Sarah "Sally" Bassett
Sarah “Sally” Bassett
The period 1720-30 saw conspiracies involving black men and women, in what was known as the poisoning plots. Blacks were knowledgeable about plants and herbs, and their poisoning potential. Obeah was practiced by the enslaved in Bermuda and they connected with its expertise in the magic art of poisoning as This was part of the enslaved’ s African heritage. The skilled and well-informed enslaved instructed others in the art of poisoning and made their services available where needed. The Enslavers believed these plots were aimed at their very lives and feared both food and drink. Many slave owners had all prepared food sampled by an enslaved before they would let a morsel touch their own lips. Many slave owners and their families died suddenly and mysteriously as a result of the success of the poisoning plots. This was made quite clear in a report to Whitehall, which stated that the enslaved “have destroyed many of His Majesty’s subjects by poison, and many more are now lingering under that misfortune, whose lives are despaired of.
The government was quick to act. All enslaved people suspected of being poisoners were rounded up and locked in jail. The act entitled “for the further and better regulating negros and other slaves, and for the more effectual and speedy way of prosecuting them in criminal causes,” was used to swiftly bring them to trial.
The enslaved woman who became a famous legend in Bermudian history because of the poison plots was Sarah (Sally) Bassett. She had been owned by a blacksmith, Francis Dickinson of Southampton Parish. A woman of mixed descent, Sarah Bassett was considered of old age in 1729, having raised a family, including grandchildren. Knowing her age kept her from having much auction block value, she felt the time was ripe to put her knowledge of poisons to use, by striking a blow in her own way for the long years she had suffered as a slave. Just before Christmas, on December 18, 1729, she visited her granddaughter Beck, who was the slave of Sarah and Thomas Forster of Somerset. She gave Beck two rags, which contained two doses of poison, rats bane and manchineel root. One was reddish colour, and the other a white powder. Beck was instructed in the use of the poisons. One dose was put in the slates of the kitchen door. Anyone passing and breathing the powder would be made deadly ill. The other dose was put into the food served to the Forsters. Beck was also expected to poison an enslaved girl name Nancey, who was also owned by the Forsters. A dose of poison of the color of cut tobacco was to be used to kill Nancey. However, Nancey found the poison that was prescribed for her, but on just looking at it she was poisoned. The poison did their work on Sarah and Thomas Forster too. They were described as “sick and lie in a very languishing and dangerous condition.”
Sarah Bassett was arrested and appeared before the assize court on June 2, 1730. A bill of indictment was read against her, which claimed that “not having the fear of God before her eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil,” she was suspected of poisoning several people. There were 10 witnesses for the King, including Sarah Forster, Thomas Forster and his slave Nancey were still not well enough to testify. A grand jury returned a billa vera against Sarah Bassett (a true bill: when a grand jury made a bill of indictment after being sustained by sufficient evidence). Standing at the bar, she was asked, after the indictment was read, whether she was guilty or not as charged. She answered “not guilty,” and for trial put herself upon God and the country.
It was ordered that Sarah Bassett be tried and a jury for life and death was sworn in. It was a jury of 12 white men. Finally, Sarah Bassett, the prisoner at the bar, was asked what she had to say in her defence.
According to the Records she said “not guilty.” The jury was directed to withdraw and consider the case. They came back into the court and declared that they had reached a verdict.
Clerk : “How say you, is she the said Sarah guilty or not guilty of the felony she stands indicted and has been arraigned, or not guilty?”
Foreman: “Guilty and we value her at one pound four shillings and six pence.” (2019 was about 200 GBP)
The marshal was directed to take Sarah Bassett back to jail. She was brought back to the bar at the assize court meeting on Friday, June 5, 1730. Chief Justice William Outerbridge asked her if she had anything to say as to why she should not be sentenced today according to law.
“I never deserved it,” was her answer.
Chief Justice Outerbridge then pronounced the following sentence:
It is the judgement and sentence of this court, that you Sarah Bassett, the prisoner at the bar, be returned to the prison from whence you came and from thence you are to be conveyed to the place of execution where a pile of wood is to be made and provided, and you are there to be fastened to a sufficient stake and there to be burned with fire until your body be dead. And the Lord have mercy on your soul.
To quiet the widespread fear of being poisoned, a scapegoat was needed, and Sarah Bassett fit the bill. It was believed by many that she was a ringleader and the mastermind behind the poisoning plots.
The exact date of her being burned at the stake is unknown. A stake was erected at the foot of Crow Lane. The day was an extremely hot one, but that did not stop hundreds of people from rushing to witness this horrible spectacle. While being conveyed to the site of execution, Sarah Bassett was passed by many people, and said: “No use you hurrying, folks. There’ll be no fun til I get there!” The hot weather, plus the heat from her burning body, caused Bermudians to say that an unusually hot day is “a Sally Bassett day.”
Sarah Bassett declared her innocence until the very end. It was believed she cried out that God would prove her guiltless.
Legend has it that when, Her ashes were examined, there appeared a tiny purple iris in full bloom. Today, this tiny flower is known as the Bermudiana and is the Bermuda National Flower.
After, Sarah “Sally” Bassett was burnt at the stake, this is what was said by the Governor:
“The Wealthy White Elite, felt the government was totally justified in the burning of Sarah Bassett. They agreed with the Governor’s remarks of June 22, 1730, in which he said that recent events were “shocking to all human creatures, the destruction of ourselves and families by poison which the devil and his emissaries, the negros, have concerted to destroy the people and Christianity of these Islands.”
In 2008, the statue of Sarah Sally Bassett was erected, on the Cabinet office grounds.
The statue was initially slated to be located at City Hall, a subject of great controversy between City Hall and the ruling PLP Government. The Corporation of Hamilton, led by Hamilton Mayor Sutherland Madeiros, blocked the memorial for logistical reasons citing space concerns. Several members of the PLP were reportedly furious, feeling the Corporation of Hamilton actually blocked the memorial as a snub.
The statue was eventually placed in the Cabinet grounds, rather than City Hall. Officially commemorated by then, Premier Dr. Ewart Brown on February 9, 2009, it became the first time an enslaved person has been memorialized in Bermuda. The statue was the work of Bermudian artist Carlos Dowling.
Some believe her story is folklore but it is NOT. The case of Sarah “Sally” Bassett was an actual court case that took place in Bermuda and the court documents can be retrieved from the Bermuda Government Archives Department.