Bermuda Day: Our History, Our Culture
Today, Bermuda day (or 24th of May) looks like: your best ganzy picked, ironed and ready to adorn your shoulders and legs; it looks like the visors, running sneakers, headphones and water bottles of every marathon runner getting ready to trek from Somerset Bridge to Front Street; it looks like the most meticulously sewed and crafted gombey uniform and the epitome of glam in a majorette costume; it’s the pans of food aunts and uncles spend hours the day before making, then packing in cars, then setting up under a tent on a sidewalk (pre-marked with identifying tape or string) in town; it’s the float laced in bay grape leaves and oleander flowers, it’s that overwhelming delight of that first swim in the Atlantic, that delicate (and potent) scent of freshly made swizzle, it’s the pulse of a dancehall bassline; it’s getting up at the crack of dawn to cheer runners, then going home to change and then heading to the parade, or to the beach or to a barbecue; it’s that feeling of home and summer and all of it colliding into one full perfect day.
113 years ago though, Bermuda Day wasn’t Bermuda day. It didn’t look like gombeys or copious amounts of food. It looked like 300 years of post-colonialism revelry and celebration. The idea of a day to celebrate the British Empire was considered as early on as 1897 to be celebrated among Britain and it’s colonies with the hope being that a day of such would….“remind children that they formed part of the British Empire, and that they might think with others in lands across the sea, what it meant to be sons and daughters of such a glorious Empire.”
While celebrated in some parts of Canada as early as 1898 the very first Empire Day was held on 24th May 1902, celebrating the birthday of Queen Victoria and commemorating her death of a year prior. The day was highlighted throughout the British Empire and was officially celebrated as an annual event in the following years, becoming a public holiday in 1916.
What started as Empire Day became Commonwealth Day in 1958, to highlight the new post-colonial relationships of the former British Empire (now Commonwealth countries). Even then in Bermuda however, the holiday was colloquially known and referred to as “24th of May.”
Meanwhile in Bermuda a Floral Pageant was celebrated annually in late April since 1950, of which a parade was had where the main attraction were the flowered adorned cars of the participants. The Floral Pageant continued up until 1968, when after the parade a riot broke out spurred by the racial tension and civil unrest of Bermuda’s people.
Racial tensions bubbled on Bermuda’s surface over the next few years and culminated in the uproarious 1977 riots; which followed the hangings of Erskine "Buck" Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. The riots spawned an interest in the British high command to form a royal commission to investigate the causes of the riots. Out of that commission came the Pitt Report, which strongly encouraged to the Minister of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs to consider a festival that would bring the divided groups of the island together for an occasion that is, “specifically Bermudian.” The 24th of May was highlighted for it’s “high level of community participation in [the] marathon.” With the sentiment expressed by Lord Pitt that, “If Bermudians came together more frequently in pursuit of shared interests in other areas of social and political life, this, in [our] opinion would quickly move Bermuda towards a harmonious society..”
Out of the nudging of the Pitt report, the 24th of May marathon, (which had been a mainstay of the holiday since the early 1900’s among Bermuda’s black community) merged with the remnant memory of the floral pageant and Bermuda Day was born. From 1979 an emphasis was made on Bermuda’s culture, community and traditions thus rooting the festivities of 24th of May in Bermuda’s unique heritage. The month of May has since which been designated as ‘Heritage Month’ with Bermuda day hosting the Heritage Parade, which boasts the amalgamation of diverse groups and communities on the island as unified.
What began in Bermuda as a day to honor the Empire by which we were colonized, then the nations by which we share common interest became the advent of nationalistic celebration and pride. Bermuda day was formed out of the ashes of uprising and racial, social and political division, it is the reigning Phoenix of our island’s multiculturalism and uniqueness. Bermuda day is a reminder of the troughs and rises our country has endured to attain harmony and unity. And while Bermuda Day in this current time stands to look like, a first swim and an amass of food and thousands of people golden under the sun at the parade, or the beach, or on the water; let’s hope it also looks like something so much more, something unequivocally indescribable, indefinable, indefinite and always, always ours. Here’s to many more years of Bermuda Days.