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Sarah "Sally" Bassett

Sarah "Sally" Bassett (?—1730), an African woman enslaved in Bermuda in the sixteenth century, was the grandmother of a young woman named Beck, who was enslaved by Thomas and Sarah Foster. Bassett was convicted of attempting to kill both the Fosters and their enslaved domestic woman Nancy (spelled by some sources as Nancey), by poison, in June 1730. Her story significantly chronicles how African communities, and  black women in particular, resisted slavery in Bermuda and the wider Americas. In 2008, Bermuda’s Progressive Labour Party government erected a monument, “The Spirit of Freedom,” to honor Bassett’s fight against slavery. This launched a racially polarized debate about race and the memory of slavery in Bermuda. 

During her trial, it was claimed that Bassett gave Beck several types of poison, including ratsbane, white toad, and manchineel root, along with specific instructions on how to apply them—one as a powdered inhalant, the other to be placed in food. The chief justice found that she did not have “the fear of God before her eyes” and was “moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil.” Bassett was valued at one pound four shillings and six pence. The justice sentenced her to be fastened to a stake and “burned with fire” until her “body was dead” (Bermuda Archives, pp. 221–222). 

Bassett, described in the records as an elderly “mulatto,” informed the court that “she never deserved it,” and did not accept her sentence willingly. Bermuda’s black oral tradition claims that Bassett was executed at the foot of Crow Lane, which is a very public intersection at the entrance of Bermuda’s Hamilton City. However, it is just as plausible that she was executed in Gallows Island, St. George’s Parish. It is asserted that as she was walked to the site she told the watching crowds that the “fun would not start until she arrived” at the scene of the burning. It is also claimed that a purple flower, the Bermudiana, emerged out of her ashes. This day is remembered as being exceptionally hot, and older black generations continue to refer to a hot day as a “Sally Bassett day.” 

The Bassett incident was perhaps the climax of a poisoning plot that occurred in Bermuda between 1727 and 1730. Africans in Bermuda fought back against slavery through the use of poison, and many whites were injured. Bassett was well versed in these pharmaceutical techniques of poisoning, which appear to be based on West African/Saint-Domingue medical techniques, and she was perhaps initiated in one of the spiritual traditions of West Africa, such as an okomfo of the Akan. 

In 1712 Bassett had been charged with the mysterious deaths of a white proprietor’s cattle. She received “three lashes well laid on her naked back at the end of every thirty paces” throughout Southampton Parish. Bassett’s associate, Indian Tom, was also charged for his involvement. Tom was reputed to be a notorious thief who took up arms with French privateers. Scholarship suggests that Tom was possibly the source of Bassett’s poisonous “white toade,” which was found in Africa, northern South America, and Saint-Domingue (among Vodou practitioners), but it did not appear in Bermuda until the nineteenth century. 

The 2008 statue to Bassett, the “Spirit of Freedom,” depicts Bassett standing above flames and “pregnant with freedom.” It was Bermuda’s first public monument in honor of an enslaved person. Under Bermuda premier Ewart Brown, it was part of a larger project by the PLP government to publicize Bermuda’s history through programs such as the African Diaspora Heritage Trail and National Heroes Day. Bermuda’s minister of education, Dame Jennifer Smith, felt that the monument helped to give a full view of Bermuda’s history, and that it overturned a biased master narrative that suggested that slavery in Bermuda was “benign.”

Controversy ensued when the Corporation of Hamilton refused a government request to place the Spirit at Hamilton’s City Hall. A racially polarized debate about these issues emerged across Bermuda’s radio talk shows, social media, and online newspaper outlets. Blacks were generally in support of the monument. The community activist “Nana Peggy,” for example, felt that it could be a teaching aid to combat historical amnesia. Some members of the white community, however, felt that the monument glorified a criminal and was designed to make whites feel guilty. In addition, during the official unveiling of the statue, the British governor Richard Gozney compared it to monuments of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, South Africa’s Blood River Monument, and a statue of Oliver Cromwell. Many felt this comparison to Bassett via white symbols of exploitation was insulting, bizarre, and offensive.

Read the full, original biography by Quito Swan in the The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Bibliography

Bermuda Archives, Book of Assizes, AZ 102–6, 1730, pp. 221–222. 

 

Maxwell, Clarence. “ ‘The Horrid Villainy’: Sarah Bassett and the Poisoning Conspiracies in Bermuda, 1727–30.” Slavery & Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 21, no. 3 (2000): 48–74. 

 

Packwood, Cyril Outerbridge. Chained on the Rock: Slavery in Bermuda. New York: E. Torres, 1975. 

 

Swan, Quito. “Smoldering Memories and Burning Questions: The Politics of Remembering Sally Bassett and Slavery in Bermuda.” In Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space, edited by Ana Lucia Araujo, pp. 71–91. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Author

Quito Swan

Adapted by

Jennifer Mojica Santana

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center

Key Events

c. 1700

Sarah Bassett is enslaved on the North Atlantic island of Bermuda. Whether she was born there or in Africa is unknown. Records describe her as a “mulatto,” indicating she was born in Bermuda, but her knowledge of specific poisons and herbal remedies may indicate a familiarity with the spiritual traditions of Akan people from Western Ghana.

1712

Bassett is charged with the deaths of a white proprietor’s cattle. She is punished by being subjected to “three lashes well laid on her naked back at the end of every thirty paces” through Bermuda’s Southampton Parish. Her associate, Indian Tom, was also charged for his involvement. Scholars claim that he was the source of Bassett’s acquisition of the poisonous “white toade” which wasn’t found in Bermuda until the 1800s.

1727-1730

Authorities find evidence of a poisoning plot against whites in Bermuda, a recognition that Africans were fighting back against their enslavement.

June 1730

Authorities accuse Bassett of attempting to kill a white couple, Thomas and Sarah Foster, as well as their enslaved Black domestic Nancy, through poisoning. The Fosters were the masters of Beck, Bassett’s granddaughter.

c. 1730s

Bassett’s trial takes place. Bassett is accused of supplying her granddaughter with different types of poison and teaching her how to apply them. According to the trial’s chief justice, Basset didn’t have “the fear of God before her eyes”, being “moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil”. She was sentenced to death by being burned at the stake. Bassett did not willingly accept her sentence, telling the court that “she never deserved it”.

June 21, 1730

Bassett is executed by being burned at the stake. According to Bermuda’s Black oral tradition, she was executed at the public intersection of Crow Lane, the entrance to Hamilton City. Others give the location as Gallows Island, St. George’s Parish instead. Legend claims that the Bermudiana, a purple flower, emerged out of her ashes. Her value was given as at one pound four shillings and six pence.

2008

The Progressive Labour Party government in Bermuda erect a statue “The Spirit of Freedom”, to honor Basset’s fight against slavery. It is the first public monument in Bermuda that honors an enslaved person and her history. The erection of the statue, which depicts Bassett standing over flames, “pregnant with freedom”, launched a racially polarized debate about race and memory of slavery in the country.