The UNIA in Bermuda and Resistance to Global White Supremacy

Born in the British colony of Bermuda in the 1970s, I was raised on Reggae music. Still, something must be said about my social engagement of music like this on an early Sunday morning, beyond the curfews of my parents and the police-imposed restrictions on Reggae sound systems. Such engagement is intricately linked to the island’s colonial education system’s denial of discursive opportunities to learn about the history of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). These dynamics speak not only to the suppression of the UNIA in Bermuda and the broader Black world, but also to the ways in which the Association has continued to inform future generations of Black movements through radical memories and political legacy. Marcus and Amy Ashwood Garvey cofounded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League on July 15, 1914. The anniversary of this event is thus a fitting occasion to explore the UNIA’s connections to Bermuda and why they matter today.

Though established in Jamaica, the UNIA emerged out of the Black radical tradition. From its headquarters in Harlem, New York, it boasted a membership of millions of people and hundreds of divisions across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, Australia, and Europe. The UNIA’s mission was to obtain land and establish a base in Africa, and it came close to doing so in Liberia. Its unifying call, “Africa for the Africans at Home and Abroad,” was an extension of pan-Africanism from thinkers like E.W. Blyden. Its ill-fated shipping company, the Black Star Line (BSL), served to establish trade across the African Diaspora and return desiring Blacks to Africa, resembling the efforts of Chief Alfred Sam who organized a return expedition to the Gold Coast. The UNIA’s newspaper, Negro World, circulated the world in English, Spanish, and French.

The UNIA’s radical vision for a free Black world marked it as a threat to the contemporary white world order.

The UNIA’s Bermuda Division no. 64 was established in April 1920 for “the general uplift of the Negro race.” A largely maritime-based society, the division’s members were particularly drawn to the BSL. Several, like Captain Henry Marshall Tucker, were licensed boat pilots and officers in the shipping company. The division’s key organizers — Antigua’s Edward Byam Grant and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister and school founder Richard Hilton Tobitt — had both migrated to and raised families in Bermuda. In August 1920, at the UNIA’s First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, Tobitt declared that the division had 600 members. He was then elected to be the Association’s representative for its West Indian Eastern Division.

At the convention, Tobitt signed the UNIA’s Declaration of Rights. This decision led the AME church to strip him of his ministry and later inform Bermuda’s British Governor James Willcocks of their action. Willcocks then notified Bermuda’s Board of Education that Tobitt was “no longer a fit person to be entrusted with the education of children,” as the declaration’s “dangerous principles” allegedly “contained many clauses antagonistic to the existing order.” Willcocks found the Negro World to be racially “violent and inflammatory” and requested that financial support for Tobitt’s school be withdrawn.

These attacks on Tobitt reflected the British Government’s broader assault on the UNIA. For example, Tucker’s sister, Dr. Olivia Tucker, joined the Division’s Black Cross Nurses. A graduate of Columbia University, she is heralded as being the first Black woman to gain a doctorate in Pharmacy. Yet due to her political affiliation with the UNIA, she was not allowed to practice pharmacy in Bermuda.

Ruthless attacks on Garvey by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation led to his deportation from the United States. British immigration officials found Garvey to be “undesirable” and denied him entry into Bermuda on at least four occasions. In November 1928, uniformed Garveyites anxiously waited with flags on the docks of Hamilton for his arrival. According to Juvenile division members Brownlow Place and Joseph Warren, Garvey waved at them from the ship. Days before, Amy Jacques Garvey did make it to Bermuda. Under close watch by the British authorities, she delivered a “moving address” at Alexandria Hall on a rain-ridden, stormy night. Unflinchingly, she enthralled her audience about political turmoil in Europe, global violence against Black people, and the virtues of Garveyism.

The use of public education and immigration control in the systematic harassment of the UNIA extended well beyond the UNIA’s organizational demise in the 1930s and into colonial patterns of repression. The state applied similar tactics to subsequent Black protest, including the Nation of Islam, the Black Power Movement, and Rasta’s political critiques in the 1960s. In 1972, the Bermuda Police Force formally placed the island’s Rasta community under surveillance.

The history of the UNIA’s Bermuda Division remained a counter-narrative to the state’s own mythological trinity of white supremacy, Black inferiority, and colonial Black complacency.

As such, it is excitingly intriguing to witness the recent proliferation of Garvey Studies, which is helping to expand our understanding of the movement in critical directions such as gender, the non-Anglophone world, and its long-term legacy.

The story of the UNIA’s rise and fall in Bermuda is just one example of the UNIA’s universal appeal and how the organization's agenda of global Black freedom still matters. The state’s use of immigration policies as a racialized weapon against Black and Brown peoples speaks to the political climate of the United States, Europe, and Australia. Understanding the UNIA’s advocacy for self-defense against white violence is and will be critical as long as police brutality against Black communities remains unfettered. Finally, the UNIA’s calls for land ownership and business enterprise in Africa and the Diaspora should be engaged in today’s context of urban gentrification, food security, and environmental justice.

About the Author

Quito Swan is a Professor of African Diaspora History at Howard University. The author of Black Power in Bermuda (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice (University of Florida Press, 2020), his scholarship is focused on twentieth century Black internationalism. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, and the Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC.