Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The First Freedom Fighters...

It doesn't really matter where you are in the world so long as you look deeply enough, for everywhere and everyone has a story.  Sometimes you just have to look for it.  So last weekend when we heard about a Bermuda Historical Society sponsored boat trip around the islands in the Great Sound, we just had to go.

View from the hill on Long Island over Marshall's Island and the Sound

Moreover the guide was a friend's husband, Andy, whose passion seems to have become the more obscure bits of Bermuda history and in particular the part played by Bermuda in the Boer War 1899-1902.

One of the only things I know about my grandad is that he served in the Boer War but as he died in WWI in early 1915 before my mum was born and could ask about it, I know nothing about it (or him actually -- not even his name).  So I've always had an interest.

The tour started at Albuoy's Point and went slowly through the islands turning around at Morgan's Point (formerly Morgan's Island and Tucker's Island respectively) before wending our way through Hawkins Island, into Paradise Lakes and to the destination -- the Boer POW camp on Long Island.

The creek in Morgan's Island where today a new resort is being built.  In 1775 it was the scene of the Gunpowder plot when Mr. Morgan stole some powder from the Redcoats and shipped it through here to the Rebels in the US... who promptly wasted it.  That bit isn't the romantic part of the story though!

The stories were great.  Every island had at least one.  Take Darrell's Island for instance.  In the 17th through 19th centuries, the islands had one similarity -- they were used to house inhabitants who had one of the fell diseases that periodically culled the population.  Things like yellow fever, small pox, leprosy, and any number of other wonderful ailments.  One particular outbreak of yellow fever killed one-third of the population of Bermuda.  Thank goodness that's all over.

Memorial on Ports Island for the 14 members of the crew of a French naval vessel who died of yellow fever in the 1850's. The shape of the memorial is traditional French freemasonry symbolism apparently.  

And then in 1795, the Royal Navy asked for the assistance of one of the local pilots named Gilbert Darrell who showed the way through the reefs for the first time into the Great Sound.  As a reward Gilbert was freed and had an island named after him (he must have been a slave).  Initially the Navy thought about building the main base on a combination of Hawkins, Nelly's, Hinson's and Darrell's Islands but in 1807 rethought things and plumped for Ireland Island, then a far away region in the island.

However these other islands weren't going to be left alone for long for the nascent Empire fought a LOT of wars and soon found the need to house a LOT of POW's.  Where better than a speck in the middle of the ocean?  Nobody was ever going to escape.  And so Bermuda's islands became military prisons starting with 1,400 or so Americans in the 1812-14 War and moving forward therefrom.

It was the Boer War though that had the most POW's following 2 years of generally miserable warfare (from the British side that is) that had degenerated into guerilla warfare that suited the Boers far more.  So the British responded with a scorched earth policy of burning all farms and imprisoning all Afrikaans (and their sympathizers) in 'concentration camps' in South Africa.  Conditions were apparently dreadful so 28,000 died in these camps but the menfolk of fighting age were sent 2,000 miles away to other bits of the Empire including Bermuda.

History buffs on Long Island

Ultimately more than 4,000 POW's ended up in Bermuda starting in 1900 housed on a variety of islands but split up according to their status.  There were the 'hands uppers' who'd surrendered and probably would have pledged allegiance to the Crown if asked... but they were sent to Bermuda too.  Then there were the 'bitter enders', those who'd fight on until the end and would not surrender.  After the end of the war in 1902, only 4 bitter enders refused to pledge allegiance and stayed in Bermuda until 1925, 1926, 1927 and 1928 respectively... they all died here.  There were also young boys who were housed alone and then a mixture of POW's in communal camps.  All were administered from Ports Island.

Amazingly only 35 POW's died in captivity with each buried in the cemetary on Long Island next to the traditional yellow fever cemetery.  It is beautifully maintained (or was on the day we visited).  It is well worth a visit.

The yellow fever memorial on Long Island 

Back in the late 1980's still in the time of apartheid, a human rights group organised a conference in Bermuda and invited all South African political parties including the then government and the ANC, then banned and mainly living in exile outside South Africa.  Andy was in Special Branch and organized security for the trip and one of the excursions was to this POW camp.  One of the ANC leaders (one whose name I don't remember but was Nelson Mandela's number 2) told Andy that he had to come and give respect to the first freedom fighters of his country.  I hadn't thought of it that way before. Nicely put.

Andy doing his thing at the Boer POW memorial

But credit to Andy.  His dedication to Bermuda history and in particular this little part of it has made him something of a celebrity on the topic in South Africa where he has given presentations and led discussions on this particular aspect of our mutual history.

Back to the other stories.

Darrell's Island was the flying boat landing place and depot for the island serving New York for Pan American and the old Imperial Airways (forerunner of British Airways).

The flying boat terminal on Darrell's Island

During WWII Churchill met Roosevelt (FDR) for a conference and brought the battleship, HMS Duke of York, with him.  However he flew here on a flying boat and enjoyed it so much that he decided he'd fly back to England on the same plane instead of taking the battleship/safer route.  Flying at 190 mph for 3,200 miles in a plane with a 3,400 mile capacity may to some seem reckless but to Churchill, it was par for the course even though the Luftwaffe chased him for a while and the RAF thought he was an intruder and therefore fair game.  History shows he came through it all thankfully.

German POW's in both wars were housed in Bermuda too although those in WWII weren't housed on any of the islands.  They were housed on the US Naval Annex which was the old Morgan's/Tucker's Islands joined together by the 1940's US engineers.  The locals tell stories of waving to the POW's as they passed by on the train.  They didn't usually stay long though until U-505.

In June 1944 some US navy vessels captured U-505 off the coast of Senegal in West Africa and discovered when they stopped the crew from scuttling the U-boat that it had the newest version of the Enigma coding machine together with an up to date code book.  Because this needed to be kept a secret from the Germans, the US vessels towed U-505 to Bermuda, some 2,000 miles, where they became an official secret for 7 months until the entire Atlantic U-boat fleet was first disclosed and then destroyed (by January 1945) at which point the POW's were transferred to official camps.  The captain however was badly injured in the action, losing a leg, so stayed behind a while longer convalescing until he was well enough to be moved.  When he left in February 1945, he became the last POW ever to be housed in Bermuda.

In the words of Michael Caine, not many people know that.

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