Freedom Fighter or Criminal? The Politics of Memorializing Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda

Friday, January 7, 2011: 10:10 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Quito Swan , Howard University, Washington, DC
In 2009, as part of celebrations commemorating Bermuda’s four hundred year anniversary, Bermuda’s Government memorialized the historic struggle of Blacks against slavery by erecting a statue of Sally Bassett on the lawn of the Government’s Cabinet office.  Bassett was an enslaved Black woman who was burned alive at the stake in 1730 for allegedly poisoning her masters.  Many Bermudians–particularly Whites—publically decried the statue as being “inappropriate” on the grounds that that Bassett was a convicted criminal.  On the other hand, many Bermudians—in particular Blacks—argued that Bassett was a freedom fighter who symbolized resistance to slavery and needed to be considered a national hero.  Also perplexing was a speech made at the unveiling by British Governor of Bermuda, Richard Gozney, who compared Bassett’s monument to that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Blacks publically denounced this comparison between Bassett, who fought against slavery, and Lee, who owned slaves and defended the institution.  This led to an open and heated debate about the nature, memory and legacy of slavery in Bermuda. This presentation will explore the historical and contemporary dynamics surrounding this incident, which demonstrated that the process of memorializing slavery in Bermuda is politically charged, particularly in a society that has historically criminalized Black protest but now features a Black Government committed to the national promotion of Bermuda’s diverse heritage.  The issue is also centered around the fact that the public discussion and representation of slavery in Bermuda is contested space, and raises questions as to who has the power to define the narrative of slavery, and how those definitions reflect current issues of race, racism and colonialism.  This is especially significant given the highly conceptual and physical visibility of Bassett’s monument, which is also a project of cultural tourism along Bermuda’s African Diaspora Heritage Trial.