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The Black Panthers: Their Dangerous Bermudian Legacy

"The Sixties defined itself by its efforts to delegitimize the police as an ‘army of occupation’ while also celebrating crime as a form of existential rebellion and the outlaw as a perceptive social critic. There was a numbing barrage against what was derided as ‘law and order’ seen in slogans such as ‘off the pigs’, in the insistence that ‘all minority prisoners are political prisoners’, and in the romanticizing of murderers like George Jackson who deserved to be locked deeper in the prison system rather than becoming international symbols of American injustice.”-- David Horowitz and Peter Collier, Destructive Generation

The struggle for equal rights was the high point in Bermuda’s history. The assassinations of the police chief, the Governor and his aide and the murders of two Hamilton shopkeepers was its lowest. Recently released Foreign Office and Scotland Yard files delineate the role Bermuda’s Black Beret Cadre played in the conspiracy to assassinate the island’s Police Chief and Governor. The Black Beret Cadre was a militant organization that modelled itself on America’s Black Panthers. Like the Panthers they believed they had a God-given right to inflict their pathologies on the rest of society and in so doing inflicted great harm on Bermuda and its people.

The role the Black Berets played in the assassinations has been whitewashed by consecutive Bermudian Governments for three decades and the truth has remained buried – until now. The UK’s Foreign Office and Scotland Yard files show how the tragic events of the early seventies had been viewed by many Bermudian politicians as a stain upon Bermuda’s reputation as a haven for travellers and an island of tranquillity. This attitude prompted them to ignore the Black Beret connection to the assassinations lest further investigations stir up trouble between the races and provoke island - wide riots. Political leaders were also afraid that the truth about the murders and the instability of its political system, which the killings exposed, would damage Bermuda’s tourist industry which was its principle source of income. They were also embarrassed that an organization like the Black Berets, which had been widely supported by many Bermudians, was connected to the killings. Although two black Bermudians were tried and executed for the murders the weak response of the Government in establishing a wider conspiracy effectively swept the whole affair under the carpet.

During the late 1960s the American Black Panther Party’s influence and example extended far beyond the shores of the United States. It was the trial of Panther leader Huey Newton and the travels abroad by members of the party to raise money for his defence that provoked worldwide attention to the black-clad, shotgun-toting black revolutionaries. The Panthers became a role model for various radical political movements throughout the world, including the Black Panther Movement in the United Kingdom, the Black Panther Parties in Australia and Israel, the Dalit Panthers in India as well as the Black Berets in Bermuda.

The American Black Panthers were probably the most violently racist of all the black groups in the United States. It was founded in 1966 and its leaders promoted their organisation as one which advocated self-help and keeping drugs out of black communities across the United States. The original philosophy behind the Panthers combined militant black nationalism with Marxism-Leninism (later Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh would inspire them) and advocated black empowerment and self - defense, often through confrontation. During its heyday, members of the Black Panthers murdered more than a dozen law-enforcement officers. Today, former Panthers Eddie Conway, Mumia Abu-Jamal, H. Rap Brown, Ed Poindexter and David Rice are serving life sentences.

Panther Eldridge Cleaver was responsible for the international wing of the party. In 1969 he had fled from to Algeria after a period of time in Cuba. He had served almost 12 years in prison on a variety of assault with intent to murder, drug, rape and theft charges. Cleaver once claimed that violating white women had political intentions. Cleaver wrote, “I became a rapist. To refine my technique and modus operandi, I started out practicing on black girls….and when I considered myself smooth enough I crossed the tracks and sought out white prey. I did this consciously, deliberately, wilfully, methodically…rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s laws, upon his system of values, and I was defiling his women.”

According to former Black Panther supporter, Sol Stern, Newton, Cleaver and their colleagues were nothing but, “….psychopathic criminals, not social reformers….a torrent of articles and books, many written by former sympathizers, has voluminously documented the Panther reign of murder and larceny within their own community. So much so that no one but a left wing crank could still believe in the Panther myth of dedicated young blacks ‘serving the people’ while heroically defending themselves against unprovoked attacks by the racist police.”

Another leading light of the movement, Bobby Seale, admitted in 2002 that the Panthers were indeed criminals. He agreed with former Black Panther supporter, David Horowitz, who said the Panthers were responsible for at least 12 murders and were effectively a criminal gang no better than the Mafia. Horowitz stated, “The Panthers were – just as the police and other Panther detractors said at the time – a criminal army at war with society and with its thin blue line of civic protectors…..The story of the Panthers’ crimes is not unknown. But it is either uninteresting or unbelievable to a progressive culture that still regards white racism as the primary cause of all ills in black America, and militant thugs like the Panthers as mere victims of politically inspired repression…..the existence of a Murder Incorporated in the heart of the American left is something the Left really doesn’t want to know or think about……They were attempting to launch a civil war in America that would have resulted in unimaginable bloodshed.”

Although the Black Panthers were, effectively, a criminal gang of anti-white racists, young black Bermudians held a different view and saw them instead as the type of black organization that could bring power and self-esteem into their communities. As time passed the increasingly violent role the Panthers were acting out throughout the United States was not lost on the Black Berets. The original idealism that was initially central to the Berets’ philosophy was replaced by efforts to overthrow the Bermudian government and institute a Marxist dictatorship modelled along Cuban lines.

The Black Beret Cadre was formed by 22 year old John Hilton Bassett in late 1969. Bassett was a Bermudian who had spent some time in the United States and who had been inspired by the Panthers’ aggressive style in fighting alleged police racism. His revolutionary name was ‘Dionne’. He adopted as the group’s motto, “Peace if possible, compromise never, freedom by any means necessary.” Bassett quoted Cuba as a good example for revolutionary action and told of how a small band had conditioned the people and eventually taken control of the country.

The Black Beret Cadre membership never went beyond 100. Often only 50 or so members attended the meetings. However, its influence was greater than the sum of its parts.The organisation’s fame reflected the kind of attention the American Black Panthers attracted even though both groups were relatively small in numbers. The Berets also imitated the Panthers in the way it attracted many criminal elements into its organization.

The key theme with both organisations was ‘freedom by any means necessary’ which included assassination. Taking their cue from the Black Panthers, whose primary aim was to bait the ‘racist cops’, the Black Berets exhorted its members and all Bermudian youth to confront the ‘English racist police’ as frequently as possible and prepare for the coming conflict between blacks and whites.

The Black Berets held rallies and meetings and a ‘council of war’ debating how and when their organisation would confront the ‘power establishment’. They also ran a ‘Liberation School’ for children ages 8 to 12. Its purpose was to indoctrinate young black Bermudians in communist revolution and the ideology of Black Power. Its propaganda said the purpose of the school was to teach ‘African Unity and African History’ . However, its true mission which was to indoctrinate children in the Berets’ goals of fighting capitalism, hating whites, murdering police officers and to overthrow the government. A Foreign Office memo stated, “It is not easy to ban (literature) but having looked at a selection of Black Power publications and similar literature (distributed by the Black Berets) it is hard to imagine anything more poisonous to the young mind…the cold-blooded murder of three (American) sheriffs appears in a Black Panther magazine as ‘Three Pigs Executed’…..”

The Black Berets also imitated the Black Panthers by publishing a revolutionary newspaper, “Voice Of The Revolutionaries”. The first issue was released in March 1970.Many of its articles were simply re-writes of articles that appeared in the Black Panther’s own newspaper. The periodical incited Bermudians ‘to rise up against their colonial masters’ and the ‘tyrant white power structure’.

Between 1969 and 1971 the Black Beret Cadre was relatively successful in attracting young blacks to support its revolutionary goals and the organization’s Black Power literature was instrumental in successfully recruiting youths who had criminal records. Some recruitment was carried out in Bermuda’s maximum security prison, Casemates. British Intelligence officials believed that some members had received revolutionary warfare training in Cuba. They also believed the Berets were the instigators of the island-wide riots of 1970.

In 1972 the Black Berets began to compile a “hit-list of the Bermuda ‘pigs’ ” they intended to execute. They also began to stockpile weapons including pistols and shotguns which were to be used when the time was ripe for revolution.

It was not until late 1972 that the Berets’ indoctrination methods paid off. For a number of years they had surveilled the homes of police officers and government officials for the express purposes of assassination when the time was right. They had even ‘reconnoitred’ the Governor of Bermuda’s residence and the home of the police chief, George Duckett. According to a Black Beret informant, Sylvan Musson:

The aims of the Cadre were towards Marxism and Communism. It was common knowledge within the Cadre that certain persons holding important offices in Bermuda would have to be removed by any means necessary including as a last resort by killing those individuals. The names given as to whom were the enemies of the people and these included politicians, policemen and members of the Judiciary. Included among these persons were the Governor, the Commissioner of Police, who together with the premier at that time, Jack Tucker, were high on the lists…..Towards that end the Cadre conducted exercises to reconnoitre the houses and premises occupied by those considered to be enemies. I know that the houses of certain police officers were reconnoitred and charted including that of Mr Duckett, the Commissioner at that time. Also the movements of many police officers were noted and the index numbers of their vehicles and their associates recorded. I did not personally reconnoitre the house of Mr Duckett and I cannot recall who did so but I know it was done. I know that other members reconnoitred the houses of policemen and members of the Judiciary. I personally was involved in looking around police headquarters….. I did this twice during the hours of darkness, each timewith [the ‘third man’ suspect in the Governor’s assassination*]. On both occasions we entered police headquarters and operations by way of Prospect Road. We had binoculars and used to note the movements of vehicles and personnel, also the numbers of vehicles, locations of the radio control and taking notes of the lights, fuel pumps and ways of entry and exit…….With [the ‘third man’ suspect in the Governor’s assassination]. I conducted four reconnoitres of Government House and its grounds. On each occasion we entered from Bernard Park across Marsh Folly Road into Government House grounds by climbing the gate or wire fence and going up the concrete steps which lead to the main driveway. Sometimes we crossed the drive and climbed the grass bank which leads to the main entrance of the house. From there we could see into the house and watched what was going on…..( the ‘third man’ suspect in the Governor’s assassination) made sketches of the grounds and buildings including the positions where police…could be found ….the Governor at that time was Lord Martonmere…..

The first murder was committed on 9th September 1972 and its victim was the Police Commissioner, George Duckett. Duckett, was an expatriate police officer who had previously served in a number of British colonies around the world. He had been appointed Police Commissioner, in part, to deal with black youth unrest. His methods of confrontation, however, were characterized by some Bermudian politicians as an example of “white police repression”.

Duckett was described by the Berets as, “a mercenary and a killer who has virtually a free hand in suppressing black people and who, despite being a mercenary, was efficient and planned his moves in advance”. In fact Duckett was appointed because of his excellent police work in Nigeria and the West Indies and was offered the position because of his policing skills. He held the view that civil unrest must be confronted head on lest the unruly element in society gain a foothold which would lead to a higher crime rate. His views were no different from those prevailing in the UK and the US whose police forces had been learning valuable lessons during race-related riots that had occurred in previous years.

Duckett had been lured to the back porch of his home, Bleak House, where he was ambushed by his killer or killers. He was shot with a .22 calibre Schmidt revolver. A number of shots were then fired through the kitchen window one of which struck Duckett’s daughter, Marcia. Duckett died but his daughter survived. The attempt to kill Marcia was deliberate, according to forensics experts.

The Bermuda Police, ill-equipped to deal with a major murder enquiry, sought the assistance of Britain’s Scotland Yard Murder Squad who had been involved in previous murder investigations on the island. Scotland Yard flew a team of detectives out to the colony. A substantial reward was offered by the Bermudian Government, but neither money nor murder squad could raise any clues to the killers’ identities.

The new Governor of Bermuda, Sir Richard Sharples, a sailing friend of UK Prime Minister Edward Heath, suspected the involvement of the Black Beret Cadre in Duckett’s murder. Although a number of Black Beret members were interviewed none were charged.

Sharples’s suspicions were met with scepticism by most members of the Bermudian Government who believed the crime was the work of either a madman or drug dealers. In a December 1972 memo to the Foreign Office he had written, “ [Scotland Yard Detectives Wright and Haddrell’s] … departure is an indication that no solution to the crime is in sight. Mr Wright is now inclined to discount any connection between the former Commissioner’s murder and drug traffic. This leaves a grudge against Mr Duckett personally, or a political assassination as the most likely motives. Obtaining information about the activities of a small hard core of the Black Beret Cadre must remain a priority.”

Following the British detectives’ return to London and exactly six months to the day since the Police Commissioner was killed, Governor Sharples and his aide Captain Hugh Sayers were shot dead in the grounds of the Governor’s mansion. Sir Richard’s great dane, Horsa, was also killed. Once again a team of detectives were requested to investigate the crime. The team was led by Scotland Yard detectives, Chief Superintendant Wright and Detective Inspector Basil Haddrell. With no more evidence than that two black men were seen running from the scene of the latest shootings and a conviction that the two murders were linked with that of the Police Commissioner, the detectives conceded defeat for a second time and left what investigating could still be carried out to the local police. Police investigations, through the use of witnesses also established that at least three, and possibly more, perpetrators were responsible for the assassination of the Governor.

Then, on April 6th 1973 in Hamilton, the capital city of the island, two white shopkeepers, Mark Doe and Victor Rego were found dead on the floor of their store. They had been shot with a .32 pistol although some .22 bullets were left at the scene of the crime. The .22 bullets indicated a link with the murder of George Duckett. With what now seemed like a further embarrassment to the Bermuda Government Scotland Yard detectives were once more called to investigate. A new and enlarged police team arrived in Bermuda and in desperation the Bermuda Government offered a reward of three million dollars for information leading to the apprehension of the killers. Once again two men had been seen leaving the shop after the crime and this time witnesses were able to name one of them – Larry Winfield Tacklyn. Tacklyn, a fair skinned black Bermudian in his early twenties had been a life long criminal from an early age and had many criminal convictions on his record.

Tacklyn had fled Bermuda after the assassination with Black Berets Ottiwell Simmons Jr. and Charles De Shields. Tacklyn was the only member of the group who was detained at Toronto airport, Canada.He was returned to Bermuda and placed in police custody. The Bermuda investigators continued to search for his accomplices even though the prime suspects were known to be in Canada.

In September 1973, the Bank of Bermuda was robbed of $28,000 by an armed man later identified as ex-convict 29 year old Erskine Durrant ‘Buck’ Burrows and on the 18th October detectives, acting on a tip off, arrested him. Soon police tied Burrows and Tacklyn together and they were charged with the spate of murders.

At their trials, held in Hamilton in 1976, both Tacklyn and Burrows were accused of the murders of Sir Richard Sharples, Captain Hugh Sayers and the two shopkeepers. Burrows alone was indicted for the Duckett killing. At the end of the trials Burrows was found guilty of all five murders, Tacklyn only of the supermarket killings, despite the testimony of Tacklyn friend Michael Wayne Jackson who said Tacklyn had confessed to the murder of Sharples. Both Burrows and Tacklyn were sentenced to death and hanged. The hangings provoked island-wide riots causing millions of dollars worth of damage to property and the deaths of three people.

It emerged that though the two men were simply professional criminals they entertained some sympathy with the Black Power movement and this had established some kind of political motive for the crimes. During Burrows’ trial he sent a written confession to the prosecutor in which he admitted killing the Governor “along with others I shall never name”. As the years passed there was no desire on the part of any political party or the Bermudian Government to investigate who had been behind the murders.

Opening the Files

Thirty years later a fuller understanding of what exactly occurred was discovered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office files about the murders and the newly released Scotland Yard Bermuda murders files which were transferred to the UK’s Public Records Office in 2005. I was given access to the files before their transfer from Scotland Yard. The files, which I examined in the summer of 2004, provide a different story about the Governor’s assassination than was previously known; a story which had never been presented at the trials. They point the finger of guilt fairly and squarely at Black Beret members who controlled Burrows and Tacklyn and who were the real authors of the string of assassinations and murders.

The Foreign Office files reveal the growing concern the Bermudian and UK governments had with the Black Beret Cadre. The Scotland Yard files do not simply infer a conspiracy to murder the Police Chief and Governor. They actually name a third person, the son of a powerful Bermudian politician, as a participant who was directly involved in the assassination. The Scotland Yard files also reveal how a group of Bermudians, an “unholy alliance” of underworld criminals and some Black Beret activists, conspired to commit murder and robbery. The underworld element was led by self-styled Godfather, Bobby Greene, who owned a restaurant on Hamilton’s Court Street. He was the mastermind behind the 72/73 armed robberies, and was a known drug importer/dealer.

Tacklyn, Burrows and other Black Beret suspects in the murders spent most of their free time at Greene’s restaurant. In fact, it was known as a meeting place for the Berets. Following the assassinations, and during a period when he was held on remand in Bermuda’s Casemates Prison (for an unrelated crime in which he was never convicted), Greene was questioned by Scotland Yard detectives. According to the Scotland Yard files he told them about Larry Tacklyn’s role in the murder of the Governor. Greene attempted to make a deal with the detectives to save his own hide. Before he died in 2005 Greene confessed that he once participated in a plan, never effected, to blow up the Bermudian parliament.

The Scotland Yard and Foreign Office files allege that a group of Black Beret members had planned the assassination of the Governor and reconnoitred Government House on at least four occasions in the years before the actual shootings. The planned attack on George Duckett, Scotland Yard detectives discovered, was taken straight from an urban guerrilla manual which was amongst literature used by Black Beret members. Black Beret leader John Hilton ‘Dionne’ Bassett had been seen practice firing a .38 revolver, the same type of weapon used to kill the Governor. Scotland Yard detectives were also suspicious of Dionne Bassett’s movements following the murder of the Police Chief. Bassett left the island on the 30th September 1972, shortly after George Duckett's murder, and was known to harbor a deep hatred for the Police Commisioner. Bassett eventually returned to the island but was never charged with any offence. He died in 1998. This information was never made known during the trials of Burrows and Tacklyn.

The files also establish that from the beginning, following the Governor’s assassination, Acting Governor I.A.C. Kinnear knew that Black Militants had been behind the murders of the Police Chief and the Governor. One of the reasons Kinnear came to this conclusion was that a leading Black Beret member, the ‘third man’ involved in the actual assassination of the Governor, according to the Scotland Yard files, fled the island in disguise accompanied by Larry Tacklyn. The ‘Third Man’ exerted a kind of psychic hold over Burrows and Tacklyn and Scotland Yard detectives believed he was responsible for indoctrinating and controlling the two assassins.

‘The Third Man’ was connected to the assassination of the Governor by a shotgun shell found in his home. A warrant for his arrest was issued but was never acted upon. The files reveal that US police had been contacted and asked to keep an eye on him but he was never extradited. He returned to the island a few years later, in the early 1980s, but the arrest warrant had mysteriously gone missing. The missing arrest warrant, according to an ex-police officer who acted as a source for my book A Conspiracy To Kill, indicates there was a conspiracy to prevent the arrest of the third suspect. The motive, allegedly, was a fear that riots would ensue.

The former police officer stated,“Tacklyn, [the third man]…... My opinion is, and was, that if they brought [the third man] back this would create such a political mess…..The government had enough on it's plate. The Island was divided 50-50 on the race issue. They had enough trouble dealing with all the black participants. Tacklyn was easy meat, he was not involved directly with (powerful elements of the black opposition party), as (the third man) was. I guess the feeling was if anything comes to light that can directly involve and get a confession from someone or point to (the third man) that they could put before the courts, its better to have him at arms length and being watched.”

The Governor’s widow, Lady Sharples, had been told the police were not going to arrest the third suspect but intended only to “keep an eye on him and if he put a foot out of place he would be arrested”. In September 2004 I received a letter from Sir Richard’s widow. She knew about the third suspect and wrote, “[The Third man] went to the USA at that time where he was under observance, returned to Bermuda many years later, where I was informed he would not be arrested if he did not step out of line….”.Lady Sharples (now Baroness Sharples) had been puzzled as to why the third man had not been arrested.

The third suspect has never been brought to justice. In the early 1990s he joined a black racist sect and exiled himself to Dimona, Israel. His mentor is the Black Hebrew leader Ben Ami Carter. There are reportedly 2000 followers of Carter, who founded the sect in 1967, and contends that he is the Messiah. An Israeli magazine once described the group as “an island of insanity.” The Black Hebrews fits all definitions of a destructive cult and they are well known in Israel and elsewhere as “black supremacists”.

In 2005 the American authorities began investigating Carter and his 11deputies. The FBI and the Diplomatic Security Service in Tel Aviv operated together in the fraud investigation into allegations of Social Security fraud and passport fraud. Members of the sect who are American citizens and eligible to receive US benefits came under strict investigation. The value of the fraud cases reached into the millions of dollars. The US probe into allegations of social security fraud and passport fraud is similar to an Israel police probe into allegations of fraud, child abuse and the forgery of identity cards and passports.

The former members of the Black Beret Cadre continue to court controversy. In the 1980s, at the time the Black Hebrews sect was under investigation in the US for RICO violations, a former Black Beret member, Mel Saltus, established a branch in Bermuda. He is presently the leader of the Bermudian Branch of the Black Hebrews. Saltus is representative of former Berets who have not abandoned their radical views. Ben Aaharon, as he later became known, spoke at a memorial for former Black Beret Cadre leader Dionne Bassett who died at the age of 49 in 1998. Saltus, who was acting as spokesman for former Black Beret members, denied the Black Berets were "rebels without a cause" and spends some considerable amount of time persuading a new generation of black Bermudians that the Black Berets had a positive impact on Bermuda.

Recent speeches and articles by some American academics to defend the Black Panther Party have found a sympathetic audience in Bermuda, especially amongst former Black Beret members and supporters. This group includes some former Beret members who are now in government. These present-day advocates insist the Berets were an important part of Bermuda’s history. Although many Bermudian leaders have romanticised the Black Beret Cadre there is no acknowledgement of the violence the group used in its efforts to provoke a communist revolution. The arbiters of political correctness within the ruling Progressive Labor Party have repeatedly characterized the Berets as “freedom fighters” and honourable men and women who were fighting for equal rights and the empowerment of black Bermudians. As the Scotland Yard files make clear nothing could be farther from the truth.

In light of the new information about the Black Beret Cadre which can be found in the previously secret government files, it would behove black leaders like Jennifer Smith, a former Premier, to cease characterizing the Black Beret Cadre as “freedom fighters”. If Bermuda ever experiences a groundswell for closure to the murders and assassinations of the early 70s, it would inevitably require the Bermudian Government to bring those responsible to justice. The government could begin with an investigation of “the third man” and others named in the Scotland Yard files who were the inspiration for, and the co-conspirators of, Tacklyn and Burrows. Until that time the ghosts of George Duckett, Sir Richard Sharples, Captain Hugh Sayers, Victor Rego and Mark Doe will continue to haunt all Bermudians – a testament about the times and a reproach to those leaders who don’t want to hear the bad news lest it interfere with their “perfect paradise”.

*The identity of the ‘Third Man’ is withheld for legal purposes prior to the publication of A Conspiracy To Kill.