Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Britain’s Secret War on Bermudan Black Power

For years, British state agents organised to undermine and destabilise powerful Black Power movements in the Caribbean. Only in recent years has the extent of their operations come to light.

Members of Bermuda's Black Berets with a Free Panther sign. (Palgrave)

In July 1969, three thousand miles away from Britain in Hamilton, Bermuda, a rising star in the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) addressed reporters from the Bermuda Gazette and Recorder, urging prospective delegates to his planned conference to refrain from:

‘A) Your “I’m Blacker than you” speech. All of us are in the same psychological Black bag regardless of colour. B) Your passionate “Let’s get guns and undo our castration” speech. The biggest struggle we have right now is getting ourselves together. C) Your… “Black is Beautiful” speech. All of us are committed to the task of strengthening our identity. D) Your… “If you’re over thirty, then forget it” speech. For we know if it were not for the dedicated troops over thirty who fought to desegregate our communities, [the desire] to be separate in any way would never have had any validity.’

Although his tone was conciliatory and the content of his speech moderate, this particular individual was marked as one of the most dangerous Black Power agitators in the region. Pauulu Kamarakafego, then Roosevelt Brown, was the principal organiser of the 1969 First Regional International Black Power Conference (BPC) in Bermuda, and his connections with Pan-Africanism and Black Power saw him extensively surveilled, harassed, and profiled by the British state. The close monitoring of Kamarakafego and the BPC was but a single flashpoint in the British state’s secret war on Black Power in the Caribbean, and on a geopolitical level, the global war on communism.

The Bermudan Deployment

In the popular imagination, Black Power is dominated by North American narratives. While recent efforts have been made to recognise its British counterpart, still overlooked in these histories are the Black Power movements which emerged across the Caribbean. But Black Power in the Caribbean would manifest itself in a significantly more militant fashion than in Britain, and judging by the resources dedicated to disrupting, monitoring, and containing it in that region, it’s reasonable to conclude that the state recognised it as a far more imminent threat to stability than its domestic counterpart.

Of the documents available in the National Archives pertaining to Caribbean Black Power, the most numerous concern the rise of the movement in the dependent territory of Bermuda, where Kamarakafego’s Black Power conference took place. The response of the state to the conference is evidenced in a telegraph within file PREM 13/2885—‘PREM’ indicating that the decision-making level came from the prime minister’s office—and classified as SECRET:

‘After consultation with the Governor it has been decided to send 80 officers and men of 45 Marine Commando to reinforce the seamen and marines of the two frigates Arethusa and Mowhawk which will be standing by in Bermuda over the danger period.’

The mission of the troops was twofold: A) ‘to provide a deterrent against violence resulting from Black Power Conference’, and B) ‘If A fails, to act in the aid of Civil Power in the restoration of law and order.’ Simply put, in the eyes of the state, the Bermuda Black Power Conference was a considerable threat. Plans were even made to utilise the town of Gander in north-east Newfoundland as a staging ground for military aircraft in the event that violence could not be contained—plans approved by the Canadian government.

There was wide-ranging debate as to whether new legislation should be enforced to ban the conference entirely, but the idea was ultimately abandoned. Secrecy was of the utmost importance for British troop deployment, and documents indicate that officials were instructed to ‘initiate no publicity on this matter’ and ‘say in answer to questions that [Royal Navy Marines] are flying (flew) to Bahamas simply to board HMS Arethusa for exercises.’

In total, the state mobilised two troops of thirty men from 45 Marine Commando; HMS Mowhawk (with a Royal Marine detachment and one seaman platoon); HMS Arethusa (with two seaman platoons, one designated as ‘riot trained’); 72 Squadron RAF (with three Wessex Helicopters); and 4 Squadron, 30 Signal Regiment (consisting of two detachments). To facilitate the operation, the United States Air Force base in Kindley, Bermuda, was also made available to the RAF. In the eyes of the US, Canada and Britain, containing Black Power in the Caribbean was a joint effort.

Continued Surveillance

The militant Black Power organisations that would arise in Bermuda immediately following the conference were a further cause of concern to the British state. Principal among them, the Black Beret Cadre (emerging out of the PLP Youth Wing) was reported as having ‘organised itself with a fair degree of competency in a very short time’ and as posing ‘a serious threat to security in Bermuda.’

In addition, the Black Union of Students (BUS), PLP Youth Wing, and Black Church (which existed prior to the conference) were identified as responsible for ‘sabotage, demonstrations and seditious talk’, and it was recommended that these ‘civil influences’ of Black Power be hindered. The means suggested to do so included: ‘tightening up of the law or measures for enforcement’; banning of ‘especially obnoxious leaders’ through use of ‘stop lists’; ‘propaganda’; ‘publicity talks’; and the ‘possible strengthening of Special Branch.’

The meetings of all of the aforementioned organisations were spied on, and spies reported back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in detail, down to the exact number of people in attendance, notable attendees, and the content of speeches. Special attention was paid to the Black Beret Cadre: their manifesto, in which they proclaimed themselves the ‘vanguard’ of revolution in Bermuda, was collected by the Information Research Department (IRD) and studied in full.

The Information Research Department

Established in the aftermath of the Second World War by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the IRD was Britain’s clandestine propaganda department embedded within the Foreign Office. Attlee’s Labour is often remembered fondly in domestic terms for ushering in the welfare state, but internationally its foreign policy was responsible for the repression of anti-colonial and communist movements, characterised by the IRD.

After being established with an anti-communist objective, the IRD was expanded to include the suppression of the burgeoning anti-colonial movements of the mid-twentieth century. These objectives would overlap in Bermuda, where many Black Power movements like the Black Beret Cadre, though first and foremost anti-colonial, also had strong Marxist-Leninist leanings.

Evidence shows that the response of the state to Black Power in Bermuda took the form of joint IRD-MI5 operations. A secret letter from John Rayner, deputy head of the IRD’s Special Editorial Unit, was addressed to ‘Box 500’, which has previously been established as the SW1 postcode for MI5. As Rayner writes:

‘…we first became responsible in the FCO for collating, assessing and where necessary countering publicity and by other means the growth of Black Power in the area during the run-up to the First Regional Black Power Conference held in Hamilton, Bermuda in July 1969.’

Rayner explains in no uncertain terms that a significant part of the response of the British state to Black Power in Bermuda was a campaign of counterpropaganda, alongside the wide-scale collection of Black Power literature to be studied to improve counter-propaganda efforts. The anti-communist agenda of the IRD and their reliance on MI5 is also present in this letter, as Rayner continues:

‘In general we also depend largely on your SLOs [Security Liason Officers] for intelligence a. on any attempt by a Communist state and its agencies… to extend its influence in the area, and b. On the formation, aims and methods of any extremist group which might be linked with a foreign Communist agency or extreme left-wing group or… with a local or regional Black Power group.’

There exists in the National Archives a single declassified example of a secret draft proposal for IRD propaganda—a forgery intended to be inserted into the Cuban Tricontinental magazine. An excerpt from the draft states:

‘The people will not seize power without making sacrifices. Violence for its own sake is wrong, but at the same time, blacks must accept the need for organised retaliation against organised oppression, in the struggle to achieve full freedom.’

Black Power theoretically understood the need for ‘organised retaliation against organised oppression,’ but the conference in Bermuda explicitly stressed non-violence to ensure its success in the face of state pressure. So why would the IRD draft a pamphlet calling for violence?

It’s here we can understand the anti-communist context of the state response to Black Power in Bermuda. Rayner once more provides us with the motive:

‘Circulation during the Conference of a booklet purporting to issue from the Tricontinental organisation in Havana, on the subject of Black Power, in terms of going even further than their genuine output, calling for violent action; the impression being given that Black Power is being used in Cuba as part of its anti-US campaign, regardless of the interests of small countries.’

IRD activities in Bermuda were not just as part of an effort to undermine Black Power in the region; they were part of the overall campaign against communism in the Caribbean, embodied by the nation of Cuba.

A Hushed-Up History

To this day, the full extent of British subversion in Bermuda and the wider Caribbean is unknown. Many crucial documents remain classified or heavily redacted—much like the withheld documents pertaining to the state crackdown on Black Power in Britain. Only significant pressure on the government can facilitate their release to the wider public.

Certain classified documents held by the government operate under a thirty-year rule, after which they are either transferred to the National Archives or reviewed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While recent legislation has seen the government move towards a twenty-year rule, such a lengthy time gap is still inadequate for those seeking the truth.

Nevertheless, the British state’s secret war on Black Power in Bermuda is a hidden history which we can use to understand the global dimensions of Black Power alongside its popular representation in American history—and as public demand grows for a more honest representation of Britain’s colonial past, the importance of these overlooked histories only grows.