opinion
Revealing Sally: Unveiling Bermuda’s Resistance to Confront its Brutal Past

Her name was Sarah (Sally) Bassett. In 1730, she was burned alive at the stake by the government of Bermuda for allegedly attempting to poison her granddaughter’s enslavers.1 Her statue, Spirit of Freedom, is hidden behind the gates that surround the grounds of Bermuda’s Cabinet Building. Bassett stands as a proud woman, made of bronze with bound hands and feet and head raised defiantly towards the sky. 

Spirit Of Freedom (1)

Spirit of Freedom. Hamilton, Bermuda. Carlos Dowling. Bronze. 2008. Photo credit: Stephanie Gibson. 

Spirit of Freedom is obscured from the general public because a certain sector of the population protested the possibility of being “forced” to encounter her image every day on their commute to work.2 Ignoring the narratives of Black Bermudians who experienced trauma under slavery and other forms of white supremacy does nothing to heal the pain of racism. Trauma requires a listener in order for it to be worked through. It is by listening to a victim's stories that their experiences are validated. Bringing monuments, like the Sally Bassett memorial, into public view help to ensure that these stories are heard.  

For so long, Bermuda has avoided a discussion of its history of slavery and racism. Instead many have preferred to ignore the island’s history of white supremacy in hopes that it will miraculously solve itself. While writers and scholars have highlighted and discussed the realities of racism in Bermuda, as a nation, attempts have never been made to properly grapple with the issue. Black Bermudians were never afforded an opportunity to process the trauma experienced as “second class citizens.” The island’s commitment to a vow of silence on the subject of race remains, despite the cries of Black Bermudians and their allies. One of the ways white Bermudians respond to the outcry is by insisting that racial oppression in Bermuda was not as bad as it was in other places.3 The presence of a monument commemorating the killing of an enslaved elderly woman contributes to the dismantling of the benign slavery myth and forces Bermudians to confront the trauma of oppression. 

Monuments can serve as a valuable storytelling tool for trauma victims. Their very presence corroborates the experience of trauma, documenting the events that transpired. By being commissioned and erected, monuments validate the pain of the survivors and the truth of their stories. They are public narrators of trauma. The only way for Bermuda, or any society for that matter, to work through its traumatic past is by creating space for survivors to tell their stories and listen to them. Failing to work through the past results in an erasure of the experiences of survivors and the underlying conditions that facilitated the trauma remain intact.4 Compounded by the dismissal of their stories by others, trauma victims can be made to feel as if they are overreacting or as if their pain is unimportant. By providing a space to recount their experience, survivors are finally able to feel believed and heard. By publicly shining a light on the narratives of pain and suffering, monuments make it difficult for trauma victims’ stories to be erased. 

Spirit Of Freedom Street View

Spirit of Freedom as seen behind the gates of Bermuda’s Cabinet Building. Photo credit: Stephanie Gibson. 

Although the commissioning of Spirit of Freedom was a good first step towards healing, placing her behind the gates of the Cabinet Building, away from the eyes of the public only helped to further silence Black Bermudians. Sally Bassett’s story is finally told but no one is there to listen. Erecting her statue behind the gates of the Cabinet Building safeguards a segment of the population against hearing her testimony. With the monument tucked away, it is possible to continue denying the reality of her story. The fence obscures her from the public, ensuring that those who originally rejected her narrative can continue to ignore it. Her pain and suffering continue to be dismissed. This insistence on dismissing the witness of those who suffered at the hands of white supremacy may help to assuage white guilt, but it does nothing to heal the wounds of its victims. The struggle for Black Bermudians to make visible the trauma of racism has been constant. Every ten or fifteen years, the voices of Black Bermudians collectively rise up in an attempt to make visible the trauma of racism. Each time, the response is some form of dismissal, further negating the Black Bermudian experience.5 Until we as a country are willing to listen to the stories of racial trauma, we will never be able to move towards healing. It is not until we are no longer willing to conceal our painful past that we can take meaningful steps towards dismantling white supremacy. 

For more information on the story of Sarah Bassett see Clarence Maxwell, “‘Horrid Villainy’: Sarah Bassett and the Poisoning Conspiracies in Bermuda, 1727-1730,” Slavery and Abolition 12, no. 3 (2000): 48-74.
Quito Swan, “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda,” in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space, ed. Ana Lucia Araujo (New York: Routledge, 2012), 87.
Maxwell, 64.
Swan, 79
For a detailed discussion of the historical roots of the myth of Bermuda’s benign system of slavery see Sarah Hannon and Neil Kennedy “‘Slavery wears the mildest Aspect’: Imagining Mastery and Emancipation in Bermuda’s House of Assembly,” The Journal of Caribbean History 53, no. 1 (2019), 60-81; Michael J. Jarvis, “Maritime Masters and Seafaring Slaves in Bermuda, 1680-1783,” The William and Mary Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2002): 620; Cyril Outerbridge Packwood, Chained on the Rock: Slavery in Bermuda (New York: Eliseo Torres & Sons, 1975), xi; Walter Brownwell Hayward, Bermuda Past and Present: A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Somers Islands (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1912), 68-69.
Swan, 87.
Theodor Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in Can one live after Auschwitz?: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2003), 18.
Cathy Caruth, “Trauma and Experience: Introduction,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 11.
Dori Laub, “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,” in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995),64.
Quito Swan, Black Power in Bermuda: The Struggle for Decolonization (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 28.
Stephanie Gibson Graduate Researcher (University of Pennsylvania), Monument Lab