Written in 2003 for the New York Times Magazine
Location is everything. Ever since childhood, my idea of islands was tropical, or at least Mediterranean, so I’d always been skeptical of Bermuda, only two hours’ flight from New York. It never occurred to me that here was an island with virtually no resources, a lump twenty-two miles square in the middle of the Atlantic, which had traded for generations on little more than ingenuity and beauty to create a calm, prosperous society.
As one of Britain’s earliest colonies, on the same subtropical latitude as Shanghai and Charleston, Bermuda enjoys a fiscal Gulf Stream of its own creation. When I arrived, the place struck me as highly British—from the pillar postboxes to the serenely assured, idiosyncratic architecture—but it became less so the longer I stayed, and began to sense what being Bermudian (that floral word) means.
The surprise comes from what the island is not. It is not greedy, not poor, not full of junky T-shirt kiosks. Its high season is April through November, not the reverse. There are no casinos. It does not allow tourists to rent cars, which keeps down the traffic, encourages bicycles or motor-scooters, and guarantees work for the taxi drivers incessantly polishing their shiny vans. Less starchy than guidebooks would have you believe, it is unfailingly polite.
Best of all, unlike many small places with a deep colonial past, it never feels like a client state, a humbled dependent. Bermudians resent being lumped with “the other islands” and will remind you, with a relaxed pride, that they’re as distant from the West Indies as Washington is from Dallas. They know they are more worldly, more well-spoken, more well-off. And they pay no taxes.
Visitors come for the plentiful beaches, which are Caribbean-lovely, and for the golf courses. But the island now earns far more from the trickle-down of offshore businesses and insurance than from tourism. Locals call it a virtual economy, afloat on the billions flowing through daily, just as it once rode the currents of other ideas it got to first— resort tourism, or trade with the U.S. in a commodity like Revolutionary War gunpowder, Civil War rifles, Prohibition rum, or Bermuda onions.
Another first, I’d hazard, is that the premier is a black woman who succeeded another black woman.
Like Gibraltar, it really is a rock: all water comes from the sky, collected deftly off the ridged roofs, and residents speak of Rock Fever from not getting away enough. Bermudians do tend to live elsewhere for years, then return, and one result is an unplaceable oceanic accent, neither British nor American nor Caribbean, to which everyone seems to give a uniquely different inflection.
The broad ethnic mix of the island can be grasped in any large supermarket. Alongside a wall of British jams and marmalades, for example, are Greek, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Moroccan, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, and Caribbean sauces, spices, or chutneys. The frequency of a red bean soup on menus will remind you that a quarter of the population is, in some Bermudian sense, Portuguese. There’s a long tradition of Italian restaurants; as locals say, the Italians lost the Second World War, so they decided to conquer Bermuda.
I was happy to meet up in Hamilton, the intimate capital, with an old friend. John Zuill is a fourteenth-generation Bermudian I’d known back in the U.S., now co-director of a theater company, Waterspout, whose current season included Mishima, Mamet, and Shakespeare. Over coffee we talked about The Tempest—the play’s shipwreck was prompted by one here in 1609—and gazed toward the harbor. Often people came over to greet Zuill, which he made light of.
“People on Bermuda have to say hello to everyone they know, or they’re in trouble. There’s not enough room for people not to live together, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. So there’s a wide range of toleration, a pragmatic acceptance of eccentric behavior. You can be different—just don’t mention it. Whatever you do will be forgiven, but it won’t be forgotten.
“The key to Bermuda has always been that unless you apply your wits, there’s nothing here. All we have are sunshine and brains. There was never any money to be made here unless you were actually here. There weren’t estates to control from afar; there wasn’t even fresh water. The slaves weren’t plantation labor, because there weren’t any plantations—they had specific skills. Cabinet makers, carpenters, whatever. And a lot of big ideas, like coffee or rubber or onions, failed. So in the end, nothing’s made here. But as long as the U.S. and European tax codes don’t change, we probably have a secure future.”
One deep Bermudian tradition is the nickname. As John said, “You get it young, usually from your friends, not your parents, and it sticks, to the point where nobody can remember where it came from.” It’s not unusual to read an obituary in The Royal Gazette that begins: “Muriel, beloved wife of the late Charles (Sheik), mother of Howard (Boxhead), friend of Alma (Champ).... ” Then turn to the Letters page, and enter an extremely eloquent maelstrom.
Yet there’s nothing “wild” about Bermuda; it’s a highly cultivated island in every sense, careful to dispel any unpredictable sexiness in its ads, relying on the affection of repeat visitors who aren’t seeking adventure. As I wound from parish to parish, either coast road instead offered a sea crashing mildly on the rocks, the lilt of gospel halls, tilled tomato fields nestled in palms, fresh fish or lilies for sale beside the limestone walls and low shuttered houses— some in pinks or cream yellows, some in sorbets of grape, peach, mango. As Winslow Homer proved here in 1899, there is still an immortal calm in the watercolor disarray of a cove, a spit of beach, a peeling red-and-white wooden boat leaned on pale sand and fallen fronds, while an ever-changing force of intensifying blue moves horizonward.
Bermuda’s style is a gentle truce of climate and empire: formally relaxed. In Hamilton, you’d never guess that 13,000 registered companies are squeezed into those scalloped stucco buildings of yesteryear with their breezy wooden verandas. During the hot months, business attire for men becomes tie, jacket, shorts, and knee socks. For lawyers, it’s a half-wig and robes; for magistrates, the full wig. “Never mind summer,” one eminent lawyer told me. “You’re itchy in any weather in all that clobber.”
If you amble by the Hamilton shops once known as The Forty Thieves, on Reid or Front Streets, “the City” (pop. 1,100) feels resolutely upmarket, though without the posh of, say, St. Bart’s. The emporiums still bear family names: Trimingham’s (est. 1844), Smith’s (est. 1889), A. J. Cooper (est. 1897) with its surprising Wedgwood door handles. A world of Irish linen, not sunstruck flesh; indeed, one day I saw a young woman in a rare miniskirt stared at en masse—not in disapproval, but amazement.
My favorite nook was on Queen Street, just below the graceful shade of Par-La-Ville Park. This was the Perot Post Office with its white walls and black shutters, its native orchids in planters, its slots marked Local / Boat /Airmail. Perot, the first postmaster, had also built a large home behind a big rubber tree next door, now a museum of the Bermuda Historical Society. I stopped in to see his first stamp (1848), of which only eleven exist, and found Colin Benbow, dapper in blue Bermuda shorts and knee socks. A history teacher since the 1950s, Benbow is known as a fount of local knowledge.
“Two samples of the stamp left the island last month to go to auction,” he said drily, when I asked if he had one. “The last time, it fetched $300,000.” And what of the WWII spies, “the codebreakers with shapely ankles”—those thousand-odd young women who read the transatlantic mail borrowed off the flying boats that stopped to fuel up here? “They lived at the Princess Hotel, and worked across the street at the Bermudiana. It’s now six feet under a couple of vast re-insurance companies.”
Over in Somerset Village, nine miles west, I walked one of the most evocative stretches of the old railway trail. The “Rattle and Shake” train ran only from 1931-48, before being dismantled soon after cars were permitted on the island. The trail, paved now, wandered through foliage, past limestone shoulders, morning glories, and tart loquats which I picked and ate. Then it became a neighborhood road, behind little houses with boats in their gardens.
From Somerset Drawbridge—the world’s smallest, now never used, with an opening barely big enough for a ship’s mast—I took a chugging ferry up to the green island’s western tip, which locals call Dockyard. This sprawling stone fortress was the Royal Navy’s base from the early 1800s. Restored, with cannon lying about, it’s still active as a boatyard. A Maritime Museum has exhibits from 16th century shipwrecks to 1930s cruise ships to the Bermuda dinghy, that fourteen-foot anomaly with an absurdly tall mast, a huge sail, and an inexplicable way of cutting rapidly through rather than over the water. This means one man bails nonstop; in a race, crew members are eventually allowed to jump overboard.
Nearby, in the grandiose Commissioner’s House, the displays devoted to the slave trade, complete with shackles and collars, were enough to make me want to go stand in the sunshine and weep. At least Bermuda was one of only two colonies to immediately free its 4,200 slaves in 1834, right after the decree of abolition—about half the island’s population.
At the island’s eastern end, I spent a day exploring the slow lanes of St. George, the first settlement—preserved cottages in lime, lemon, mustard, salmon, set amid palms on Featherbed Alley, Barber’s Alley, Pound Alley, Princess Street. It has its personalized museums, from Tucker House with a George III chamberpot hidden in a mahogany chest of drawers, to the Globe Hotel where blockade runners conspired to outfox Union ships, to a homespun Black History Museum with mementos of cricket teams and a diorama of the slave trade using children’s dolls, to a wharfside Town Hall with its signed, faded portraits of Elizabeth and Philip. And there is St. Peter’s, the hemisphere’s oldest Anglican church continuously in use, its interior rich with the cigar-box fragrance of local cedar. In the churchyard, past graves shaped like picnic tables, lies a slaves’ burial ground of smudged irregular headstones.
Bermuda is small, but on the other hand, I haven’t seen anywhere else this large without any ugliness. I hadn’t expected such a diverse and amiable island, with none of the historical darkness of disenfranchised peoples that one often senses in the Caribbean. Go for a walk in Hamilton up Cedar Avenue, past the Queen’s Club, past a church of Christian Scientists and a house of Bahai’is, to the Catholic Cathedral and its convent next door—now a mosque. Or, better yet, take a morning stroll in Victoria Park to see the black, white, Asian schoolkids, of every continental extraction and possible mix, hollering and playing hand-in-hand—just as, in the Botanical Gardens, I came upon a gigantic banyan tree, with innumerable, ever-multiplying downward roots.