Tempestuous Time: The 1977 riots saw large crowds protesting on Court Street. *Photo supplied
Tempestuous Time: The 1977 riots saw large crowds protesting on Court Street. *Photo supplied
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What exactly did the British think of Bermuda’s politicians in the events leading up to the 1977 riots?

One of the most violent periods of the island’s history is mired in political intrigue, according to writer and former police commissioner, Jonathan D. Smith.

Mr Smith is in the closing stages of writing When the Rock Burned, a full account of the events leading up to the riots, and their legacy.

Using his detective skills, he has gained a fascinating insight into the public affairs of the day, at a time when social, economic and racial tensions ignited in protest, street violence and flames.

“I started writing When the Rock Burned because I realized there was not a lot of material on the full picture of the 1977 riots,” he said.

“There’s the Pitt Report (Report of the Royal Commission Into the 1977 Disturbances — Bermuda, chaired by Lord Pitt of Hampstead) which looks at the causes, but there was a far bigger backdrop.

“1977 was a very dramatic year in our history; a time when a significant number of things collided — politics, the criminal justice system, the race issue.

Significant

“It is a very significant period but no one has brought all the research together before and set it out in a book.”

Mr Smith said: “So much has been written about Burrows (Erskine ‘Buck’ Burrows) and Tacklyn (Larry Tacklyn), their trials and convictions, but I am more interested in, why did Bermuda produce a generation which rioted?”

When the Rock Burned — due to be published late 2014 — has involved extensive research into newspaper reports, Parliamentary proceedings, government documents, military records, commission reports, plus UK Government papers at The National Archives, in Richmond, Surrey.

Mr Smith, who retired from the police force in 2005, told the Bermuda Sun: “Most of my career has been spent as a detective so turning over the page of an archive, it’s similar work in the sense of asking fundamental questions, such as: Why was this said? Who was in a position to influence the political and legislative documents of the time?

“So, that part of it comes very naturally to me.

“I’ve spent a lot of time researching the role of the UK government at that time. I have the entire Hansard script of UK Parliamentary proceedings and what the politicians were trying to do to stop the executions, as Britain had abolished the death penalty in the 1960’s.

“The Hansard record is quite illuminating as there were some UK MPs who accurately predicted the riots, if the hangings took place.”

He also delved into UK government documents — declassified after 30 years — at The National Archives. This includes the letters, memos and telexes between the politicians, diplomats and civil servants of the day, and UK Prime Minister James Callaghan.

“The correspondence between the (UK) government, FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) and Prime Minister’s office, has been really illuminating,” he said.

“In some cases they expressed very personal views over the unfolding drama. 

“There was a marked contrast to what someone in a diplomatic position was saying publicly and what they were saying privately. 

“I’m surprised at some of the language they used in discussing the competence or incompetence of Cabinet ministers in Bermuda.

“I don’t think they expected anyone to express any interest in what they had written, 30 years later.”

Mr Smith said the Pitt Commission Report and the Wooding Commission Report, following the 1968 Bermuda riots, were also valuable to his research.

“When we compare the 1968 riots with those of 1977, if you read those two reports you will see that many of the causal factors of 1968 had not been remedied by 1977.

“For example, poor education results, a lack of economic equality, lack of attention to disadvantaged blacks, and in particular black males, and housing. 

“My book is entitled When the Rock Burned, but the question to ask is: Why did it burn? Why did up to 500 rioters torch buildings and damage property? 

White-dominated

“It was an accumulation of many things the Wooding Commission reported. So many aspects of Bermuda were rooted in white-dominated British colonial vestiges of the past.

“I want the reader to have all those questions answered at the end — why did Bermuda burn, and why are we in a better position today to make better decisions for our children?

“But there are still disadvantages out there; there are still families in need of economic, educational and behavioural assistance, as well as job skills.

“Although there has never been a major riot since 1977, violence has manifested itself in a different way.”

Mr Smith plans to work with another “well-known local researcher” on his final chapter, ‘Where are we now?’.

This will outline the social-economic changes Bermuda has undergone since 1977. 

He is also sourcing personal accounts of the riots, to help to “bring those scenes back to life”.

“I will be interviewing some of the people involved, such as Walter Lister and Sir John Swan, the police officers and firefighters.

“I am interested in hearing from anyone with first-hand accounts or photos.”

Mr Smith intends to self-publish with a local publishing company in Bermuda.

He said: “I’m confident When the Rock Burned will attract a wide audience because the riots touched all of our lives in one way or another.” n

Contact Mr Smith at: jdsmith@northrock.bm