How the Island became fertile ground for the world’s most imaginative, inventive writers.

“Good prose,” George Orwell once wrote, “is like a- windowpane.” Who can forget the impact of Orwell’s Burmese Days with its chronicle of the steamy torpor of colonial life on the remotest frontier of Empire? Or the grimy reality of street poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London? Who would ever want to work in a Welsh coal mine after reading Orwell’s Down the Mine, with its sooty, scab-covered miners moiling at the coal face? Good writing takes our minds where our feet may never tread. A good pen can convey the essence of a foreign land and implant it in readers’ minds over time and place. Fiction, as William Hazlitt once said, lacks the hardness of history: it contains the “softenings of fancy and sentiment” that appeal to human curiosity and hopefulness.

What of Bermuda’s image in fiction? How has literature conveyed Bermuda to the greater world? From its first contact with adventuring Europeans in the late 16th century, the written word has crucially shaped the way outsiders have perceived Bermuda. As a tiny dot of uninhabited, mid-Atlantic coral, the island was a tabula rasa. Moreover, the earliest impressions of Bermuda were not flattering. An English mariner, Henry May, provided the first harsh image in his 1594 narrative of his stranding on the island’s jagged reefs. Seen from the sea, Bermuda was a place of “hie cliffs” and subject to “foule weather, as thundering lightning and raine.” Two years later, Walter Raleigh cruised by the Bermudas and reported much the same revulsion: this was a place surrounded by “a hellish sea for thunder, lightning and stormes.” The French explorer Samuel de Champlain reached the same conclusion in 1600: “The sea is very tempestuous round the said Island and the waves high as mountains.”

Bermuda is a place that lives at the mercy of nature. If the sea around Bermuda represented the power of evil, then the island itself could be a stage for man’s perfectibility, a return to the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps the most potent example of the power of words to set the image of Bermuda came a decade later when Silvester Jourdain’s account on the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture began to circulate about the streets of London. The disaster was, he reported, the result of “a most dreadful Tempest.” Jourdain was soon echoed by William Strachey in his account of the accidental founding of the Bermuda colony, where the “dangerous and dreaded island” is a “hell of darkness.” From this miasma of fear, Shakespeare constructed the mood of his great play, The Tempest. This is, of course, Bermuda’s best known literary association. While its actual setting is ambiguous, the play powerfully reinforced the notion of the “still vex’d Bermoothes,” particularly when Ariel discovers that “Hell is empty, And all the devils are here.”

This hellish impression has resonated over centuries. Bermuda is a place that lives at the mercy of nature. The sea is deep, mysterious, capriciously evil, a reflection of man’s sinister, dark side. Time and again, authors writing of Bermuda have employed hurricanes, rogue waves, ghastly reefs and sudden squalls to move their plots in unexpected directions. Others have used the sea in its uneasy moods- for example, a damp, midwinter north wind sweeping along the colony’s north shore as a menacing backdrop to their Bermuda writing. Post-modernist scholars talk of the “commodification” of subject matter, of turning animate complexity into a “product” possessed of no intrinsic power of its own. What better example of this than the image of Bermuda that emerged in the wake of the publication of Charles Berlitz’s 1974 The Bermuda ‘Triangle? Bermuda, Berlitz argued, was the terrestrial focal point of a great and mysterious underwater force that swallowed men and ships. This literary image was quickly commodified into an unending range of T-shirts, posters and popular culture.

If the sea around Bermuda represented the power of evil, then the island itself could be a stage for man’s perfectibility, a return to the Garden of Eden. Once Henry May dragged himself ashore in 1593, he discovered that the land “yieldeth great store of fowle, fish and tortoise.” The spring brought “very faire” weather. Europeans thus created another primordial literary perception of Bermuda: it was a semitropical garden where man might live an Elysian existence.

In his seminal 1964 study of early American literature, The Machine and the Garden, Leo Marx argued that the New World excited a strong expectation in Europeans that it would yield a pastoral utopia. Bermuda thus beckoned as a mid-Atlantic hint of greener pastures further westward, a kind of utopian Atlantis.

Such was the appeal of this pastoral yearning that writers who had never laid eyes on Bermuda began to invoke it as an idyll of the benevolent potential of the New World. The English poet Edmund Waller (1609-87) could therefore write of Bermuda:

So sweet the air, so moderate the clime,
None sickly lives, or dies before his time

Waller’s fellow English poet Andrew Marvell (1621-78) would paint a similar picture of the “remote Bermudas” riding in the ocean’s “bosom unespied,” favoured by God:

He gave us this eternal spring,
Which here enamels everything

Other poets clung to Bermuda’s brutish natural reputation. An early 17th-century “funerall song” performed in England depicted the danger that lurked “at the Bermudas,” where “tearing shocks and all the miseries” of its reefs ripped at distressed mariners. Lord Brooke, writing in 1633, picked up the theme

Whoever sailes neere to Bermuda coast,
Goes hard aboad the monarchy of Feare

This tension between nature’s menace and its benevolence became the colony’s principal literary image well into the 19th century. Early in that century, Tom Moore (1779-1852), an Irish Romantic poet who actually did visit the place in 1804, reported:

You'd think that nature lavished there
Her purest wave, her softest skies

A little earlier, the father of American literature, Philip Freneau (1752-1832) gave Bermuda its first foothold in North American literature after his 1778 visit by trying to steer a middle course between Bermuda’s opposing images:

These islands fair with many a grove are crowded
With cedar tall, gay hills and verdant vales,
But dangerous rocks on every side are found,
Fatal to him who unsuspecting sails

The 19th century saw prose begin to displace poetry as the primary projector of Bermuda to the outside world. Bermuda had a ready-made appeal to the Gothic imagination with its appetite for the sublime, that compelling mixture made up of the beautiful and the unsettling. The island had caves and howling winds, but could also offer glades of natural serenity. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine offered an early example of this Gothic appeal in an anonymous 1829 story, “A Scene off Bermuda.” Against the “gloomy splendour” of a “moonlike sun” shrouded by mist and gales, a British merchantman sights a strange vessel. The British captain is the stuff of English maritime lore: “Captain Deadeye was a staid, stiff-rumped, well-eyed, old First-Lieutenantish-looking veteran.” His opponent turns out to be an American sloop intent on bounty. In a brief skirmish, the British get the better of “Brother Jonathan” and hastily sail off, their decks covered with blood, for the sunny sanctuary of St. George’s Harbour.

The 19th century saw prose begin to displace poetry as the primary projector of Bermuda to the outside world.

By the middle of the century, well-known foreign writers began turning their attention to Bermuda even if fleetingly. In 1840, Washington Irving, the great American short story writer, reported his literary impressions of the colony to the readers of The Knickerbocker. Irving’s “Shakespearian Research” drew its inspiration from the persistent debate over just what hearsay about distant, storm-wracked islands fed the great bard writing of The Tempest. Irving got some of his facts wrong; Admiral Somers’ famous flagship, the Sea Venture, sails through the article as the Sea Vulture. Nonetheless, Irving found Bermuda “lad in emerald verdure.” Contemplating the colony, Irving wrote that in “these beautiful islands, and the peaceful sea around them, I could hardly realize these were the ‘still vexed Bermoothes’ of Shakespeare, once the dread of mariners, and infamous in the narratives of the early discoverers, for the dangers and disasters which beset them.” Bermuda’s stigmatisation was, he concluded, undeserved. A similar conclusion was reached in the 1850s when the creator of ‘Sam Slick,’ Nova Scotia’s famous humorist Thomas Haliburton, visited the colony and deemed it a “beautiful spot and very healthy.”

If Irving and Haliburton were benevolently inclined towards the colony, England’s Anthony Trollope was not. After visiting in 1859 en route home from the West Indies, Trollope took an instant dislike to the place. The place was mired in “sleepiness” and “backwardness”; only “the beauty of the sea” impressed him. Back in England, Trollope painted a nasty Gothic picture of the colony in a short story- titled Aaron Trow in the magazine Public Opinion and Literary Supplement. Bermuda is portrayed as a colonial backwater: “That Ariel would have been sick of the place is certain.” Aaron Trow, a murderer from the streets of England, escapes from Bermuda’s prison hulks and goes to ground. Into this menacing situation walks Caleb Morton, Presbyterian minister, and his fiancĂ©e, Anastasia. Trow snatches Anastasia from her home and heads for Bermuda’s notorious caves. Caleb and a posse set off in pursuit. Convict and minister struggle atop a cliff and tumble into the sea, where the convict drowns. The couple marry and then leave Bermuda forever, fleeing from the “ghost of Aaron Trow.”

Bermuda’s image as a place of nasty doings was heightened in 1864 when Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine All the Year Round published an anonymous tale of “Murder in Bermuda.”

Bermuda’s image as a place of nasty doings was heightened in 1864 when Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine All the Year Round published an anonymous tale of “Murder in Bermuda.” The story provides an early example of the influence of “things British”-in this case, the red-coated garrison- on outside perceptions of Bermuda. The author is an army officer, who finds the colony subject to “the heat of the dog-star rages” and ringed by a “breaker-beaten shore.” A local merchant friendly to the garrison is chopped down by “some blaggard Moodian” grown indignant over the merchant’s pigs eating his corn. Another posse. Another cave. Guided by the stealthy “mulatto” Isaac, the posse gets its man after another struggle in the sea. An execution follows. This tale of crime and punishment introduces another persistent element into Bermuda’s image in fiction: racial relations. The whites at the centre of the plot are conspicuously in charge. Bermuda blacks are portrayed as sometimes subservient, sometimes grateful and sometimes sinister. The murdered merchant was “beloved by the coloured people”; Isaac the posse guide is noble in his desire to bring the culprit to justice, but nevertheless moves “like Caliban” through the cave.

The late 19th century brought changes to Bermuda that softened the colony’s image in outside writing. Seafaring and its hardy values declined as a staple of the Bermuda economy. Market gardening and the beginnings of tourism began to take hold. Bermuda no longer seemed a storm-wracked dot in mid-Atlantic; it emerged as a sun-warmed garden cut off from the excesses of the Gilded Age in North America. Painters similarly discovered its year-round play of light and colour. In 1875, New Hampshire painter Jane Eames reported in her memoir of Bermuda that the place was “inexpressibly lovely. “Turn where one will in Bermuda,” the English artist Margaret Gibson wrote in 1897, “charming subjects for sketching meet the eye.” Foreign writers followed suit, abandoning their old fascination with Gothic Bermuda. The colony became “the land of the lily and the rose,” an ideal setting for children’s stories, historical fiction and romance. In all these genres, Bermuda was a garden cut off from the hurly-burly of modern life, a screen onto which outsiders could project their fantasies. Children led the way.

Victorian children’s stories were a didactic blend of adventure and moralism and the ones set in Bermuda were no exception.

Victorian children’s stories were a didactic blend of adventure and moralism and the ones set in Bermuda were no exception. Children were little adults encountering the lessons of life for the first time encountering adversity and sorting out the difference between good and bad. In Anna Sadlier’s 1899 Pauline Archer, the heroine, a “little lady” from upper-crust New York, comes to salubrious Bermuda with her invalid mother. For Pauline, Bermuda “seemed like a page from the Arabian Nights.” Her stay is punctuated by excursions that draw the adult out of her.

Against a backdrop of jovial blacks, patrician American visitors and nature’s wonders, Pauline begins to “turn into a big person.” The year 1899 also brought Maria Louisa Pool’s Little Bermuda from a Boston publisher. Two Massachusetts lasses befriend “little Bermuda,” the daughter of a binge-drinking naval pensioner. Adventure ensues- boating mishaps, walks to “desolate” Flatts, getting lost in a cave, etc. Dad drinks himself to death. The Americans adopt Bermuda and send her to school in the States. Later, little Bermuda inherits a fortune from her long-lost mother: “Bermuda’s proud little heart filled with gladness that she was not a penniless waif after all.”

Boyhood adventure on the Rock in 1892’s Wrecked on the Bermudas

Boys could find themselves in Bermuda too. Captain W.E. Meyer’s 1892 Wrecked on the Bermudas was a kind of Swiss Family Robinson comes to Bermuda yarn. Danzig-born Meyer had fought in the American Civil War before settling in St. George’s, where he had prospered as the owner of a marine slipway. Mever’s entrepreneurship was not accompanied by literary prowess. Clearly intended for the American adolescent market, Wrecked is both implausible and disjointed. Three lads book passage with Captain Grump of the good ship Neptune, which promptly sinks. Cast ashore in Bermuda, the boys fend for themselves, eating “roasted rock limpets.” Bermuda seems uninhabited. Then suddenly the lads discover civilisation and spend the rest of their visit building a boat and listening to yarns from the editor of The Royal Gazette. Despite the softening of Bermuda’s image, some elements of Bermuda’s sinister old image continued to spill over into its new literary persona. The unpredictable sea, caves, treacherous reefs and menacing hurricanes remained favourite Bermuda plot devices. W. Clark Russells oft-reprinted The Wreck of the Grosvenor is an 1890s tale of mutiny on the high seas, in which the ship never arrives in Bermuda, but instead succumbs to harrowing storms and foul play on the ocean beyond.

Sukey, the heroine of Phillis Garrard’s 1938 Banana Tree House

If children’s literature set in Bermuda took adolescents to a secluded garden, then historical fiction and romance writing took adults back to a world they imagined they had lost. The most powerful impulse behind the turn-of-the-century emergence of Bermuda tourism was the colony’s appeal as a repository of social values and relations that war and urbanisation had driven from America. Bermuda was seen as “British”- stable and seemingly untroubled by racial tension. Bermuda was the world many Americans imagined they had lost. When Minna Smith, editor of the Chicago-based American Baby Magazine, published her Mary Paget: A Romance of Old Bermuda in 1900, her aim was to romanticise the first harrowing years of the Bermuda colony in the 17th century. Mary, a privateer’s wife, builds a life in the young colony. Smith smooths over the hardships of colonial life. Slavery, for instance, is presented in a benevolent light. “I had ever a great kindness towards negroes,” her heroine Mary Paget confesses, “perceiving the simplicity and tender child-likeness of their nature.” Read of Bermuda, Smith implies, and you will find pre-bellum America.

If children’s literature set in Bermuda took adolescents to a secluded garden, then historical fiction and romance writing took adults back to a world they imagined they had lost.

Others did not need history to evoke the sense that Bermuda was a world apart. Early in the new century, another motif for Bermuda’s image would where tradition, civility and social decorum still mattered. Nina Abbott’s 1910 A Garden by the Sea typified the genre. Garden deployed the soon-to-be-popular device of using the three-day steamer voyage from New York as a means of distancing the colony from the vulgarity of North American life, all the while presenting a distinctively Bermudian dramatis personae- tourists, British colonial officials, garrison officers. In Abbott’s novel, a wealthy American woman leaves her husband behind in New York “coining dollars” and sinks into a quaint colonial world of hotel balls, bridge games with the local elite and teas. In the background, Boer prisoners and regimental bands remind the reader that Bermuda is still part of the Empire that America had once shunned. Amy Baker’s 1921 The Painted Lily departed dramatically from this touristic norm. Against the now familiar backdrop of Front Street mercantile prosperity and colonial gentility, Baker’s heroine a stunning mulatto- passes herself off as a white. Marriage follows. Baker thus uses the ruse to throw Bermuda’s segregated society into stark relief. Not surprisingly, Lily was not a Bermuda best-seller.

In early 20th-century writings, it is as if Bermuda has become a tiny coral platform on which a kind of unique Anglo-American dramatic rapprochement can be played out in an environment both favoured and isolated by nature. The First World War temporarily heightened this isolation, but the perfection of Bermuda tourism in the following two decades allowed the colony to grow into this unique role. By 1939, with 80,000 visitors arriving annually, tourism had become the primary impulse of Bermuda life. The colony’s conscious grooming of its image as “the isles of rest”_ replete with elegant liners, hotels and golf courses- in turn enhanced its attractiveness as a setting for writing that conveyed a patrician sense of romance, mystery and social kudos. Indeed, the two inter-war decades can be seen as the golden age of writing about Bermuda.

Bermuda writing in the interwar years flourished on the same blend of aesthetics that allowed the colony to draw tourists to its shores. It was a place of mid-Atlantic tranquillity, steeped in British law and order and a deeply-rooted sense of its heritage and frequented by the “right sort” of foreigners. The colony was quintessentially different from America. “Bermuda is a sun-bitten English park in a coral setting,” one of the characters in William Du Bois’ 1940 The Case of the Frightened Fish declares. Some foreign writers even went so far as to lobby for the preservation of their Bermuda paradise from the vulgar tourist hordes.

Fiction set in Bermuda depended on mid-Atlantic isolation

In his only piece of Bermuda writing, Rudyard Kipling attacked the invasion of Bermuda by abrasive American plutocrats. In his 1932 short story A Naval Mutiny, Kipling bemoans the loss of “good onion-growing ground” to hotel development. Similarly, in 1934 Sinclair Lewis, who had tweaked America’s conscience over poverty in its midst, used an essay in The Bermudian to urge islanders to keep automobiles out of their paradise. Bermuda, he argued, was about horses and carriages, not “shrieking tourists”and “nice red petrol stations.” But most writers were content with Bermuda as they found it. “After a summer amid the reeking exhausts of New York,” an American detective in Francis Van Wyck Mason’s 1937 The Castle Island Case assures himself, “the elusive fragrance of the oleanders and the soothing whisper of wind in the cedars would be as balm of Gilead.” Once in the Bermuda mood, authors in the 1930s tended to turn their talents to the writing of historical fiction and mysteries. Bermuda imparted its uniqueness to both genres.

Just as tourists thought they had found a time-locked society where there were no cars, no smokestacks and no slums, writers were attracted to the un-American qualities of Bermuda’s past. Bermuda had taken a different course than the rebellious American colonies and the results were abundantly clear and attractive. “There’s nothing democratic about Bermuda,” an American lady enamoured of the colony announces to her dinner companions en route to the colony in C. Daly King’s 1940 Bermuda Burial. “It’s an oligarchy…We have altogether too much democracy in America.” “We are British,” a Bermudian proudly chimes in, “and have the British respect for law and order…we have no suffragettes, but no big industries, no labour leaders or agitators. There is no need for them, and we don’t want them.” Indeed, Bermuda would not give the vote to women until 1944 and the Bermuda Industrial Union would become active only with the peace.

Bermuda’s distinctiveness drew many a mystery writer. Here was a setting ready made for intrigue.

Writers were fascinated by Bermuda’s role in two of the events that pivotally shaped America’s history: the American Revolution and the Civil War.In this respect, there was no more prolific writer of Bermuda historical fiction than Van Wyck Mason (1901-78). Like many foreign writers who wrote of the colony in these golden years, Van Wyck Mason succumbed to Bermuda’s charms and established residence there. Massachusetts-born and Harvard-educated, Mason had distinguished himself as an artillery officer in the Great War before turning to writing. His output was prolific. He believed good writing was driven by diligent research and spent long hours in Harvard’s Widener Library ferreting out detail that would sustain his interest in military history and historical fiction. Marriage to the daughter of Front Street merchant J. P. Hand brought him to Bermuda and long residency in Southampton. He loved spicing his writing with tidbits of Bermuda vocabulary and lore: “Yassah, I brings up a real ‘Mudian breakfast.. Cream codfish and fried bananas, suh.” Yet for all his intimacy with the colony, Mason’s historical fiction was always rather fanciful and long on stereotype.

Mason was a devoted freedom-loving Yankee. He was, however, determined to work Bermuda into his American tapestry. Bermudians were canny pragmatists who lived by their wits; they were therefore quasi-Americans. In Three Harbours (1938), his first sortie into Bermuda historical fiction, an American schooner captain warns of underestimating a Bermudian in a breathtaking bit of two-pronged racism: “If it takes a Jew to do a Yankee in the eye, why it takes a Bermudian to do a Jew! You got to watch a ‘Mudian day and night. They’re the most awful liars in Creation. A sensible body wouldn’t trust them with a red-hot penny.” With similar insensitivity, Mason could refer to Bermuda blacks as “excited pickaninnies.” Armed with such prejudice, Mason was able to spin out a swashbuckling tale of Bermudian sympathy for the rebellious American colonies, culminating in local complicity in the famous American raid on the colony’s gunpowder store in 1775.

Mason grew addicted to fictionalising Bermuda’s past. He chummed around with local historians like Henry Wilkinson and treasure divers like Edward Downing. Shortly after Downing discovered the wreck of the Sea Venture, Mason cranked out The Sea Venture (1961). Chock full of real historical characters, the novel reads like a racy Disneyisation of the colony’s founding. Oaths like “God’s codpiece” and “we young toss-pot” punctuate the dialogue. “I’ll never go whoring again,” a buxom barmaid vouches. Mason made one last pass at Bermuda’s history in Armored Giants: A Novel of the Civil War, published (unfortunately) two years after his death in 1978. Bermuda is woven into the race to build an ironclad warship. Again there is lots of local colour, more stereotypes and even more sex. Whenever the arms race slows, we are given a glimpse of a bare breast. Black banjo players play “Dixie” in the rowdy pubs of St. George’s. Sailors invariably start their sentences with “b’Jesus.” Mason’s prolific output–he would publish 60 books by the time of his death–thus created what may be called the Errol Flynn image of Bermuda: fanciful and swashbuckling, but nonetheless leaving the reader with the impression that this was someplace different.

The same can be said for the colony’s historical blockbuster of the 1930s, Bruce Lancaster (like Mason, another prolific Harvard-educated, Massachusetts-born writer) and Lowell Brentano’s 1939 Bride of a Thousand Cedars. All 344 pages of it. The publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in 1936 had seismic implications for the writing of American historical fiction. It tapped into a deep nostalgia for the gracious tranquillity of the Old South. It also spawned a host of copycat novels. Here Bermuda beckoned. Mid-19th century Bermuda had many of the attributes of the plantation society of the South; it was a society anchored in civility, where the whites ruled with noblesse oblige and blacks knew their place. But Bermuda was better: it had abolished slavery in 1834. Bride has a plot that revolves around the family of a wealthy landowner and the abrasive Yankees “cheese-parers”-brought to the colony by Civil War commerce. Bride presents Bermuda as a superior society. “I tell you, Sally” the merchant tells his daughter, “we live in the best colony in the Empire. Look at St. Kitts, always bellowing to the Colonial Office for relief.” In the end, Sally civilises her Yankee beau, marriage ensues and the happy couple settle on the island, endowed with a traditional Bermuda dowry- a thousand cedars.

Sukey ingratiates herself with white tourists

In 1939, Random House in New York delivered a similar sanitisation of Bermuda history, this one aimed at adolescents. Nora Benjamin’s Fathom Five: A Story of Bermuda chronicles one Bermuda family’s journey through the colony’s romantic evolution, from “gentlemanly piracy” to flying boats. A year earlier, another New York publisher had provided a child’s-eye view of Bermuda society. Phillis Garrard’s Banana Tree House conveys the impression that Bermuda in the 1930s was still a jolly place where blacks knew their place and visiting white tourists soaked up an ambiance similar to the Old South, The books heroine, young Sukey, is described as “a pickaninny with a fat chocolate body that looked good enough to eat” with a “stout and comfortable Mammy,” Sukey befriends “two elegant white ladies… flappers” and feels just like “a complete guide” showing them around the colony. Very few books of this golden age of Bermuda literature were so overtly racist, but there was an ever-present racial context to the outside view of Bermuda. The assumption is that Bermuda blacks were better blacks, because they did not threaten the status quo, Bermuda had never been blighted by the excesses of slavery. In Bride of a Thousand Cedars, Bermudians take pride in telling Americans that their blacks have their freedom and when they remind Americans of this the Yankees are “really offended.” A police inspector in Daly Kings Bermuda Burial tells visitors that the colony has a “very high class of colored folk… out of the whole fifteen thousand there are no more than three or four bad actors, and naturally we know who they are.”

Bermuda’s distinctiveness drew many a mystery writer. Here was a setting ready made for intrigue an innocent colony steeped in British law and order, generally free from serious crime. Into this Eden streamed glamorous Americans and Europeans, full of alien passions and capable of heinous, un-Bermudian acts. This collision of the parochial and the cosmopolitan allowed the creation of marvellously mid-Atlantic mystery plots. And in the 1930s they came thick and fast.

Bermuda mysteries tended to be written by American expats who had bonded with the Island. Indeed, a small colony of American mystery writers, like the indefatigable Van Wyck Mason and C. Daly King, emerged in Bermuda in the Thirties. Mason’s Castle Island Case is perhaps the strangest example of the lot. The plot is predictable. A quick-witted American detective arrives in Bermuda on the PanAm Clipper for a rest from Gotham crime. A Bermuda ambiance is evoked: the action takes place around Freebooters’ Hall on Plunder Island. Death with a Bermuda twist ensues; murder victims are found with toads sitting on them and suicides leap off coral cliffs. Enter the methodical and plodding local police detective. The American dick galvanises the investigation employing his North American cunning. What makes Castle Island unusual is Mason’s use of staged photos employing Bermuda personalities to illustrate the progress of the plot. Author Carveth Wells makes a cameo appearance as himself to identify a West African “wanga” used to kill one of the victims. And there is even a picture of a nubile young female corpse on a beach, a particularly risque shot for prudish colonial Bermuda.

Local girl murdered in The Castle Island Case, 1937

Other Bermuda mysteries were more conventional. Roger Denbie’s 1934 Death Cruises South provides a wonderful pastiche of liner travel, Broadway actors and Bermuda’s glamorous touristic tranquillity, “The worst problems of the local police,” a Bermudian alleges, “arise out of petty thieving, rocks on the railroad tracks, that sort of thing.” The mysterious death of a Broadway producer draws a sleuthing pathologist, Dr. Quentin Pace, to the case, aided by his trusty black valet Fuller. The plot turns on a distinctive Bermuda clue: coral scratches on the skin. While Denbie was a Madison Avenue advertising executive-turned-writer and Bermuda-lover, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1937 The Strange Case in Bermuda similarly reflected her years on the Island as the wife of an American working for the colonial government. Holding mixes wealth, exotic women- the mysterious Faquita-and murder by opium. The same year saw Helen Girvan’s Blue Treasure: The Mystery of Tamarind Court tap into the adolescent market for Bermuda mystery-adventure. The kids get an art theft, a felony more suited to their sensibilities than murder. William Du Bois’ The Case of the Frightened Fish mingled “buccaneer millions,” deep-sea exploration, a dour, mysterious German scientist with murder. David Burnham’s 1940 Last Act in Bermuda: A Murder Mystery clung to the formula. Exotic foreigners party and kill each other on Blodgett’s Island on the “Somerset Shore.” Enter Police Inspector Hopkins, “late of the Arabian force.” The Bermuda twist comes when actress Rita Fortune’s death is solved by the discovery of the murder weapon in the water tank. Finally, C. Daly King’s Bermuda Burial drops a street-smart New York detective into drowsy Somerset to foil a Lindbergh-style kidnapping. King’s personal affection for Bermuda turns the mystery into a quasi-guidebook. Bermuda was full of “happy people”: “friends greeting friends, honeymoon couples tripping arm in arm…even the porters grinning genially under their burdens.”

War in 1939 marked the beginning of the end for Bermuda’s literary innocence. Hordes of Allied servicemen, automobiles, an airfield and commercial aviation would change Bermuda forever, pulling it closer to the rhythms of North American life. Some of the colony’s devoted literary observers protested. C. Daly King prefaced Bermuda Burial by noting that after “the madness is over, the oleander and the hibiscus will still be blooming.” A hint of the shift was provided in David Garth’s 1942 Bermuda Calling.

Despite a theme of Nazi agents, mail censors and an obtrusive American military presence, the old Bermuda themes still peek through-“a spot of tea,” “my bicycle is champing at the sprockets.” A young American lawyer on military service meets Jill, British through and through. Together they vanquish the Nazi agents and romance blooms. For the Yank, Jill “would always stand for the bright beauty of Bermuda- they would be one and the same in his mind.”

War in 1939 marked the beginning of the end for Bermuda’s literary innocence.

Yet, as Bermuda Calling hinted, the war had created a “restless new tempo of life” that was to diminish the colony’s uniqueness in the eves of outside writers. The post-war world would slowly homogenise and at times even vulgarise Bermuda’s literary image. Echoes of the old image persisted. Carol Morris’ rather pedestrian 1948 Honeymoon in Bermuda tries to intertwine romance and mystery, but ends up dangerously close to pulp romance: “His kiss was a haven of refuge, of security, as well as ecstasy.” However successful Bermuda’s booming post-war tourism was, the ambiance seemed to be shifting. In 1948, Cosmopolitan magazine ran a novelette, Deep in the Heart, set in the colony, where “Britannia rules and the dollar supports.” The sea still “flopped lazily against the shore,” but now Bermuda also beckoned because the “food is good, liquor cheap, and you can bring back a hundred dollars’ worth of tweeds and cashmere and leather and a gallon of bottled goods duty free.”

The post-war period saw the fading of Bermuda’s place in other distinctive genres. Thomas B. Costain’s ponderous novel of intrigue in the Napoleonic era, The Tontine (1955), provided an indication that swashbuckling historical fiction had overstayed its welcome. A British merchant delivers the colony’s grand new floating dock, falls in love with a wealthy American widow and then sails off in search of further profit leaving the “enchanted island” behind. Van Wyck Mason’s 1961 Sea Venture and 1980 Armored Giants would prove the postwar appetite for realism could not be satisfied with fanciful historical fiction. Mystery writing against a Bermuda backdrop, however, temporarily caught its second wind after the war by adding a new dimension: the Cold War. In 1957, the irrepressible Van Wyck Mason produced The Gracious Lily Affair, a tale of smuggling and espionage that stretched from Freebooters’ Hall all the way to Hong Kong. Bermuda was now the mid-Atlantic hinge of the global struggle to contain communism.

There were other glimmerings of the past. In 1960, the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, published For Your Eyes Only, a short story collection containing a glimpse of the old colonial Bermuda. The Quantum of Solace captures the ennui that beset those who administered the Empire. In it, Bond hears the story of how a dull colonial official’s marriage disintegrates after a beautiful wife succumbs to golf and infidelity at the Mid-Ocean Club. Fleming, it is rumoured, used his own wartime exposure to Bermuda in military intelligence to shape the Bond novels; Dr. No’s famous fish tank was said to be based on the one in the bar of the Princess Hotel. But Bermuda was generally losing its special place in the literary sun.

In recent decades, books about Bermuda have been fewer and less distinctive. The colony has tended to become just another hot, sunny place for jet set mystery and tropical sex. Take, for instance, Barbara Whitnell’s 1986 saga of early Bermuda life, Salt Rakers. Loosely based on Bermuda’s stake in the Caribbean salt trade, the book is more concerned with lust and enmity than heritage. At times it descends to the level of a bodice-ripper: “Surely one can only love like this but once… (she] shivered and uttered a brief protest. It did not occur to her to do other than abandon herself.” Two decades earlier in 1965, Rose Dana had even used the colony as the setting for a tamer, Harlequin-style romance, Bermuda Nurse, in which an American nurse gets her wealthy, Bermuda man. Christopher Hyde’s 1987 Whisperland: A Chilling Tale of Dynastic Evil attempts to draw the colony into the mainstream of international espionage. Hyde employs the Castle Harbour Hotel as a kind of foreboding backdrop to his tale of a family dynasty and its “terrible secret.” What follows is a James Bond-like yarn that weaves its way through the KGB, electronic eavesdropping and homosexuality.

Bermuda: a (fictional) place of mean sea monsters and sinister death

The intrusion of sex and the outside vice into Bermuda’s once sedate literary image continued with the 1994 publication of Vanessa Fox’s Bermuda. On one level, the book reflects Fox’s own experiences in the colony, where Royal Navy parents and marriage had brought her. She plays on the tension between the Bermuda that tourists see and the real Bermuda. A series of murders “expose Bermuda as not the sun-drenched idyll the well-oiled tourists see from their hotel balconies, but a seething mass of sexual, social and racial tensions, ready to explode onto the streets with devastating consequences.” Fox invests Bermuda with an exaggerated sense of drama: “The rich white merchant sits uneasy on a brutal history that is coming full circle. Black against white, rich against poor, the tale remains the same. This is Bermuda.” She stirs drugs into the plot.

A few recent books have tended to reverse this debasement of Bermuda into just another platform for steamy adventure by reviving elements of its distinctiveness. American Peter Benchley’s 1976 The Deep, although not explicitly set in Bermuda, and his 1991 The Beast both smack of the old Gothic interest in the colony and the sinister sea around it. Benchley’s theme is human greed and hubris in the face of all-powerful nature. The Beast is the tale of “one pissed-off squid” who dines on those who unwittingly venture beyond Bermuda’s perimeter reefs. “The creature hung in the dark, doing nothing, anticipating nothing, fearing nothing.” On shore, Benchley even invests the book with a bit of roman a clef mischief- -a squabble between Bermuda’s freeboot-ing wreck hunters and the academic marine archaeologists. Benchley clearly favours the old buccaneering tradition, perhaps a reflection of his friendship with the colony’s most renowned wreck finder, Teddy Tucker. Bob O’Quinn’s 1995 Bermuda Virus picks up the age-old theme of Bermuda’s mid-Atlantic precariousness. In a rather fantastical tale of plague bacilli and hurricanes, O’Quinn treats Bermuda with Tempest-like regard. The plague ravages the island like Caliban. The survivors flee in a boat called the Deliverance.

If there is one thing that stands out about Bermuda’s literary image in outside eyes, it’s the colonies uniqueness. Just as tourists have been drawn to the colony for over a century by its natural, social and political distinctiveness, so too have writers. This probably reached its high water mark in the 1930s, when the distance between the colony and the outside world seemed greatest. For all their racism and fanciful reconstruction of the past, the historical romances and mysteries of the 1930s capture Bermuda at its Old World best a colony steeped in Britishness and mid-Atlantic distinctiveness.

Over the last two decades, literary critics have embraced what is called post-modernist theory. As a tool for picking apart literature, post-modernism suggests that literature can act as a device for throwing up a facade or screen between the reader and reality. Thus readers, perhaps like tourists, simply “gaze” on an artificial world, full of constructed sights and imagined values. Thus the Shakespearean gaze was one that stressed Bermuda as an isle of devils. In the age of the Clippers and elegant liners in the 1930s, Bermuda’s gaze was one of white, patrician exclusivity and serenity. What seems undeniable is that, considerations of gaze aside, Bermuda has occupied a distinctive, and genuine, place in the literary imagination of the outside world. To this day, the very word “Bermuda” continues to act as a kind of literary codeword for a place of civility, tranquillity and spiritual rehabilitation. In Ursula Hegi’s 1981 novel Intrusions, a tale of a suburban housewife discovering herself, the husband, concerned by his wife’s restlessness, suggests: “Why don’t you fly to Bermuda?” In a short story- Waiting Ladies by Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields, two women discuss what a big lottery win would mean in their lives escape to Bermuda.

Literature has indeed been a windowpane on Bermuda. This article has however peered through but one of Bermuda’s windows. Others undoubtedly exist. How has black literature in the Caribbean and America viewed Bermuda? As a land of compliant blacks or as a land of tolerable racial harmony? How have Bermudians seen themselves in literature? What, for instance, of the prolific and internationally-renowned work of Brian Burland?

Bermuda has thus prompted outside writers to special eloquence. They have been joined by a silent chorus. In perhaps the ultimate compliment to Bermuda, many other outside writers have habituated the colony and not written about it. Bermuda’s guest book is full of great writers- Mark Twain, Robert Dudley Warner, Eugene O’Neill, Noel Coward, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. B. White, Katherine Anne Porter–who grew addicted to the place. For most of them, Bermuda became such an escape from the travails of a literary life elsewhere that they never attempted to spoil their muse of rest by employing it as plot material. Their letters and diaries sing the colony’s praise.

Written or unwritten, Bermuda’s impact on foreign sensibilities has of late seemed to have diminished. One is today left wondering whether technology, pollution and global homogenisation are so eroding Bermuda’s distinctiveness that it is in danger of ceasing to appeal to future writers as a land of “eternal spring.”