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Bermuda: “Calm Clear Land”

May 2024
4min read

On a Bermuda bus I sat next to a local teen-ager who confided her interest in history. What she liked best, Judyann told me, was digging out more about a subject than her school books revealed—or her teachers knew. Like Judyann, I found Bermuda a good place to go looking for the past. And the more you search, the more you discover how closely the history of this archipelago is tied to our own.

Sometime between 1503 and 1509 the Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez stopped at the chain of islands that make up the British colony bearing his name, but Bermuda didn’t become inhabited until 1609, when a fleet left England bound for the dying Jamestown colony. The flagship, the Sea Venture, ran aground on the reefs surrounding Bermuda, and all 150 aboard were saved. Supplies, too, were taken off the sinking vessel. With the island’s bounty of wild hogs, descendants of the ones brought ashore and abandoned by earlier Spanish visitors, as well as berries, fish, and strong, sheltering cedars, the survivors made a home for themselves. (This adventure was told in detail in American Heritage, April/May 1983).

Adm. of the Fleet Sir George Somers saw to the building of two new vessels, partly from the salvage of the old. Less than a year after the wreck nearly all the settlers sailed for Virginia, where their arrival several weeks later helped infuse new life into that colony. Sir George returned to Bermuda soon after, and he died there in 1610. In 1612 the capital of St. George’s was founded. In an odd bow to Somers’s wish to be buried there, his body was sent back to England, but his heart and his entrails were interred in Bermuda, supposedly in the lovely little park in St. George’s called Somers Garden. Here an 1876 monument pays tribute to the man “who nobly sacrificed his life to carry succour to the infant and suffering plantation, now the state of Virginia.”

With its low, fruit-colored limestone buildings and the pleasing names of its meandering back streets—Old Maid’s Lane, Printer’s Alley, Aunt Peggy’s Lane—St. George’s even today seems scarcely of this century. Founded in 1612, it is the main repository of Bermuda’s long history. Tourists from other parts of the twenty-two-mile island and from cruise ships come here for a few hours or for the day. With only a few guest accommodations, in the early morning or by five in the afternoon the place seems to belong again to the several hundred people who live there. Stay for a couple of days and you’ll have the best of it.

A half-mile from the town center, Fort St. Catherine rises over the very waters where the Sea Venture went down. The original fort was built in 1614, but what we see today is the product of the mid-nineteenth century: beautifully restored and strongly walled, honeycombed with passages and chambers. Early on, Britain recognized Bermuda’s strategic value, thanks to its location 640 miles off the North Carolina coast, right in the midst of what were then the Spanish sea-lanes. Eventually fifty-five forts ringed the island. A number of them can still be seen, some in ruins, some in proud restoration.

Many of the early residents of St. George’s had family ties in the American colonies, particularly in South Carolina. During the American Revolution their sympathies lay with the crown. When George Washington tried to acquire British gunpowder stored near St. George’s, “under a very feeble guard,” as he wrote, Bermudians at first refused. “I persuade myself you may, consistently with your own safety, promote and further the scheme,” Washington urged. Finally, the Continental Congress’s refusal to continue supplying Bermuda with desperately needed foodstuffs overcame Loyalist scruples, and on August 14, 1775, under cover of night, the gunpowder was secretly removed to ships waiting offshore. As a result. Bermudians had enough to eat for the war’s duration.

It was suspected that this deal was the work of Col. Henry Tucker, a member of one of Bermuda’s leading families. The Tuckers’ limestone cottage, dating from 1711, is now a museum on Water Street in St. George’s. Its shapely, high-ceilinged, and airy rooms create a fine showcase for the good life in eighteenth-century Bermuda. Most of the furnishings—English, American, and Bermudian—are original to the family.

The house’s original kitchen was rented out as a barbershop to Joseph Rainey, a free black who arrived from South Carolina in 1864. As he worked at his trade, Rainey also managed to educate himself, with the help of his black and white customers. Reportedly, a Mr. Hayward corrected Rainey’s exercise books while waiting his turn for the barber chair. On the occasion of Rainey’s return to the United States, Bermuda’s Archdeacon John Stowe said, “At his work he learned not only the outside shape of the human head, but its inside workings.” Back in South Carolina, Rainey participated in Reconstruction politics and in 1870 became the first black member of the House of Representatives, where he served with distinction for nine years. In St. George’s his life and career are remembered in the museum that inhabits his former shop and in the narrow lane leading from Duke of York Street to Water Street called Barber’s Alley.

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 

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