Item #7564 “Packing Onions.”
“Packing Onions.”
“Packing Onions.”

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“Packing Onions.”

Bermuda, ca. 1885. Albumen print, 6.75” x 9” on larger paperboard mount with title in manuscript below image. CONDITION: Very good, light soiling to upper left corner, otherwise fine.

An original photograph documenting Afro-Bermudian laborers packing what are likely sweet “Tenerife” onions.

Shown here is a group of four men, two women, and two male children, all of African descent, posed in the act of crating onions. As harvest was underway, we can surmise that this photograph was taken around March or April, ca. 1885. A variant of this image was reproduced as a postcard by J. H. Bradley & Co. during the 1910s, an example of which is included with this offering.

Throughout the nineteenth century, onions were the single highest export from Bermuda to the United States. Known for their mild and sweeter flavor than the typical variety grown in the United States, onions accounted for shipments of over 4,000 tons of produce, leading to Bermuda being dubbed “The Onion Patch” and Bermudans “Onions.” To cultivate their prize crop, farm owners used Afro-Bermudian field workers—initially as enslaved labor prior to the emancipation act of 1834, and afterwards as a reliable source of “free wage” labor wherein Afro-Bermudians were all but forced to continue working for their previous owners (Craton). To “mind the onion seeds” once they were planted in September, Black children were tasked with keeping birds away from the planted seeds, while, as this photograph suggests, adults would pull the ripe crop between March and April. Though Bermuda’s economic development profited from the continued impoverishment of the enslaved and their descendents working in onion patches, “silver-smithing was [also] taught by the traders to the Colony’s slaves” and so the formerly enslaved would often secretly possess silver which would be passed down in the family and used to pay for occasional larger expenses (Musson). 

REFERENCES: Musson, Nellie Eileen. Mind the Onion Seed: Black “Roots” Bermuda (Bermuda Islands 1979), p. 23; Craton, Michael. “Transition from Slavery to Other Forms of Labor in the British Caribbean ca. 1790–1890,” NWIG: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids Vol. 68, No. 1/2 (Netherlands: 1994), p. 45; Contextual information about the onion trade and cultivation found at “Ode to the Onion: The History and Culture of Bermuda's Once Famous Export,” at The Bermudian Magazine online, and at Hubbell, Diana. “Remembering When Bermuda was an Onion Island,” Atlas Obscura online.

Item #7564

Price: $375.00

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