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A magnificent statue, in just the right place

I was not uplifted though; it left me with a feeling of abject depression
By Tom Vesey | Nov 21, 2008
Talking point: The Sally Bassett statue, in the grounds of the Cabinet Building. *File photo by Ras Mykkal
Much is made of Barack Obama's accomplishment as the first black US President - just four generations from slavery, and just one (if that) from segregation.

It was a triumph celebrated by many in Bermuda.

But the same kind of triumph has occurred here in Bermuda a dozen times over: Just generations from slavery, and just one (if that) from segregation, black Bermudians run the Government and hold just about every other position of power.

The story of slavery and segregation is one of hideous tragedy, cruelty and defeat.

But is also a proud and triumphant story, of how enslaved people overcame adversity, triumphed over tragedy, and after decades of struggle came to run their own prosperous and successful country.

It is, in addition to everything else, an exciting and dramatic story, with the power to inspire people to great things.

That is why, in a community almost devoid of public monuments, I have long advocated a memorial to Bermuda's slaves - the ancestors of most Bermudians.

It simply seems like an obvious and logical thing to do.

So the magnificent bronze statue of Sally Bassett, created by the Bermudian sculptor Carlos Dowling and now standing in the grounds of the Cabinet Office, is important and welcome.

The story of Sally Bassett is remarkable and terrifying. She was an elderly slave woman, burned at the stake in 1730 for attempting to poison her masters.

But it's a complicated and uncertain story too: It was actually her granddaughter who, allegedly, did the poisoning, at Sally Bassett's instructions.

The alleged victims included white slave-holders, but also a fellow slave.

And Sally Bassett, who years earlier had been whipped through the streets after being accused of killing livestock, vehemently denied the poisoning until the end.

To complicate things a little more, the sculptor exercised a little artistic license and depicted the elderly grandmother as pregnant - "pregnant with the spirit of freedom," he has declared.

When you stand and look at the 10-foot statue the pregnancy is hardly the most noticeable thing.

Amplifies the horror

But it still manages to amplify the horror and outrage you feel at a the historical fact of a slave woman burned alive at the stake - as if the layers upon layers of crime and tragedy were not deep and sorrowful enough already.

Despite the controversy over the statue's location, this magnificent piece of bronze is in precisely the right place: at the very gates of power in Bermuda.

It was power of governments that allowed slavery to flourish, and the power of governments that sentenced Sally Bassett to be burned at the stake.

It is power, and a person wrongly robbed of power, standing side by side. It should remind us of Bermuda's history of slavery, of course, but also of the abuse of public power.

As I looked at this remarkable statue, and contemplated its complexities, I realized it was not at all what I had imagined when I wrote past columns calling for a slave memorial.

I imagined something proud and triumphant and uplifting.

I imagined something more like the emancipation statues in Barbados or in Battery Park in New York City, or the oft-photographed "Liberation of the Slaves" statue at Goree in Senegal, or the statue planned for Hyde Park in London: Each depicts ex-slaves in the act of breaking free, with broken chains dangling from triumphant fists.

What I felt in the grounds of the Cabinet Office in Bermuda, instead, was something about as depressing and abject as it is possible to imagine: A pregnant slave, tied to a stake, bound at the feet and burned alive.

The Sally Bassett statue tells an important part of the true tragic history of slavery. It deserves to stand where it stands today.

But when you look around you - from Barack Obama in the United States to the success of the descendants of slaves here in Bermuda - the most exciting and inspiring story to be telling is not one of victimhood and defeat but one of success and triumph in the face of tremendous oppression.

It is not about people who were destroyed by the world around them, but about people who are building a new and better one.

That is the statue I hope for.