Bermuda: “Calm Clear Land”


During the Civil War low-lying steamers, swift enough to evade the Union blockade, left St. George’s harbor carrying arms and goods from Britain to the Confederacy and bringing the South’s cotton to Britain. The story of Bermuda’s role in the conflict is told at the Confederate Museum. Built as a residence in 1700, it later became the Globe Hotel and then served as the headquarters of the chief Confederate agent on the island.

In 1815 Bermuda’s capital had been moved to Hamilton, where, by the 1880s, the beginnings of a tourist trade were stirring. Americans then as now formed the majority of the island’s visitors, carried from New York to Hamilton on new, faster passenger ships. For Mark Twain, a frequent visitor, this was “the right country for a jaded man to ‘loaf’ in.” Woodrow Wilson often sought peace in Bermuda too. “At last we are away from the crowd down here in this calm clear land,” he wrote, “where it seems possible to detach oneself from all kinds of distracting thoughts and think freely again.” Even the tormented playwright Eugene O’Neill found the place a solace. He first arrived in 1924 and stayed for several months at a time, toying with the idea of permanently settling there. “The climate is grand...[I]t has proved a profitable winter resort for me,” he reported to a friend. “I’ve gotten more work done than in the corresponding season up north in many years.”

In 1775 Bermudians reluctantly stole gunpowder for the American cause in return for desperately needed food.

As today’s visitor strolls through Bermuda’s four-hundred-year history, the senses are always engaged, the eye captured by a series of pictures. Houses painted in all the clean, ripe tints of fruit and flower are clustered on hillsides, their stepped roofs blazingly white against a cloud-struck or immaculately blue sky. In the wind the tall, spiky palm bends to the low, round-leafed sea grape. Never more than a mile away on this narrow-waisted island, the sea is nearly always visible, if only as a slice of deep aqua beyond the burst of pink oleander that climbs a stone wall.

The color, especially, seeps into the brain and stays there. On the ferry from the hamlet of Salt Kettle late one afternoon, I admired a particularly natty gentleman wearing a yellow blazer. In the slanting light his jacket took on a shade so purely lemon that it was almost edible. Those adventurers of 1609 came ashore in distress, scrabbled at an island, and made a life there within a year. A few stayed on, some returned, and others arrived in numbers. Something in that nourishing light must have drawn them all.

—Carla Davidson