History: The Old Castle Harbour Hotel, which later became the Marriott, used to be the focal point for Tucker’s Town. *Creative Commons photo by Okinawa Soba
History: The Old Castle Harbour Hotel, which later became the Marriott, used to be the focal point for Tucker’s Town. *Creative Commons photo by Okinawa Soba

A Canadian historian, who has extensively studied the history of Bermuda, has warned against a Commission of Inquiry looking into controversial land transactions that displaced black Bermudians, saying such a probe “could very easily turn into a circus of indictment”.

Dr. Duncan L. McDowall has written extensively about Bermuda, including the Tucker’s Town land deals of the 1920s, and is currently a professor emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa.

He says there will be a huge practical problem with any such inquiry, particularly with the Tucker’s Town land deals during the early half of the 20th century.

“How do you take a piece of land in the 1920s — when the farms were by all accounts hard scrabble — and place a value on that today?” he asked. 

“The only thing that put value on that land over time was the fact that it turned into a millionaire’s paradise, which paradoxically would never have happened if it wasn’t for this expropriation. How do you calculate that?”

Legally, the case for compensation is tricky, he said. If someone sold land in Tucker’s Town through a legal due process three generations ago, how would one prove that the descendants of the person who sold the land now deserve compensation?

“That’s extremely hard to prove in court,” he said.

Reparations, he said, “is an impractical red herring that would lead nowhere”.

The idea of compensation for past wrongs “is a handy thing to bring up if you’re trying to create (political) pressure,” he said. The issue can be turned into a “kind of whipping boy for a lot of present day” political problems that “don’t necessarily connect with the reality of the 1920s”.

 “Tucker’s Town now, what’s next? People would say, ‘Well the fort was on my land.’ It would just unravel.”

Another question he posed: how would Bermuda identify who receives compensation? Genealogists would likely have to be involved; land deeds would have to be produced.

He says land expropriation has been “a fact of life” in Bermuda for a long time. Long defunct military posts that were scattered throughout Bermuda were built on land that was expropriated, as was the Bermuda railway.

“Bermuda is a small place with limited real estate,” he said. Then there’s Tucker’s Town — a piece of Bermuda history that Dr McDowall has researched extensively.

“The thinking was Bermuda doesn’t have anything exportable except for the tourism experience and here’s a niche we can open up, but in order to do that we have to move certain people out of the way,” he said. “The question is, was due process observed?”

He added: “Like any of these instances, you could look back and find fault by today’s standards. We could have a lively commission that says there was a racist read of Bermuda’s expropriation... but I’m satisfied that due process, in the context of the times, not by today’s standards, but in the context of those times, was observed.”

By today’s standards, he said, someone could conclude that the displaced Tucker’s Town residents deserved more money and that the land deals were done in a “clearly segregationist way”.

“No one today would condone that,” he said.

Another tough historical question, according to Dr McDowall: did Bermuda collectively benefit from the Tucker’s Town tourism development? “Where would Bermuda be without Tucker’s Town?” he asked. “I don’t want to sound like Ronald Regan, but there was a big trickle-down effect here.”