Interrupting Bermuda's Colonial Imagination: 20th Century Tourism and the 1959 Theatre Boycott

Andrea Dean, Western University

In the summer of 1959, ‘blacks’ in the British colony of Bermuda began a boycott of local movie theatres, and held nightly protests over segregated seating practices. It was decried as ‘a storm in a teacup’; however, by all accounts the 1959 Theatre Boycott is among the most significant episodes of contentious politics in contemporary Bermuda, challenging social norms that had been in existence for 350 years. After only 17 days of limited and non-violent collective action, ‘blacks’ got more than they asked for. The boycott ultimately resulted in the desegregation of the island’s theatres, hotels and restaurants, and marked the beginning of the end of formal racial segregation. Bermuda is a small collection of islands in the mid-Atlantic originally settled in 1612, and inhabited by many direct descendants of ‘white’ settlers and ‘black’ slaves. Throughout the 1900s, the island enjoyed an international reputation as an idyllic luxury tourist destination for wealthy North American elites, as well as international politicians, celebrities, writers and artists. Bermuda was considered to be a modern-day example of colonial paradise, with visitors consistently reporting racial harmony, and the absence of poverty, violence or social unrest. For tourists and international onlookers alike, the 1959 Theatre Boycott shattered the illusion of harmony and publicly exposed the disconnect between Bermuda’s ‘white’-washed image and its racialized reality. Why did ‘black’ Bermudians engage in transgressive social protests in 1959? What role did the interruption of Bermuda’s colonial imagination play in the outcome? This analysis explores the social mechanisms and processes that thrust Bermuda into a new era of ‘race’ relations, and highlights the interplay between racism, power and political contention in social inequality and social change.

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 Presented in Session 198. Movements & Revolutions