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The Bermudian

Bermuda’s history has been marked by chance arrivals whose unexpected advent has nonetheless had major consequences for the island—most famously, for example, the 1609 shipwreck of the Virginia-bound Sea Venture. So it was with both lilies and their first commercial champion. In the mid-nineteenth century, the whims of fate brought the first Easter lily bulbs to Bermuda gardens. Some three decades later, an American Civil War veteran, war-injured and recently bereaved, happened to visit “the rock” in search of both health and respite from grief, little dreaming that he would soon return with a new wife to pioneer the island’s important Easter lily export trade.

How did the bulbs of the Japanese lily, known to botanists as Lilium longiflorum, first happen to come to Bermuda? There are several different origin stories, but historian Terry Tucker’s is the most detailed and colourful. In about 1852, according to her Bermuda’s Story, a ship in distress unexpectedly put into St. George’s for repairs while en route to England. On board was an English Anglican missionary returning from Japan with a collection of exotic souvenirs and plants. At loose ends, he looked up an old college friend, Rev. J.A. J. Roberts, rector of Smith’s and Hamilton Parish, and during the surprise reunion, presented that keen gardener with lily bulbs from Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. The latter eagerly planted them in his garden at Radnor near Crawl Hill, and gave some to a friend in St. George’s.

However it came ashore, the tall plant with its pristine white trumpet-shaped flowers flourished in Bermuda’s climate: it was soon the pride of many a Bermuda garden, producing blooms even more luxuriantly than in its native soil. Clara, the wife of Governor Charles Elliot, is credited with introducing the bulbs to the gardens at Government House before the vice-regal couple left the island in 1854. Visitors and Bermudians alike exclaimed at and admired the lily borders in local gardens.

 

 



Then, in 1875, a tall specimen of another sort from foreign parts happened to arrive on the island. General Russell Hastings was a six-foot-four Federal Civil War veteran, so tall and thin one of his fellow officers had joked that he was “a clothes pin of an officer.” Born of Revolutionary War stock and the sixth of eight children on a farm in Greenfield, Massachusetts in 1835, Hastings had moved west with his family as a boy of twelve to a farm near Willoughby, Ohio.

In April 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Hastings was frustrated by the limitations of life farming for his now-invalid father. Eager to respond to Lincoln’s call for recruits, the twenty-six-year-old enlisted, initially as a second lieutenant in the 23rd Ohio Regiment. His Civil War memoir frankly describes his service—chiefly on the Virginia and West Virginia fronts in some twenty engagements—making no bones about the hunger, disease, wounds and death, widespread drunkenness, gruelling marches and sometimes-incompetent leadership that made up much of the war experience on both sides. One of his captains, he wrote wryly, was “no more fitted for a soldier than my grandmother’s pussy cat.”

Nevertheless, Hastings preferred the hardships of the field to comfortable staff officer postings to headquarters, and forged lifelong friendships with two very capable Ohioan fellow officers: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, each a future president of the United States. Hastings wrote that Hayes, his commanding officer, was “a man I almost worshipped, and what I am in life, is largely due to my intimate association with him.” In the field, Hastings, brave and resourceful, became a reassuring sight to his own troops and a tempting target to the enemy as he rode about on his beloved “Old Whitey,” an iron gray horse.

Then, in September 1864, at the Battle of Opequan near Winchester, Virginia, having risen to the rank of captain, Hastings ran out of luck. Late in the afternoon, as he reconnoitred a broken enemy line on horseback, a sniper’s bullet shattered his right knee, sparing the horse but not the rider. An army surgeon failed to remove all of the bullet; infection set in, and by December, Hayes wrote sadly in his diary that he feared Hastings would die. But after five long months of invalidism, Hastings did recover, though he was left with recurrent infections and a painful limp. For the rest of his life, he could not walk or stand for prolonged periods. In July 1865, after the end of the war, he was mustered out of the army, still on crutches, with the brevet rank of brigadier general for meritorious service.

 

 



A decade later, Hastings arrived in Bermuda, one of several places he sought out in these years for its mild winter climate. At this point, his path in life was still not clear. After the war, he had served briefly in the Ohio legislature and then—thanks to the patronage of Rutherford Hayes, who was by then an influential Washington congressman—as US Marshall for the Northern District of Ohio from 1867 to 1872. He was living in Rockford, Illinois, when in April 1874 his young wife, vivacious Michigan schoolteacher Mary Adele Humphrey, died shortly after giving birth to a son. They had been married just seventeen months. During that sunny 1875 winter in Bermuda, Hastings sought rest and respite from physical pain and marital grief.

As his life changed for the better, with Hayes once more the catalyst, Hastings did not forget Bermuda. By 1877, Rutherford Hayes was in the White House, and Hastings’s visits to his old friend in the executive mansion resulted in his engagement to Emily Platt, some fifteen years his junior and the niece of Hayes. Emily had been living with the Hayes family in the White House to assist First Lady Lucy Hayes in her hostess duties. In June 1878, Emily and Russell Hastings were married in the Blue Room, in what was the eighth wedding in the history of the White House—and its first dry one. It was a “cold water dinner” after the ceremony, thanks to the strict temperance principles of “Lemonade Lucy,” as the First Lady was nicknamed.

After a summer in Maine, a restless Hastings felt “stranded” as a long-term guest in the White House that fall, especially as he disliked the malarial summers and pneumonia-prone winters of Washington. Having turned down a patronage job there, his mind turned to “fond remembrance of the sunny days spent in Bermuda” in the winter of 1875–1876, and he felt an “unbearable” longing to return. In January 1879, Hastings and his new bride sailed for Bermuda aboard the steamship Canima. Despite, as he put it, “a deathly seasick voyage on that dirty little ship,” the couple enjoyed an enchanted winter. After an initial stay at the Hamilton Hotel, they rented a little cottage “smothered with flowers”, were entertained by Governor Laffan and Bermuda’s white elite and went rowing and carriage-riding around the island. But they left in the spring, this time for Massachusetts, never expecting to return to live in the colony.

Then fate intervened. In August 1880, the Hastings were living in Tarrytown, New York, on the Hudson River, after sojourns in Massachusetts, Florida and Ohio, where their daughter Lucy had been born that
May. Hastings learned that Henry Darrell, one of his convivial Bermuda hosts, was in New York en route to spend two years in England. When Darrell told him that he had recently inherited Norwood, an historic early eighteenth-century house on Pitts Bay Road in Pembroke, Hastings impulsively proposed that he take out a two-year lease on the property, commencing that October. A few weeks later, the Hastings family sailed for Bermuda.

 

 



The following summer, Hastings happened to send a gift of bulbs of the much-admired Bermuda lily to a friend in Tarrytown, florist F.R. Pierson, who owned commercial greenhouses there. To his surprise, Pierson arrived in Bermuda by return ship to find out more about this remarkable lily and speedily proposed that he and Hastings go into partnership to market the bulbs—Hastings raising them and Pierson selling them in the US and Europe, so florists could force the bulbs under glass, bringing them into blossom for Christmas and Easter.

Bermuda already had a reputation as a winter garden, supplying tomatoes, potatoes, celery and onions to the east coast in the winter and early spring (although visitors were known to complain that the steamers reeked of onions during the shipping season). Hastings, who had been looking for some worthy occupation and knew farming from his Ohio youth, put down his first lily beds at Norwood in September 1881. The next August, Pierson returned to inspect the beds, and after finding them flourishing, prompted Hastings to resolve to grow lilies on a large scale.

For that, Hastings needed land and he had his eye on Point Shares, a fifty-acre property belonging to the seafaring Stowe family and located immediately to the west of Norwood on Hamilton Harbour’s Saltus Bay. The waterside setting had charmed Russell and Emily when they had rowed onto its little beach during their honeymoon stay in Bermuda. Emily’s father died in August 1882, and she had given birth to another daughter, Fanny, in April: the couple now had both the financial resources and the need to buy a large property as they would soon have to give up Norwood. That September, Hastings, swearing an oath of fealty to the British Crown to be able to do so, paid eight thousand dollars for the Point Shares acreage and promptly planted an acre of lily bulbs in its Tamarind Valley. He also built a handsome, rambling two-storey house of Bermuda stone, with a spacious piazza overlooking the water, christening it “Soncy,” which, he explained in his memoirs, was “a Scotch word signifying thrift, prosperity, and all things good.”

Hastings and the lilies did indeed prosper, the bulbs bringing $150 a thousand, the profits enabling him to remit considerable sums to his New York bank. After harvesting his first major crop in September 1883, Hastings steadily increased his plantings so that all of Soncy’s available arable land—some ten acres—was under cultivation by 1888. By 1890, visitors to the island rhapsodised over the beauty of the estate, with its palmlined circular driveway and a cornucopia of 100,000 lilies in bloom in the fields. The bulbs were harvested around the middle of June, and packed in sand in wooden boxes bound with iron straps for the seventy-hour journey by steamer to New York. By the late 1890s, Bermuda bulbs had 90 percent of the Easter lily market in the US.

 

 



Historian William Zuill and others have credited General Hastings as the unquestioned pioneer of the commercial lily bulb trade, the one who “showed that the bulbs could be made profitable and so laid the foundation for one of the colony’s most stable industries.” Bermudians participating in the trade included Harley Trott, who made a splash in the horticultural world in 1883 by exhibiting prize-winning monster specimens of the lily plants in New York and London. By the late 1890s, 4,000 of Bermuda’s 15,000 acres were under cultivation—in lilies, as well as onions, potatoes and other winter garden crops. Such cultivation required field-labour, and the lilies thus helped stimulate the influx of Portuguese workers—chiefly Azoreans and Madeirans—to Bermuda, where they and their descendants became a key part of Bermudian society. Some were employed at Soncy. General Hastings presented one of his most valuable workers, Manuel Da Luz, from Madeira, with some land of his own. Da Luz stayed in Bermuda, anglicised his name to Dallas, and became the ancestor of a well-known Portuguese Bermudian clan.

Lilies became a key part of Bermuda’s image. One of the nicknames for the island in the guidebooks was now “The Land of the Lily and the Rose,” and fields of the trumpet blooms became a favourite subject for postcards. When little Lucy Hastings penned poems about Bermuda, she wrote that “flowers are always blooming/ in my home beside the sea.” In 1890, a journalist from the New York Times who called on General Hastings at Soncy put it even more eloquently: “Such a garden as this, in such a climate, and a beautiful house in the midst of a plantation of blooming lilies, with a broad piazza overhanging a sheet of clear water, ought to be enough to make an old soldier happy.”

The “old soldier” had a sense of timing, however. By the early 1890s, given that the lily was a “voracious feeder” requiring expensive fertilizers, and with customers demanding larger bulbs that took longer to produce, thus exhausting his soil, General Hastings had sold his bulb stock to Will Allen, who planted them in new acreage in Tucker’s Town. But in that decade, Hastings and others noted that “a disease began to prey upon the bulbs, until hardly a well formed bulb could be grown.” The disease was yellow flat virus: highly infectious and poorly understood in that era. Exports fell steadily and by the early twentieth century the trade was in abeyance. Not until the 1920s, in part due to the efforts of St. David’s grower Howard E. Dunscombe Smith, who cultivated an early blooming, sturdy bulb dubbed Lilium Howardii, did the trade enjoy a partial revival for a time. But now, in the twenty-first century, most North American lily bulbs are grown along the California–Oregon border with extensive acreage and economies of scale against which Bermuda could never compete.

 

 



General Hastings and his family continued to flourish in Bermuda even when the lilies did not. Emily Hastings had given birth to their son, Russell Platt, in 1885 while on a visit to Columbus, Ohio. Back in Bermuda, the couple was credited with introducing two varieties of roses to the island, and became early and generous patrons of the Bermuda High School for Girls. Hastings also raised turkeys and cucumbers for sale, and was ever the inquiring Victorian gentleman. He recorded data on Bermuda weather for the United States Weather Bureau, with his statistics published weekly in the Royal Gazette. When he supported the visit of marine scientists from New York University and the New York Aquarium to study Bermuda in the late 1890s, grateful scientists named a species of snapper after him—Neomaenis hastingsi.” What caused more excitement in Bermuda social circles, however, was a visit to Soncy by former President Rutherford Hayes, who came to Bermuda in April 1890 with his daughter to stay with his old friend: a British naval review was even staged off Ireland Island in honour of Hayes’s visit.

In September 1904, during a stay in Petersham, Massachusetts, General Russell Hastings died of heart disease, aged sixty nine. He is buried in his native Greenfield, Massachusetts, but his widow continued to winter regularly on the island until her death in 1919, and Soncy was not sold by the family until 1938. One of General Hastings’s granddaughters, Dr. Emily Liddell (1917–2008), became a well-known Bermuda physician and activist. Lilies, of course, continue to flourish in Bermuda gardens. So iconic of Bermuda have they become that when Mark Twain, that peerless lover of Bermuda, died in 1910, the Brick Church on Fifth Avenue in New York City was decked with Bermuda lilies for his funeral. And every Easter, Queen Elizabeth II is traditionally sent a bouquet of Bermuda lilies from the island’s floral bounty.

 

 

 

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