Christopher Carter had very good taste in spite of himself. One of the three men left in Bermuda after Sir George Somers died in 1610, he was offered the whole of St. David’s Island, all 510 acres of it, for his share of the ambergris he and his mates, Edward Waters and Edward Chard, had found during their stay. He refused it. Instead, he chose the 77 acres of Cooper’s Island, at the southeastern point of Bermuda. However, it has to be admitted, he did not choose it for the richness of its earth or for its swathes of beautiful beaches. He chose it because of a brass plate some of the Sea Venture castaways had discovered nailed to a yellowwood tree. On the plate were markings, which they thought indicated the whereabouts of treasure hidden nearby. According to G. Daniel Blagg’s Bermuda Gazeteer, no one could interpret the markings so the tree was felled—the castaways thought to take it to a boat to send it to England. But the log fell into the water only a hundred yards out to sea and was never seen again. Carter never forgot about it—he spent years digging for the treasure right up to his sudden death in a ship’s explosion in 1623. Nearly a hundred years later, tradition has it a treasure trove of gold tankards, doubloons and jewellery was found on Cooper’s Island and taken to England to be sold.
It would be pretty to think that Carter appreciated his island even though he never found the booty. Certainly, he must have spent much of his time there since he was appointed caretaker of Fort Pembroke, built by Governor Moore on the southern tip of Cooper’s Island as a defence against the Spanish. And he would have seen, as the original Sea Venture survivors saw, that the island was at first, ironically, a haven for the endemic Bermuda cahows and for green turtles, which laid their eggs on the beaches. Indeed, in 1615 when famine hit Bermuda, Moore sent 150 sick and elderly people to Cooper’s Island where they could feast on the birds, easily caught because they were so tame. In his Bermuda Journey, William Zuill quotes the Reverend Lewis Hughes, who stayed on Cooper’s: “The first night I lay on the Island I saw in every Cabin, Pots and Kettles full of birds boyling and some on spits roasting and the silly wilde birds coming so tame into my cabbin and go so familiarly betweene my feet and round about the cabinn and into the fire with a strange and lamentable noyse as though they did bemoan us to take, kill, roast and eate them.”
According to A E Verill, by 1903 the birds were eaten to extinction. (Fortunately, Louis Mowbray, Dr Murphy and a young David Wingate proved him wrong when they miraculously discovered in 1951 seven pairs of breeding cahows on islets in Castle Harbour.) While the cahows mostly bred on Cooper’s Island November to June, leaving in June, Zuill tells us that terns also bred between May and October on Cooper’s Island and Long Island, and for that reason both islands were also known as Bird Island.
The settlers ate the turtles and their eggs as well, to such an extent that in 1620 the First Assembly passed an act to forbid the killing of “any young Tortoyses that are or shall not be found to be eighteen inches in Breadth or Diameter.” That early conservation law did not help to ensure female turtles would continue to lay eggs in Bermuda, however, since they can take up to forty years to be able to lay eggs. Subsequently, it’s thought turtles ceased to hatch from eggs laid in Bermuda until August 2015, when a green turtle nest was found on Buildings Bay.
It must be remembered that one crucial difference between Cooper’s Island today and in the seventeenth century is that then it really was an island unto itself. The entrance we see today to the artificial beach, Clearwater, runs along landfill created by the Americans for their base and airport in the 1940s. Cooper’s Island, as Carter knew it, began at Turtle Bay. It was never named after Carter; instead, Richard Norwood on his survey of 1616 called it after William Cooper of Southwark, London, who was a member of the Somers Isle Company, but who never lived in Bermuda. (Later, another Cooper, Anthony, arrived on the True Love in 1635; his descendants would start A.S. Cooper and Sons but would never live on Cooper’s Island.)
Hughes mentions the “cabinns” so it is likely that for a while a community lived on Cooper’s Island. According to Michael Jarvis in Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage St. George’s, Christopher Carter lived there with his family, and at least some of his children continued to stay there after his death. However, throughout its history until 1960, Cooper’s Island experienced little development. No community buildings were erected there—no church, for example, such as Governor Daniel Tucker had built for Tucker’s Town. Pembroke Fort was blown down by a hurricane in 1629 and rebuilt, but 40 years later it was abandoned in favour of Fort Popple.
Terry Tucker tells us in The Islands of Bermuda that the island was sold to the Hon. Francis Jones in 1759 for £450, passed to Copeland Stiles and then to John Van Norden who tried unsuccessfully to sell it from the end of the eighteenth century until 1835. She says advertisements stated it contained “a two-storey house, outhouses and a large lime kiln.” E. A. McCallan describes it in Life in Old St. David’s: “…the island had its intrinsic value and loveliness. It was well wooded for the most part down to my day [McCallan was born in 1874 and died in 1966], contained 15 to 20 acres of arable land, wells for watering stock, good catches for seaweed, and no less than seven sandy beaches.” Part of the arable land was used for lily growing up until 1941. But on the whole, as Zuill says, it was mostly deserted and used by campers and for beach parties.
By the 1930s Cooper’s Island belonged to the Outerbridge family. While Carveth Wells’s Bermuda in Three Colours, published in 1935, can be an irritating read for its fatuousness, it does reveal a sensitivity to Cooper’s Island and a prescience: “Cooper’s Island belongs to Mr. Hastings Outerbridge and the last time I spoke to him about it he said he wouldn’t sell it for less than a million dollars. More power to Hastings and for the sake of Bermuda’s wildlife, I hope he will never sell this lovely land but will eventually give it to Bermuda, with the understanding that no building of any kind shall ever be constructed upon it.” Wells goes on to say: “In fact, Cooper’s Island is the only part of Bermuda which could be used as a National Park for future generations.”
At the time of writing, Wells cannot have envisaged the sacrifice the people of St David’s would have to make by relinquishing their property to enable the landfill necessary for the American base and the airport although that happened just a few years later between 1941 and 1944. The impact was less on Cooper’s Island than on St. David’s, although, as previously mentioned, it did physically lose its island status, if not its name. It became the site of 15 ammunition storage bunkers, two large underground storage tanks, a small firearms range and an asphalt batch plant, as well as two heavy US 155 millimetre GPF guns for coastal defence.
It wasn’t until 1960 that Cooper’s Island gained global recognition when the base gave the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) permission to build a tracking station there. They built a tracking tower near where Fort Pembroke once was and next to it the main radar tracking station, thus making Cooper’s Island the first of NASA’s 18 worldwide manned space tracking stations.
The Bermuda station participated in Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions as well as unmanned scientific launches. It also gave orbital and translunar and transplanetary support for scientific spacecraft. According to Don Grearson in his book USS Bermuda: The Rise and Fall of an American Base, the location of Cooper’s Island was ideal for monitoring “the critical first stages of space shots from Florida.” He says, “This was particularly important for the Apollo moon shots because its space vehicles were inserted into orbit further eastward (closer to Bermuda) than the Mercury or Gemini launches.” But, he says, Cooper’s Island was also busy with Mercury shots, “including a capsule that splashed down 220 miles southwest of Bermuda after two Earth orbits with a chimpanzee on board.”
Astronauts frequently visited Bermuda. For example, astronaut Walter M. Schirra, command pilot of Gemini 6, together with his co-pilot, astronaut Thomas Stafford, was flown to Kindley from the carrier Wasp after they made history by rendezvousing with Gemini 7. According to Bermuda Life and Times, Schirra said they had seen Bermuda quite clearly while in orbit. “In fact we always looked for it,” he said.
Some Bermudians remember meeting visiting astronauts at parties held in various parts of the island during the NASA era. Margot Cox, for example, remembers meeting astronaut John Glenn, who at one point rented a house in Paget. However, Cooper’s Island was forbidden territory to most Bermudians and Bermuda residents. Clearwater Beach and Turtle Cove Beach were restricted to the American military and their families. Nevertheless, a significant number of Bermudians were part of NASA’s Bermuda station’s team. The Bermudians at NASA Tracking Station website (http://nasabermuda.com ) reveal that Bermudians worked with Americans in all areas: power plant, administration, unified s-band acquisition aid, ground to air, telemetry, computers, precision measurement equipment, radar and plant maintenance. Bermudians included William (Bill) Todd, a radar technician; Phil Welch, a mechanical engineer; and Leon Smith, a diesel engineer, as well as many others. According to the website, “There was a common goal working together with American colleagues to ensure safety and success of a mission. Everyone from the station director to the janitor was made to feel his or her job was an important contribution to the success of the mission…. NASA was like family, everyone knew everyone else! People bonded together in times of triumph and tragedy. After the success of an Apollo mission, a splash-down party was held. But during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, many prayed and anxiously awaited the safe return of the astronauts.”
Bill Way, manager of the station at the time and director of missions, was known for his slavish attention to his slide rule. He is said to have calculated to every last second the length of the burn times in order to bring the Apollo 13 spacecraft safely back. “He had the authority to push a button to destroy a spacecraft,” his wife, Margaret, remembers. “Fortunately, he never had to do anything like that!” The Ways had come to Bermuda in 1960 when the station was being built. Both from Philadelphia, they were childhood sweethearts; eventually marrying, they were together until his death in 2009.
Robert Spearing, a young student from Bermuda studying electrical engineering at Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University), managed to get a summer job at the tracking station in 1960, thanks to his mother, Sylvia, who worked on the base. Later, he was offered a permanent position as junior engineer at NASA in the US which culminated in his appointment as deputy associate administrator of space communications from 1998 until his retirement in 2007. He vividly remembers when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon since the system he worked with was used to communicate to and from space.
In 2001 the station became obsolete and Cooper’s Island was returned to the Bermuda government (although from time to time temporary space tracking has continued to take place). Once the base had closed in 1995, Clearwater Beach and Turtle Bay were opened to the public as was a woodland trail opposite. In 2008 the whole of Cooper’s Island became a nature reserve, to Bermuda’s huge benefit since the island not only offers acres of space, unspoiled by overdevelopment, but also is a wonderful vantage point for observing Bermuda’s wild life, particularly the Bermuda cahows and humpback whales. A partnership between HSBC Bermuda and the government departments of parks and conservation has allowed major restoration work – the abolition of old NASA and base buildings and extensive replanting of endemic and native flora—thus improving the aesthetic integrity of the reserve. Carveth Wells would have been delighted.