852 that some were moved to onshore barracks at Boaz Island.
Limestone saws hanging above a fireplace, The Commissioner’s House, Dockyard, Bermuda. Photograph by the author (2014).
The other point of interest that emerged from my site visit is a striking sense of the changing landscape of Dockyard’s penal functions. Casemates is on the same site. Initially a military barracks, in 1960, almost a century after the convicts left, it was opened as a prison for locally convicted, Bermudian prisoners. The islands’ only maximum security prison lies just beneath Casemates, surrounded by the usual incarceratory paraphernalia of barbed wire and CCTV. And so we see the principles of overlap and succession of confinement on the same site, a principle which is holding firm across most of the Carceral Archipelago case studies. The social transformation of features of the “natural” landscape – isolation, elevation, deep harbours, choppy waters – into barriers of containment (however leaky they could be) do not lose their appeal as the years pass. Moreover, the stigma of criminality (or contagion) can render such locations and their immediate surrounds undesirable places of free settlement, propelling the perpetuation of their use as incarceratory sites.
Casemates Prison (on the hill), with barbed wire visible to the left (modern prison obscured from view), Dockyard. Photograph by the author (2014).
And this brings me to my final point. When the old Casemates prison opens to the public in a few years time, transformed into a museum and lecture hall, amongst other things, it will join the many shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants that have turned the Dockyard into Bermuda’s most visited tourist attraction. For these days, enormous cruise ships – vast floating hotels – have replaced the hulks. The global origins and circular mobility of the people who staff them, mainly for wealthy tourists from the USA, perhaps brings a new form of labour migration to Bermuda. But that, perhaps, is a subject for another blog.
Cruise ships at Dockyard. Photograph by the author (2014).
The author would like to record her thanks to Dr Ed Harris, Dr Debbie Atwood and Dr Elena Strong, at the National Museum of Bermuda, and Dr Karla Ingermann at the National Archives of Bermuda.