- Historic Sites
Out Of Season
Winter is the time to discover the Bermuda that British empire builders and Confederate agents called home
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
As a black Bermudian, exploring the less trafficked residential streets of her town, Duncan had a story to tell that’s usually largely missing from Bermuda’s historic sites, where the guides move quickly through slavery and never talk about the rigorous Jim Crow era that followed emancipation in 1834 and persisted until the 1960s. Blacks, who form about 60 percent of the population, share in the island’s political and economic direction—up to a point. That may be about to change. During my visit the ruling party had been strongly shaken by the surprise resignation of its leader. A week later it voted in as party head (and premier) Pamela Gordon, the country’s first black (and first female) leader. That said, nearly four hundred years of black history still remain to be brought fully into the light. Some work is finally under way in this area, most promisingly in a museum that is soon to open in St. George’s.
Meanwhile, with her highly personal stroll through history, Juliet Duncan helps make other Bermuda voices heard. She does this as she points out various landmarks and buildings, like the church that was the first “to adopt antidiscriminatory policies.” She explains the development of the Cottage Hospital, one of the earliest places where blacks could be treated in the old days, and indicates the building that once housed Samuel Robinson’s bakery. Robinson “became a millionaire one generation after emancipation,” she says, and helped set up a school system for blacks called the Berkeley Institute. We walk past the former home of Dr. Edgar Fitzgerald Gordon, an early labor leader who, Duncan says, “was extremely vocal as he worked to make Bermuda a more balanced society.” It was a few days after my tour that Gordon’s daughter, Pamela Gordon, was named premier; her probable opponent in the next elections will be another black woman.
St. George’s and the island’s forts are all that survive of early English settlement in the New World.
That afternoon in the cruise-ship passenger terminal—empty until the first ships arrive in early April—I watched another special off-season event, a performance of the captivating Gombey dancers. Taking elements from West Africa, the Caribbean, Native Americans, and even, in the beat of their snare drums, British military garrisons, this brilliantly costumed troupe of men and boys is one of only a few such groups left in Bermuda. For more than two centuries these troupes have performed across the countryside. From time to time their almost sinister energy would cause officials to ban them. Now they are treasured as one of Bermuda’s last remnants of a black folk culture.
Other off-season events I attended included a visit to the Bermuda Biological Station for Research, which has worked since 1903 to chart the temperatures and general health of the seas around Bermuda; a walking tour of bucolic Somerset Village; another tour of St. George’s; and an evening talk on the island’s flora and fauna. All were led by smart, knowledgeable locals, eager to impart their concerns and interests. Indeed, the weeklong program offered too much for me to fit it all in.
The mild and sunny weather encouraged me to hike the railroad trail, the best part of the island for a walker. From 1931 to 1948 Bermuda tried to hold off the automobile by running a diesel train (three classes) from one end of the island to the other, at enormous cost. Popular at first, the train lost riders during and after the war, as the automobile finally prevailed.
Cars, one per family, were finally permitted in 1947, and the “Old Rattle and Shake,” as the train was fondly called, was sold off in its entirety to British Guyana, where it chugged along until 1972. Flowers and vegetation have filled in the roadbed, and a walk on the trail now offers anything from a deep, forested isolation in one section to a breathtaking ocean-side vista in another. In places where the island’s rocky topography forced the tracks across water, huge wooden trestles still rise from the sea.
Some years ago Rosa Hollis, an English woman, bought a house near the trail, and after realizing that its outbuilding was an original station stop, she turned the small depot into a railroad museum, which today shares space with her collectibles shop. Hollis credits her American visitors with helping to stock the museum. “I get more material from tourists than from locals,” Hollis admits. For instance, one man gave her two precious rolls of movie film. One is black and white and dates from 1931, the railroad’s opening year, and the other is rare 1947 color footage, taken around the time the train stopped running. Her latest project is to put together a tape of reminiscences from drivers and conductors on the line.
Near the end of my trip, I took the ferry from Hamilton to the island’s West End—a highly scenic ride—to meet with Dr. Edward Harris, director of the Bermuda Maritime Museum. A fortress dating from 1809 encircles the museum’s gray stone buildings. Since Bermuda was the only British garrison between Halifax and the West Indies, this was Britain’s line of defense in the western Atlantic, a place to supply and maintain ships and to house troops. From this spot the British sailed to burn Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.