Complex and controversial, Dr. E.F. Gordon towers head and shoulders above most leaders of 20th-Century Bermuda. He championed the cause of Bermudian workers and fought tirelessly for equal rights for black Bermudians, thereby laying the groundwork for much of the political and social change that came about after his death.
He received his early education in Trinidad, where he was born to Frederick Charles and Olympia Jardine Gordon. His father owned a horse and carriage business.
Gordon developed his love of cricket in high school and went to Scotland to pursue an offer to join a cricket team. His father insisted that he had to continue with his education in Scotland as well.
Academics ultimately won out over sports and in 1912, he entered the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to study medicine.
He met his future wife Clara Christian in medical school. She was a beautiful and talented woman from the Caribbean island of Dominica, who had completed high school at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Scotland.
Clara was a gifted singer, and after graduating from boarding school, she prevailed upon her father George Christian, a distinguished lawyer, to send her to music school.
She got her wish, enrolling first at Hampton Institute in Virginia before moving on to Oberlin University in Ohio. But her father wanted Clara to be a doctor, not a singer. After completing her studies in the US, she ceded to his wishes.
Clara and Gordon got married, but then his father’s business suffered a downturn. It was around the time of the First World War. When Clara became pregnant with their first child, the couple decided that she would drop out of medical school to have the baby.
The family would live off the money she was receiving from her father. The break in her studies was to have been temporary, but Clara never went back to medical schoola decision that would have tragic personal consequences.
George Christian became so incensed when he learned of his daughter’s abandoned ambition, he would not speak to her for more than a decade.
Clara gave birth to three daughters in Scotland, Barbara in 1918 and twins Joyce and Evelyn, 18 months later. Gordon qualified in 1918 and took a medical position in Inverness.
In 1921, the family sailed home to the Caribbean. Their ship made a brief stopover in Bermuda. Gordon was impressed by Bermuda’s physical beauty, but was surprised to encounter segregation. Back home, he worked in Trinidad briefly, then moved on to Dominica, where he became chief medical supervisor.
Their fourth child Marjorie was born in 1921 in Dominica, and Gordon was not happy that Clara had failed to give birth to a son.
In 1924, he arrived in Bermuda to fill a gap in medical service in the west end caused by the death of Somerset physician Dr. Richard Packwood (after whom Packwood Home is named).
Somerset businessman William Robinson had met Gordon during one of his frequent business trips to the Caribbean and encouraged him to come to Bermuda. Gordon set up his practice on Heathcote Hill in Somerset.
Clara and the children followed after their fifth child and first son Edgar was born. Their sixth child Kenneth was born in Bermuda in 1928.
Gordon, a diminutive and dapper man, established a busy practice, and he and his wife became involved in the life of the community. Clara organized cultural gatherings, including musical soirees, at their home.
Gordon, though, was appalled by the racism he encounteredalong with the passivity of black Bermudians for accepting their lot.
Bermuda was controlled by a powerful group of wealthy white men, known as the oligarchy. They were merchants and bankers, for the most part, who had complete control over every aspect of business and political life. Front Street, Hamilton was the centre of their business life and they were called the “Forty Thieves.”
The first hurdle for Gordon was the medical exam. He passed it, but believed it had been made intentionally difficult so that he could fail.
One of the first causes he took up was on behalf of black nurses. And he used the power of his pen.
In a series of letters to the editor of The Royal Gazette, beginning in 1929, he criticised the Bermuda Welfare Society for its refusal to hire blacks to be district nurses.
Gordon’s earliest battles demonstrated his courage, feistiness and dogged determination in taking on the subtle yet formidable nature of segregation in Bermuda.
The Welfare Society, which was founded in 1925 by a group of suffragettes, among them Gladys Misick Morrell, had put in place a much-needed service that delivered home health care, island-wide and around the clock, to lower income Bermudians, black and white.
Each parish had a district nurse, who lived in the parish, was on 24-hour call and did everything from bathing patients to delivering babies.
There was no stated bar to blacks becoming district nurses. But the requirement that they had to be a Queen’s Nurse, a British qualification, automatically disqualified black Bermudian nurses because they were being trained in the U.S.
It would take decades for Gordon’s lobbying on behalf of black nurses to bear fruit. The first black district nurse, Leonie Harford, was not hired until 1963.
Letters to newspaper editors were Gordon’s main avenue of protest during his early years in Bermuda but his appeals for justice and equal opportunity seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Gordon found an outlet for his passion for cricket at Somerset Cricket Club. He sought to raise the standard of cricket in Bermuda by establishing links between Bermuda and the West Indies and recommended the formation of a Bermuda Cricket Board of Control, which was done in 1938.
Gordon was instrumental in organising the first West Indies cricket tour of Bermuda in 1939but was left having to cover the tour’s cost out of his own pocket after the white-run Cricket Board balked at the expense.
Six years earlier, he had arranged Alma “Champ” Hunt’s tryout with the West Indies Test Team. Hunt did not make the team, for reasons that were unrelated to his talents, but became one of Bermuda’s greatest cricketers and a Scottish professional.
Off the pitch, Gordon turned his attention to Parliament. His first two attempts to win a seat (in 1933 and 1943) were unsuccessful.
By 1933, his marriage was unravelling. Gordon’s volatile personality and refusal to treat his wife as an equal partner had taken their toll. Highly publicized court battles for debt, which included support payments, contributed to his first parliamentary defeat.
In 1946, to the dismay of Bermuda’s white leaders, he was declared the winner of a controversial by-election in St. George’s.
Two other black candidates mysteriously withdrew, one the night before the by-election, leaving him as the sole candidate and raising questions about his role in the 11th-hour withdrawals.
Gordon took his seat as a Member of Colonial Parliament (MCP), but the Bermuda Workers Association (BWA) would become his true political platform.
The Second World War, which resulted in two U.S. bases being built in Bermuda, beginning in 1941, shook the island out of its sleepy complacency. Construction was booming, but the Bermuda Labour Board, concerned that the boom would led to inflation, set pay rates for local workers.
In 1944, when a group of workers employed at the U.S. Base in Southampton were forced to take a pay cut, they founded the Bermuda Workers Association (BWA).
They formed a preliminary executive, but looked beyond their ranks for someone who would make a dynamic president.
Their first choice was Dr. Eustace Cann, another Somerset physician and a parliamentarian, who championed the cause of blacks as well, but when he declined, citing the demands of his medical practice, they turned to Gordon, who by then had a reputation for taking on the white establishment.
By the time Gordon was unanimously elected president that July, he had written a draft constitution. Within a year, the BWA had purchased property in Hamilton for a headquarters. Gordon had a cadre of disciples, and his stirring oratory attracted crowds and newspaper headlines. By 1946, he had signed up nearly 5,000 BWA members.
Riding on a wave of BWA support and with a higher public profile after being elected to Parliament, Gordon drew up a landmark petition in 1946. It called on the British authorities to investigate practices that left black and working-class Bermudians on the margins of society with little political and economic power.
He even took it to London in person because he did not trust Bermuda’s Governor to forward it to the Secretary of State for Colonies.
Britain warned Bermuda’s white leaders to get their house in order. When the petition was debated in Parliament in 1947, placard-bearing BWA supporters, in an unprecedented display of solidarity, gathered in the grounds of the House of Assembly.
A parliamentary committee, with a majority of white members, was set up to investigate.
The only tangible result was free primary school education, which came about following the passage of a law in 1949.
The birth of the BWA led to the passage of Bermuda’s first trade union legislation, the Trade Union and Disputes Act in 1946. The law was designed to clip the wings of the fledgling BWA, making it illegal for a union to have a newspaper or operate a business.
When the bill was debated in Parliament, Gordon led efforts to have the offending clauses dropped, receiving support from two white parliamentarians as well, but was outvoted by the more reactionary MCPs.
Because the new law banned unions from being involved in political activities, the BWA established the Bermuda Industrial Union.
Gordon had to threaten Government’s Registrar General with legal action when he seemed to be dragging his heels about registering the new union. It was finally registered in 1947.
The BWA continued on as the BIU’s political arm, but eventually went out of existence.
Gordon was a fiery speaker, but his frankness won him as many friends as foes. When a governor referred to him in a letter to the Colonial Office in London as “an immigrant from Trinidad”, suggesting that he alone was behind the 1941 petition, Gordon told a public meeting he was an “itinerant sailor.”
He was famously criticized by whites and blacks when he told a public meeting in 1948 that he had hours earlier attended the funeral of House Speaker Sir Reginald Conyers to make sure “he was put in the hole”.
Gordon told the meeting: “As a white man for the white man, he was one of the best ever produced, but he was one of the biggest curses the nigger ever had in Bermuda.” The reason for Gordon’s outburst became clear when Conyers’ will was made public. He left money for Port Royal School in Southampton “so long as it is used for the education of white childre.”
Gordon was also outraged that parliamentarians often failed to address him as Dr. Gordon in the House of Assembly.
One day Gordon took matters into his own hands. He announced in a newspaper ad he had dropped his Scottish name of Gordon and taken the African name of "Mazumbo".
The name change caused consternation in Parliament, but he said: “Now that I am Mazumbo, no one need prefix my name with mister or doctor. I am just plain Mazumbo.”
Gordon was something of a showman who was not above pulling headline-grabbing stunts to aid his cause. When a period of lethargy set in at the BWA the year after he took the petition to London, he called a press conference to announce his resignation.
The Royal Gazette duly reported it, along with predictions the labour movement could crumble. Supporters were horrified until Gordon told a union meeting it was all a ploy. It did, however, succeed in re-invigorating the membership.
Appointed to Inter-racial Committee
As a MCP, Gordon was relentless in challenging social and political inequities. He demanded to know why blacks could not work as nurses at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital or sell stamps at the Post Office.
With only seven per cent of the population eligible to vote, he pressed for the abolition of the property vote.
The requirement for citizens to own property in order to cast a vote was high on the list of grievances in the BWA petition, which pointed out that in 1946, only 2,482 men and women out of a population of nearly 35,000 could vote.
In 1948, with much of his energies taken up with a dockworkers strike, he lost his seat in Parliament.
He was re-elected in 1953, an election that saw the largest number of blacks to date taking their seats in Parliament, nine out of a total of 36.
One on the first items on Parliament’s agenda was the setting up of an Inter-racial Committee, in response to a proposal by black parliamentarian Russell Levi Pearman. Gordon was one of four blacks appointed to the committee.
When it was announced that Bermuda would be the first stop on tour of the British Commonwealth by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II, and details of the visit were made public, Gordon pounced.
He said that of 1,200 people invited to a Government House garden party, only 60 were black and not one black person had merited an invitation to a state dinner for 30 guests.
The snub made the front page of three British newspapers, which had strong criticism for Bermuda’s white leaders, and 48 British Labour MPs signed a motion of protest.
In Bermuda, only the Bermuda Recorder gave prominence to the controversy that had erupted in Britain on the day of the Queen’s visit.
Gordon often locked horns with Sir Henry Tucker in and out of ParliamentGordon once referred to Tucker as “Front Street’s big gun.”
Both were appointed to the Inter-racial Committee, which was chaired by Tucker. When its report was presented to Parliament in 1954, there were few concessions to blacks. Gordon and the other black members, who were outnumbered by white parliamentarians, were accused of selling blacks down the river. Fellow black MCP W.L. Tucker wondered why black members had not written a separate minority report.
But Gordon may also have been tired of fighting the good fight. For by then, he was one year away from his death.
Gordon’s troubled personal life left him open to criticism. He and Clara never divorcedboth were Roman Catholic, a denomination which does not allow divorcebut their split was permanent. He resented her financial independence and dragged his heels about paying child support.
Her father came to her rescue and paid for their children’s education in boarding schools in Britain. Gordon became a heavy drinker and was verbally abusive when under the influence.
He formed other relationships and had two more sets of children. The youngest of his children, Pamela Gordon, was born six months after his death in September 1955. Pamela would ultimately rise to political prominence, becoming Bermuda’s first female premier in 1997. Her mother Mildred Lucille Layne was Gordon’s long-time partner.
The two lived together at Beulah on King Street in Hamilton and had five children, including UBP MP Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, Olympia, the eldest, and sons Edgar and Keith.
Gordon’s legacy as a pioneer is echoed in other descendants as well. Moira Stuart, who became the first black newsreader for the British Broadcasting Corporation, is a granddaughter of Gordon and Clara. The daughter of Marjorie Davis, Stuart was born in Britain, but spent her teenage years in Bermuda where she attended Berkeley Institute.
Gordon suffered the fate of several of Bermuda’s black leaders early death. He died on April 20, 1955 of a heart attack at age 60, robbing black Bermudians of one of their greatest champions.
The Bermuda Recorder led the tributes, and Sir Henry Tucker was the only white parliamentarian who paid tribute to him in Parliament. Thousands turned out for his funeral at St. Theresa’s Church, Hamilton. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Devonshire.
At the time of his death, BIU membership had declined because of prosperity brought on by the post-war tourism boom.
Gordon had laid the groundwork for the BIU’s financial security with a series of smart property deals and it would go from strength to strength and become the island’s most powerful union.
Four years after Gordon’s death, the first crack in the wall of segregation occurred with the successful Theatre Boycott.
His supporters, who often sought him out at Beulah, called themselves Gordonites. Some of them went on to form Bermuda’s first political party, the Progressive Labour Party in 1963.
The United Bermuda Party, led by Henry Tucker, formed the next year.
Gordon was, in the words of author and anti-racism activist Dr. Eva Hodgson, “dynamic”, “arrogant”, “brilliant” and “imperfect,” but who more than any other man succeeded in “awakening a political consciousness among the labouring classes.”
When he died, the black newspaper the Bermuda Recorder wrote that “no man had so fired the imagination and alerted the inarticulate masses as he did.”
Bermuda had never seen anything like the fiery Trinidadian. Dynamic, yet flawed, Gordon pushed Bermuda kicking and screaming into the 20th century, transforming the political landscape forever.