Colonial Entanglements: The Discourses of Bermuda’s 1995 Referendum on In/Dependence

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Highlighting the colonial formation of contemporary politics in Bermuda is like trying to film ships or areoplanes as they vanish into the fabled Bermuda Triangle. With one point off the coast of South Carolina and the other off the shores of the Bahamas, Bermuda is the third point and namesake of this mysterious phenomenon.1.Covering an expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the Bermuda Triangle's phenomenality is rooted in its reputation as an area where ships, planes, navigators and passengers have disappeared without a trace and to date and with no reasonable explanation. In Bermudian politics a similar
disappearance occurs where there is a ritual displacement of references to the colonial themes of its underlying structural antagonisms. This includes the impact of transatlantic slavery, the implications of British colonial administration and the legacy of white, male, minority rule. It is as if the very engagement of the persisting social inequalities rooted in and exacerbated by these legacies is considered unbefitting of acceptable political discourse. Much like the planes, ships and people swept into the Bermuda Triangle, central tenets of local colonialized ruling practices become untraceable. Largely disavowed and rendered unsubstantiated, debate and interrogation becomes problematic, deemed not only ill-mannered but beyond the realm of what is 'speakable'. Dissimilar to the Bermuda Triangle, however, is the re/appearance of these same underlying antagonisms. For despite all manner of denial, local legacies and continued colonial imperatives of rule are intricately woven into the fabric of Bermudian society. Pushed beyond the parameters of legitimate political discourse, these formations of localised colonial power have not vanished, but rather have been reworked as dis/appearing and re/appearing signifiers of unresolved structural inequalities that inhabit and inhibit the constituional anatomy of Bermuda's body-politic.

I want to consider this as a metaphorical background to Bermuda’s 1995 referendum on whether the island should move to establish constitutional independence from Britain. The event marked a rare occasion when the tiny Island colony was spotlighted in international news. In the fleeting images of globally signified political events however, the legacy of the colonial entanglements surrounding the liberal-democratic question 'Do you favour independence for Bermuda' were all but air-brushed out. With the fantasy photographs and hype of sun, beauty and tranquillity so often used to describe this tourist destination soon back in place, what was largely glossed over were the momentary but unavoidable exposures of underlying social antagonisms of political life in Bermuda. This perhaps is what prompted one British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, to describe the protracted independence episode as 'one of the strangest liberation struggles the Empire has seen' (6th Jan 1995). My concerns in this chapter lie with the nature of the specific configuration of local and colonial power/discourse in Bermuda that pervaded the independence debate. The momentary exposure and disappearance of the influence of colonial formations in current political discourse is a central theme. Situated in the colonial absented present, I will argue that ruling practices in Bermuda remain as much determined by the enduring legacies of the colonial regime as they are by the continual disavowal of these colonial imperatives. The identity of Bermuda lies somewhere between the formations of an extant British colony and an ex- British colony. It is a place where colonial denial is so pervasive, where notions of colonialism have become so ambiguous, and where the articulation of legacies and continuities of colonial rule seem to evade political discourse. The main question underlying this chapter, is what can the entanglements of colonial societies such as Bermuda tell us about contemporary formations of representation in quasi-colonial political cultures? I begin by providing a brief
over-view of Bermudian society. Secondly, I examine how the question of independence was articulated in different political discourses and how these became implicated in under-stating colonial and western points of entanglement (Hesse, 1997). Finally, I consider some of the political and discursive logic involved in facilitating Bermuda's conjuring tricks and disappearing acts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUn/settled Multiculturalisms
Subtitle of host publicationDiasporas, Entanglements, Transruptions
EditorsBarnor Hesse
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherZed Publishers
ISBN (Print)9781856495608
Publication statusPublished - 2000


  • Bermuda
  • Contemporary colonial politics
  • Independence Referendum


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