November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
Winter is the time to discover the Bermuda that British empire builders and Confederate agents called home
Britain’s oldest colony, Bermuda, is a semitropical archipelago comprising several hundred small-to-tiny islands about six hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina. Despite its relative closeness to North America and its four centuries of entanglement with American history, it is also the second most isolated of inhabited islands in the world (after St. Helena) and with some sixty thousand residents occupying a space twenty-two miles long and a mile or two wide, among the most densely populated. From the moment I first visited it, I have found the place fascinating: for its beauty and civility and for its rich history, whose evidence lies everywhere.
Although known to Spanish and English voyagers as far back as the early 1500s, Bermuda didn’t receive its first inhabitants until 1609, when the Sea Venture , a ship carrying English men and women en route to the Jamestown colony was wrecked on the treacherous coral reefs that surround the Bermudas, as they were then called. After building new vessels, the Deliverance and the Patience , partly from the remains of the old, some sailed off to their uncertain destiny in Virginia. Others stayed on, and still more joined them. When the story of Bermuda’s storm-tossed founding drifted back to England, William Shakespeare seized on it for The Tempest .
St. George’s, the island’s first capital, played a key role in the American Revolution when a group of Bermudians stole gunpowder from a stash in nearby Tobacco Bay and shipped it to General Washington, in exchange for food from the colonies. During the Civil War a profitable trade between Britain and the cotton-growing states persuaded most Bermudians to favor the Confederate cause. St. George’s rough-and-ready harbor was the seat of action, prowled by agents from both sides, by spies and seafarers, and crammed with blockade-running vessels. St. George’s 1699 Globe Hotel, which housed the Confederate agent during the Civil War, is now a museum run by Bermuda’s National Trust that tells the story of the clamorous years when this lush island was Dixie’s farthest outpost.
Tourism got under way late in the nineteenth century as fast steamers brought visitors from New York to the docks of Hamilton, the capital after 1815. Most of these travelers were American, among them William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, and Woodrow Wilson, all eager to escape the Northeast’s bitter winters and, as one travel writer of the time put it, “in forty-eight hours find [yourself] in a pure and balmy atmosphere; a silent restful land.” The image-makers were revving up.
Early posters and ads touted the place as the “Isles of Rest,” an implicit promise of unshakable social calm that had a surprising consequence. “The white elite did such a brilliant job with this that the society inculcated its own tourist message; it became a form of social control,” Duncan McDowell, a Canadian professor writing a history of Bermuda tourism, told me.
Winter was the season of choice; some hotels and guesthouses closed down for the summer until after the Second World War. Now summer is more popular, so it’s from November through March that Bermuda’s tourism department makes a special effort to lure visitors. “It’s not your typical sun-and-sand vacation,” I read in last year’s brochure. “It’s an altogether different and far more interesting kind of holiday.” That was enough to lure me down there last March, when what had been a desultory winter suddenly tightened its grip.
Bermuda is not a Caribbean destination. Its ocean is the Atlantic, and its winter climate is balmy only because the Gulf Stream flows past it.
And when the thermometer dips a bit, the temperature guarantee kicks in; for every day that doesn’t reach sixty-eight, the room rate at twenty participating hotels and guesthouses goes down by 10 percent. These establishments also give out free bus and ferry passes for the following day, and they provide free admission to various museums and other attractions. There are even discounts at shops during those below-sixty-eight days. Moreover, a wide-ranging program of weekly events free to everyone is offered only in the off-season. I went to as many of these as I could cram in and found all of them rewarding.
I started out early one morning on what was billed as a Heritage and Cultural Trail guided walk through a part of Hamilton I hadn’t seen before. Bermuda’s capital is filled with shops and restaurants, it’s the busy center of a highly profitable commerce in banking and re-insurance, and there’s always a ship or two tied up at the harbor, not to mention a brisk traffic of ferries, yachts, and sightseeing and fishing vessels. On past visits Hamilton’s street life, its harbor scene, and its historical sights were enough to keep me on a four-block leash, but with Juliet Duncan, our guide, I and the other participants went farther afield, encountering a local history we hadn’t known before.
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.
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.
This was, says Harris, the finest Royal Naval dockyard in the Western Hemisphere; today it is the only one. Not only does it hold the splendid Maritime Museum, but with its good shops, restaurants, and galleries, it hopes to attract people who may find naval history less than compelling but have a dollar to spend. Harris clearly can’t conceive that anyone might lack the historical gene, and he regularly castigates government agencies in word and print for not doing enough to maintain Bermuda’s treasures. The town of St. George’s and the forts that ring Bermuda are, he says, all that survive of the first period of English settlement in the New World. “Anything built in America that early was made from timber and is gone,” he says, leaving St. George’s with “probably the largest collection of early historic houses and commercial buildings of any of its competitors in North America.” Officialdom simply doesn’t understand what a boost to tourism these treasures could be if they were well preserved and researched, and their story better told.
Very likely most visitors still want Bermuda to hold on to that long-lived poster image of pink sand beaches and championship golf courses wrapped in the brilliant colors of the tropics. But the real world is getting harder to keep at bay, and a week’s reading of the venerable Royal Gazette reveals all the problems with drugs and crime (albeit on a much smaller scale) that tourists thought they left at home. After a half-dozen admittedly brief trips here, it’s coming clear to me that Bermuda’s particular charm lies in the very real tension between the fantasy paradise that the tourist establishment has successfully marketed for more than a hundred years and the island’s authentic historical past.