Landmark: The long-defunct Canadian Hotel on Reid Street. It was the island’s first black-owned hotel. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
Landmark: The long-defunct Canadian Hotel on Reid Street. It was the island’s first black-owned hotel. *Photo by Kageaki Smith
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FRIDAY, SEPT. 21: He was known in his native Jamaica as ‘Bermuda King’ — a larger-than-life, charismatic and highly successful businessman. The late Dick Richards ran the Canadian Hotel — Bermuda’s first black-owned hotel — and became a renowned philanthropist. Now they are planning to open a museum in Jamaica in his honour.  This is the story of how he made a big impact — and left a lasting legacy.


It would make for a more romantic version of events, but it’s unlikely that Jamaican-born, self-made businessman James ‘Dick’ Richards arrived in Bermuda with nothing but the shirt on his back. Truth is, he already had money in his pocket.

Hard work had been his constant companion since age 15, and he had travelled the world, before he came to Bermuda in 1903, serving in England and parts of Africa with the legendary West Indies Regiment.

But Bermuda was where he made his fortune. He was the owner of the Canadian Hotel on Reid Street, Hamilton, a property and business that he built from the ground up as the island’s first black-owned hotel.

He acquired several other properties as well including his residence, Ripleigh, a grand two-storey building on the corner of King and Victoria Street, where Bermuda Security is now located.

Like many wealthy men, Mr. Richards was a philanthropist, donating to numerous causes, both in his native Jamaica and Bermuda.

Mr Richards’ generosity is still very much in evidence in his hometown of Black River nearly 50 years after his death, and it brought Vincent Samuels to Bermuda this week.

Mr Samuels is secretary/treasurer of the Beersheba Old Students Association (BOSA), which is based in Black River. Mr. Richards attended Beersheba Primary School, and donated funds to purchase the land on which the current school was built. He also made provisions in his will for scholarships for students from his old school.

The BOSA is now planning to build a “mini museum” in Mr Richards’ honour and plans are also in the works to rename the school after him. Mr Samuels came to Bermuda to learn more about Mr Richards’ life and legacy.

Mr Samuels visited the Bermuda Archives, the National Museum of Bermuda, the Bermuda Historical Society Museum, which has a portrait of Mr Richards in its collection, and St Paul AME Church.

Mr Richards was a major benefactor of St Paul’s—he donated funds for stained glass windows and for a substantial portion of the cost of an organ and balcony. His £500 donation got the ball rolling for a new library that was built at Berkeley Institute in 1957. That same year, he gave full scholarships to Central School students Valerie (Smith) Pethen and Leslie Holder to attend Berkeley for five years.

 

Back in Black River, according to Mr Samuels, Mr Richards built a Salvation Army corps (church), that served eight communities, and also purchased new hymn books for a Moravian Church. Mr Richards was equally generous to the Salvation Army in Bermuda. Mr Richards also sponsored sports events. Passionate about cricket, he put up members of the first West Indies cricket team to visit Bermuda at his Canadian Hotel in 1939.

Mr Samuels said he did not know Mr. Richards personally, but he has spoken to elderly members of the Black River community who remember him.

He said Mr Richards was known as “Bermuda King” because he would load up a large trunk and distribute its contents to the poor during his visits back home. 

When he arrived in Jamaica, Mr Samuels said, people would say: “Bermuda King come.”

Dick Richards landed in Bermuda with his regiment in 1903 and died at age 92 while playing cards with friends at the Canadian Hotel. Although he lived at Ripleigh, he maintained an apartment at Canadian Hotel.

He was born in poverty and orphaned at an early age. In 1887, when he was age 15 he left home to find work in the capital of Kingston. He didn’t have money to take a train or boat so he walked. The 115-mile journey took him four days.

He found work almost immediately in a bakery, where he worked night and day. In 1890, he joined the West Indies Regiment, whose soldiers were known as “Bully Roosters” because of their colourful costumes.

 

He landed in Bermuda with the Regiment in 1903, having recently served in Sierra Leone.  His first job was at Bermuda Bakery, but he soon found work with the British Army at Prospect. That led to a position running an Army canteen at Dockyard. Six years later, he started his first business, the Harbour View Bar on Front Street.

In 1918, according to research conducted by the Bermuda National Trust for the next book in its architectural series, about properties in Hamilton, Mr Richards purchased property on Reid Street on which he built the Canadian Hotel. He already owned Stonehaven, a substantial property on an adjoining lot.

The Canadian Hotel was built in stages, but the four-storey first section with a lion on top was completed in 1921. Mr. Richards owned the Canadian Hotel until his death in 1965.

Mr. Richards, who was married and had two daughters and three grandchildren, also owned properties in other parishes.

His nephew Wesley Gayle was equally successful in business as the owner of the Sunset Lodge on North Shore, Pembroke West, a guesthouse that catered to black tourists during the era of segregation.

The Canadian Hotel and Ripleigh were sold by his family in the 1980s.

Still, a visit to both properties, along with a third building that he owned on Union Street, were enough to give Mr Samuels a picture of Mr Richards’ accomplishments.

He said Mr. Richards had no choice but to leave Black River because it was a poor farming community. But he added: “He never forgot his homeland.”

And now Black River residents are taking steps to ensure that Dick Richards will not be forgotten in his homeland.

 

• Editor’s note: For more on the Dick Richards’ story, see www.bermudabiographies.bm (which is run by the author of this article).