Column: Maintaining Our Bermudian Traditions

November 4, 2015

[Opinion column written by Larry Burchall]

At the recently held Bermuda Tattoo, the Bands of the Jamaica Defence Force played Jamaican music. In their repertoire and style, they showed that Jamaican culture had evolved from the 1960’s Independence era of heavily British influenced style into a solid all-Jamaican style.

Jamaican composers, Jamaican music, Jamaican style, but all still linked to a rich and deep Jamaican history as illustrated by the Victorian era Zouave style uniforms of the Jamaica Military Band.

Jamaica Defence Force Band perform Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” at the Bermuda Tattoo:

Since my first 1968 acquaintance with Jamaica, I have seen Jamaican culture evolve and spread to where musicians from Japan affect dreadlocks and play reggae; where ‘jerk chicken’ and ‘patties’ have become global food items; where Bob Marley’s music – particularly ‘No woman no cry’ – has entered the repertoires of European symphonies more used to playing the music of long-dead European composers.

Jamaican culture has evolved, grown, deepened, and spread despite Jamaica’s forty year-old economic woes and miseries as it struggles inside the stranglehold of the IMF and as the country suffers from a steady brain drain.

Bermuda can learn from that Jamaican experience.

With millions of black Jamaicans sharing a common slave history, Jamaica has one overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group. This common history deeply infuses Jamaica’s national heritage.

Bermuda, however, has two large ethnic groups. The different history of each of Bermuda’s two ethnic groups has created Bermuda’s heritage. So Bermuda’s culture will evolve differently and will not be like Jamaican culture.

That Bermudian culture is evolving, slowly, incrementally, but it is evolving. Like the Jamaican Military Band, our visible Bermuda culture is of relatively recent origin, but it is unique.

Prior to 1959, black Bermudians were a repressed adjunct to a white Bermudian society that dominated politics, economics, and society. Within weeks of the 1959 ‘Theatre Boycott’, black Bermudians saw the beginning of the dismantling of some of the racial barriers that had kept them subjugated since 1616.

Dismantling continued. In 1998, with the PLP victory at the polls, black Bermudians achieved practical political dominance and began to exert a heavy influence on society. But economic power remained, largely, with white Bermudians, foreign investors, and foreign–owned businesses based in Bermuda.

In 2015, all of that is still true.

Our small on-Island population of about 30,000 black Bermudians and 20,000 white Bermudians has been struggling to maintain those few things that are unique to one of us or that each of us shares.

We’ve learned to share Cup Match as ‘Cup Match’. We almost went off the rails with that when some unthinking group brought in ‘foreign umpires’ to oversee a Test Match style ‘Cup Match’.

‘Cup Match’ evolved into what it is today through a long one-sided struggle lasting from 1835 to 1947, and one that saw white Bermudians finally join in with black Bermudians in the later years. Now ‘Cup Match’ is part of our unique Bermudian national culture.

Between 1616 and 1667, black slaves were transported and imported to Bermuda in small batches. Because of this, much of the folklore memories from the tribes living in the forests and towns of West Africa did not come with them. The one thing that did survive and arrive was the custom of the ‘Gombey’.

History shows that Bermuda’s black ‘Gombey’ tradition was often frowned on by some white Bermudians and not broadly accepted, sometimes even rejected.

In 2002, after the Bermuda Regiment in combination with the Gombeys were invited to perform at the 2003 Edinburgh Tattoo, there was significant pushback from some elements in Bermudian society. That pushback was ignored.

The combined Band and Gombey performance – over a two week period – was carried off flawlessly. That display of our Bermuda culture got rave reviews. The Gombeys are a prominent feature of our national culture.

Gombeys travel through Devonshire earlier this year:

Over time our Bermudian practice of wearing shorts and long socks came to be known as the ‘Bermuda look’. In fact, formal shorts for men became known, the world over, as ‘Bermuda shorts’.

Beginning in the 1930’s and coming up to the turn of the century, the wearing of Bermuda shorts as Bermuda business attire became common and considered part of our Bermudian culture. Then, pushback.

The pushback came from some within Bermuda as a new breed of newly politically empowered Bermudians sought to reduce any connections with anything ‘white’. Curiously, these Bermudians did this by adopting the business suit styles of white North Americans and white Europeans.

It was similar to the Gombey and ‘Cup Match’ situations – reversed.

Culture arises from the acceptance of things past, and the blending of those things past into the present.

Culture is often a mix. A blending of disparate things like flour, sugar, eggs, milk, and baking powder; which, with a bit of mixing, rolling, and heating, produces a tasty slice of culture in the form and taste of Johnny Bread.

If we Bermudians lose our cultural tradition of wearing Bermuda shorts as national business attire, we will be discarding something that is unique to us and that can, and does, join us.

It would be akin to the Jamaica Military Band dropping their Zouave uniforms, wearing US style band uniforms, and marching to Sousa instead of Bob’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’.

In 2015 and going forward, Bermuda will need more and more foreign business residents living here. Under the absolute social stress that this will engender, we Bermudians will have our unique culture – at least all that we can keep or preserve – as our only way of keeping our own place on our own Island.

So, like Jamaicans, let’s embrace, not reject, our own evolving Bermudian culture – May 24th is May 24th; ‘marking out’ on May 24th; codfish and potatoes on Sunday mornings…

By the way, worn correctly, Bermuda shorts – never with cuffs – end four ‘fingers’ above the knee, socks come to four ‘fingers’ below the knee, and the sock turndown is four ‘fingers’. Anything else is ‘foreign’.

- Larry Burchall

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Comments (6)

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  1. I heart 441 says:

    Interesting article.

  2. Rhonnie aka BlueFamiliar says:

    I enjoyed this, thank you.

    I’ve been saddened at times watching as some people seem determined to wipe out one part, or another, of our combined heritage. We need to embrace both fully.

  3. TheRoyalArch says:

    Well Lar.. history shows that the first slaves to the new world were actually Moorish prisoners of war from Spain and later Africa as part of Inquisition operations which have never stopped. Sephardic Jews and Muslims. Many Sephardic Jews were Moors; Mathieu Da Costa for instance, a Ladino Moor and discoverer of Canada. As a matter of fact, many West Africans were also Muslims. And when I say Moor, I mean what is now erroneously called black(blaec). Moors are not just Africans but any melanated indigenous aboriginal people on the Earth.
    In addition to this, indigenous Americans were shipped from the mainland to various locales including Bermuda like the Pequot queen and her son after the tribe was nearly extinguished at the hands of Caucasian Europeans. The Gombey has elements of the indigenous American and a smidgen of the Caucasian with the snare drum. I say Caucasian because white does not refer to skin color as per the Black’s law dictionary 4th edition. What Black’s law dictionary does not say is seet white means sovereign of the land which can only refer to indigenous, aboriginal peoples. Caucasians are not indigenous to the Americas, hell they aren’t even indigenous to Europe (see Goths, Wikipedia). So when one calls a Caucasian,white; one is giving them an incorrect status among other things.
    I’m saying all of that to say that our history intertwined with the Inquisitional European does not our history make. Ours is deeper and richer and somewhat hidden. It’s not emcap

    • Jonathan Smith says:

      YES..THEY WILL “DISLIKE” THE TRUTH ALL DAY LONG ROYAL…

  4. Cup Of Tea Anyone? says:

    Tea is a tradition. probably the most important of all traditions.

    scones taste well with tea

  5. planeasday says:

    We’ve learned to share Cup Match as ‘Cup Match’. We almost went off the rails with that when some unthinking group brought in ‘foreign umpires’ to oversee a Test Match style ‘Cup Match’.

    We completely went off the rails with CM when that guy and his “girlfriend” desecrated the event with their act of lewdness…not word on his apprehension yet is there….