Island Flames: Murder, executions and racial enmity: The real story of the 1977 riotsby Jonathan D. Smith, reviewed by Caribbean News Now.
Ten Ten Publications and former Bermuda police commissioner and now author, Jonathan D Smith have released “Island Flames”, a new book about the political murders, executions and Bermuda’s chronic race problems that resulted in the 1977 riots.
The 1970s were the closest Bermuda ever came to a revolution. Political murders marred the early part of the decade and, in 1977, the island was on the brink of public order meltdown when US Marines and more than 250 UK troops and more than 1,500 other police, regiment, reserves and firemen and others were deployed to restore order.
The riots were the most extensive and deadly riots ever experienced on the island. Fire damage to mostly establishment-owned businesses was extensive and three innocent people, two tourists and a Bermudian hotel worker, were killed at the Southampton Princess Hotel arson attack. The riots occurred against the backdrop of the murders of British symbols of power in Bermuda, Governor Richard Sharples, Captain Hugh Sayers, Police Commissioner George Duckett and two shopkeepers Victor Rego and Mark Doe between 1972 and 1973.
Two men, Erskine Durrant ‘Buck’ Burrows and Larry Tacklyn, were arrested, tried and convicted for their roles in the murders. By the time the date was announced for the executions, the last hangings to occur on British soil anywhere in the world, Bermuda was sharply divided.
On one side was the white-dominated UBP led by Harvard-educated businessman Premier J. David Gibbons, whose Cabinet supported the death penalty. On the other, lawyer Lois Browne-Evans, leader of the opposition PLP and Tacklyn’s trial lawyer, opposed it.
The country was similarly divided – mostly on racial lines. The healing began shortly after the riots when the governor and both political parties participated in a Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the riots. Grenadian Lord David Pitt chaired the Pitt Commission.
“Island Flames” draws on close to 200 separate sources, including interviews with former Premiers Sir John Swan and Alex Scott – the last surviving Bermudian member of the Commission. Fellow Commission member, UK Professor Dr Michael Banton, now nearly 90 years old, described as the architect of the final report, keenly added his insight into why the report stood the test of time.
Readers will also learn what Reg Rawlins, later Bermuda’s Chief Fire Officer, discovered when he attended the hotel fire and how young Regiment soldier, later Senator Wendell Hollis, faced the prospect of death in the violent confrontation on Court Street. The key UK minister involved in the decision to hang Burrows and Tacklyn, Foreign Secretary Dr David Owen, was interviewed and defended his decision that the men should hang. He now sits in the House of Lords as Lord Owen.
The research delved deep into once ‘Secret’ and ‘Classified’ UK government files to reveal new information about the diplomatic breakdown between Governor Sir Peter Ramsbotham, Dr Owen and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the UK government’s flip-flopping on the hanging decision; the military options of ‘shoot to kill’ to control the rioters; top secret anti-communist operatives who worked in Bermuda to counter the Black Power movement; a Cabinet split and key decisions about foreign policy and the hanging decision, traced to the desk of the UK prime minister, James Callaghan and much more.
Guest contributor, Cordell Riley, the respected former government statistician, writes a chapter in the book and offers his views on the trajectory Bermuda has taken since 1977 and analysis of what has changed, and hasn’t changed in the years since the riots.
Smith commented: “Thirty-eight years after these deadly events and it was astonishing that not a single book had been written focusing on the murders, executions, race riots and why a country nearly imploded. This was a phenomenal, yet caustic period for Bermuda on so many levels. The murders, executions, the race problem and the riots were all inter-twined. It took me less than a minute to formulate the concept of a book to answer the fundamental question: ‘what caused the rage that exploded into riots? I hope the book adds to the rich fabric of our tragic past, yet hopeful future. The book proved to be an immense challenge. Information from diverse sources was weaved together to create the chronology of events through the deadly decade of the 1970’s. Now that it is complete, I hope that readers in Bermuda, the Caribbean and all over the world can reflect on this volatile period when race, economics, politics, the death penalty, murders, executions, UK policy and the justice system collided – with deadly results. The truth is now out as to how the decision to execute was made. After it was all done, the people finally had their say.”
“Island Flames,” is 360 pages in length, hard-back with more than 1,000 references and 44 photographs of the 1965, 1968 and 1977 riots – many of them never-before published. Brimstone Media, a Bermudian company, provided editing, layout and graphic design services to the final manuscript, which was printed in China.
This is the second major non-fiction book completed by Smith. His first book, “In the Hour of Victory,” a true story of Major AF ‘Toby’ Smith’s WWII experiences and death in battle was published in 2011. The documentary film version of the book won major awards at international film festivals in the UK and USA in 2013. Smith is now working on a third book, “Black & Blue” which will take a critical look at policing in Bermuda from the 1970s to the current day.
“Island Flames” is available exclusively at the Bookmart, Hamilton, Bermuda. Orders can be made by contacting Martin Buckley at the Bookmart firstname.lastname@example.org or 441-279-5443. Orders can be shipped to the Caribbean.