By Vejay Steede
Cyril Packwood was a freedom fighter. He didn’t raise arms like Che Guevara, lead popular campaigns like Pauulu Kamarakafego, or organize the people like Sarah ‘Sally’ Bassett; but he did engage in revolution. He researched, authored, and published one of the most important history texts ever produced in Bermuda.
Chained on the Rock is essential reading for any Bermudian who presents themselves as a champion of truth and justice. Written at a time when the prevailing narrative held that slavery in Bermuda was ‘benign,’ and more akin to familial dynamics than power dynamics, Chained comprehensively cracked the seal on the long-buried secrets that Bermuda’s former slave owning population wanted to keep hidden for all eternity.
This was a watershed moment in the ongoing struggle to tell the ‘half that’s never been told.’ This was the story of the downtrodden, the used and abused, the wretched of the earth; and it was presented immaculately. Cyril Packwood was a modern-day Mary Prince, speaking truth to power without reservation, giving a voice to the voiceless, and never flinching – not once.
His was a culture of quiet resistance, of saying what needed to be said, regardless of the consequences – he was fearless. Bringing truth to bear to the powers that be was not easy for black folks in the 1970s, but Cyril Packwood did it, and gained immortality for the effort!
Unfortunately, Cyril Packwood, the man, did leave this mortal coil – physically – in 1998, but he is survived by a truly dynamic daughter, who was more than happy to recall her experiences sitting at her father’s feet while he composed a tome that would change Bermuda forever.
Cheryl Packwood is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Albany Law School. She was the former Representative of the Bermuda Government in Washington, DC. She is also, of course, the very proud daughter of a true Bermudian hero.
Ms Packwood remembers the early days well:
“At the time, Florenz Maxwell – she was very close to my parents – and she was pushing my father to get his book out on time because, at the same time, [James E.] Smith was also researching his book, Slavery in Bermuda, and she knew that my father’s book was thoroughly researched, and would represent voices that had never been heard before. You know, history is a narrative, and it’s by people who have an insight, who are coming from a certain background, and my father was not going to – well, he was going to ruffle some feathers with this book.”
Ruffle feathers he did, flying in the face of the establishment historians’ adamant assertions that slavery in Bermuda was not as brutal as it was in other parts of the world. Ms Packwood continues:
“He started researching for the book in the early 1970s, if not earlier, because he started researching it for his second Masters, and then he took the second Masters’ thesis, and turned it into a longer version, which became Chained on the Rock.”
“The late 1960s to early 1970s in Bermuda wasn’t exactly a time of ‘kumbaya’ for everybody. The black intelligencia in Bermuda were aware of what my father was doing, and they wanted him to get his book out before Smith got his out – it was part of the 60s to early 70s civil rights movement that took place in Bermuda.”
The publishing of Chained on the Rock in 1975 was, indeed, a triumphant moment for the advancement of black self-love. Dr Clarence Maxwell described this important period in his Preface for the National Museum of Bermuda’s 2013 reissue of Chained:
“For Cyril Packwood, the historiographical context surrounding Chained provided an unexpected supportive environment for a book on slavery in Bermuda. The 1970s were in the wake of a renaissance in black consciousness. Curiosity about slavery was its consequence, and it was no longer acceptable to relegate the enslaved to the roles of supporting cast in Bermuda’s historical dramas. Chained satisfied this demand. The bondpeople became actors rather than the acted upon.”
Ms Packwood reflects on how being present to witness this moment shaped her own politicization:
“His work, it’s a classic. Chained on the Rock was also part of my own, in some ways, radicalization – my sense of the importance of speaking truth to power. It was my own start, my own formation, my own sense of what is right, what is wrong, who’s been hurt, who hasn’t, and how do you go about fixing it; and wanting to be part of that struggle.”
The process of composing Chained was also a testament to the power of doing things the right way; of giving the proper reverence and respect to the stories that created us.
“The work was so thoroughly researched that it was untouchable; and so, the respect that came out of it was phenomenal. I mean, you know, he received tenure at City University of New York based on Chained on the Rock, and then, when the Bermuda librarian position came up, Gerald Simmons reached out to my father to apply. He was supported by the black librarians at the Bermuda Public Library – they wanted him to come. It was almost like, by writing Chained on the Rock, my father became royalty.”
The old adage holds that, where’s there’s a great man, a great woman will be very near; Ms Packwood wants you to know that her father’s story is no different!
“I have to give kudos to my mother, because there would not have been a Chained on the Rock if it hadn’t been for Dorothy Packwood! She was the one that seriously edited that book, and went through it with a fine-toothed comb – and she was the one that my father talked everything over with. If he had, you know, an issue writing, or something – she helped him with everything.”
Chained is not only a Bermudian classic, it is also a vital chapter in the still under-cooked discourse on the trans-Atlantic slave trade; it stands alongside works by Mary Prince, Equiano, Alex Haley, C.L.R. James, Kamau Brathwaite, Walter Rodney, W.E.B. Dubois, and Eric Williams in the pantheon of essential works of black – and human – enlightenment.