Gig Rowing At The Heart Of Historical Bermudan Public Holiday Celebration

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Cup Match, a public holiday unique to the island of Bermuda, is a time in which the community enjoys a two-day celebration of camping, boating, swimming and (probably most importantly) cricket. Every year, weeks before the start of the Cup Match holiday, rival fans can be seen donning their team’s colours (flags, ribbons, clothing) – red & navy for Somerset (in the west), pale blue & dark blue for St George’s (in the east). The venue for the game changes yearly as each side takes a turn in hosting the Cup Match cricket game.

The forerunner to Cup Match was introduced after the abolition of slavery in Bermuda. The slave trade was outlawed in 1807 and all slaves in Bermuda were freed in 1834. Men from Somerset and St. George’s met in friendly rivalry and held celebrations of Emancipation by holding annual picnics to mark the anniversary of the abolition of slavery. One of the highlights from the picnics was a friendly cricket match played between lodges from the east and west ends of the island. In 1901, during a cricket match between two major Friendly Societies, an agreement was made to play for an annual trophy. Members of the Friendly Societies and Lodges raised funds and in 1902 a silver cup that was played for annually was introduced. Cup Match was officially born.

In 1947 two official national public holidays were introduced and held annually on the Thursday and Friday closest to 1 August. The first holiday (Thursday), was renamed Emancipation Day and continues the tradition of remembering the end of slavery. The second holiday (Friday), Somers Day, commemorated the arrival of Admiral Sir George Somers on the Sea Venture, who colonized Bermuda in 1609. The two-day holiday became the annual two days of cricket for the cup – the Bermuda Cup Match.

The Bermuda Pilot Gig Club (formed in 2015) currently has 9 gigs spread around 4 locations on the island. Each pilot gig is named after well-known Bermuda pilots, many of whom were slaves. Take for instance James “Jemmy” Darrell.

A slave for most of his life, James Darrell was granted his freedom at the age of 47 because of his outstanding skills as a pilot. He was one of Bermuda’s first King’s pilots, as well as the first known black person to purchase a house.

Jemmy Darrell was a slave who was “owned” by Captain Francis Darrell of St. George’s. In May 1795, Jemmy piloted Admiral George Murray’s 74-gun HMS Resolution, into what later became known as Murray’s Anchorage on the North Shore near Tobacco Bay, St. George’s.

The Admiral was so impressed with Mr. Darrell’s skill that he recommended that he be granted his freedom.

“I do hereby declare the said Jemmy Darrell to be exonerated and released from all manner of Slavery or Servitude whatsoever, and I do earnestly request all Persons to treat him, as a Man actually and bona fide Free.”

Governor James Craufurd released him from his enslavement on March 1, 1796.

Since its inception the BPGC has held an annual Cup Match pilot gig race. Members get to choose who they support and/or row for, the red & blue team from Somerset (west) or the double blue team from St. George’s (east). The past 3 years the race had been held out of the St. George’s location, but since the opening of the west end location on Boaz Island earlier this year it was decided that the race would “follow the Cup” and that the venue would change annually between St. George’s & Somerset.

The crews of the friendly race are made up of volunteers of the 200 members of the BPGC, and are both young and old, male & female, race trainer or novice. This year, like the two-day Cup Match cricket game, Somerset hosted the gig race. It was a short 900-meter sprint to the finish between the two crews. Both crews were evenly matched, and Somerset beat St. George’s by just a half a boat’s length.

The winning team will receive a large wooden trophy (2 1/2’ Bermuda Cedar thole pin) to display till next year’s race, as well as the sponsor will donate BDA$1,000 (£768) to the charity of the winning team’s choice.

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