Bermuda Bound: Patrick Williams and the Limits of Atlantic Abolitionism

Lay Summary 

Despite its early settlement, Bermuda, Britain’s second oldest American colony, has been subject to remarkably little historical investigation. The post-1783 reconfiguration of the Atlantic World transformed Bermuda into a newly militarized garrison colony, yet we know almost nothing about this process. The goal of our research is to use a single expansive case study to examine the unfolding of emancipation and its aftermath in Bermuda to further understand the ways in which slavery and anti-slavery were central to the contested evolution of sovereignty, citizenship, and labour in the 19th-century Atlantic world. This project will explore core issues of identity and race through the first historical examination of enslaved Bermudian Patrick Williams.
Williams was a 9-year old black sailor who freed himself in New York in 1833, shortly before Britain passed the legislation which would have freed him in 1834. Sold into plantation slavery in rural Louisiana, the boy disappeared for two decades before twice contacting his family in Bermuda, who compelled intermittent negotiations between British and American authorities. The rediscovery in 1854 of an enslaved Williams confronted white Bermudians with the supposed benevolence of Bermuda’s immediate emancipation of the colony’s slaves in 1834, while confronting black Bermudians with the complex and contingent history of their own freedom and disenfranchisement. The surviving documentation illuminates current debates about the changing activism and identity of abolition in the 19th-century, the sharp limits of British citizenship and humanitarianism, and the predatory dimensions of the vast internal slave trade in America. Investigating core issues of identity and race, our book-length result will contribute to an evolving understanding of the changing relationship between law and slavery at a time when modern states attempted to reconcile twin commitments to humanity and property. In the speculations and prevarications of the British diplomatic and colonial deliberations was a blunt articulation of black Atlantic subjecthood they insisted was a status conferred not a capacity claimed by black agency.
Despite excellent records, Bermuda has been ignored by historians. This work is the first extended scholarly examination of Emancipation-era race and slavery in Bermuda, and the first in-depth analysis of the US internal slave trade as it was experienced by someone who was both a child and a foreign subject. My rediscovery of Williams, his remarkable odyssey, and his failed freedom suit is the seed for my long-term work which will examine Bermuda’s emancipation process and role in the illicit circulation of slaves after 1807, through six other case studies. In this development work we will recover (as fully as the scattered archival record makes possible) both Williams’ life and the historical context in which to understand its course and meaning.
This project is centered on extensive archival research and analysis to produce a monograph, an article, two presentations to scholarly audiences, and an Insight Grant application. Central to the project is high quality graduate student training in archival research and analysis, critical thought, and knowledge dissemination. I will provide research and professional development training opportunities for one undergraduate student, one Masters student, and a current doctoral student.
This original and extraordinary subject matter presents new opportunities for engagement with the public and with cultural and educational institutions in Bermuda. In addition to the above, we will generate a website and curriculum materials, using Patrick Williams to explore larger issues such as the integration of mid-century slave systems with world markets, and the ways that local histories of slavery illuminate processes of global economic change. We will map Atlantic geographies of slavery, emancipation, and the illegal slave trades to detail the experiences of enslaved children, and to delineate the blurred lines between domestic slavery regimes and international labour markets. Actively involved in projects of commemoration and public memory, Bermuda currently has a vibrant public and institutional interest in the history of slavery and emancipation, and we will expand our existing interactions with Bermudians through the website and curriculum development to support Bermudians’ engagement with their own history.

St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Slavery and Resistance
Abolition and Emancipation
Start date 
1 Feb 2017
End date 
30 Dec 2018