This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the November 2004 issue of The Bermudian. The full text appears here in its original form.
Iron-willed Anna Maria Outerbridge outrages old Bermuda during the Boer War.
For generations, Guy Fawkes Day in Bermuda was marked by time-honoured celebrations. Typically, groups of rowdy, rum-soaked young men burned a “Guy”-a straw-and-cloth scarecrow-to the loud report of firecrackers and roman candles.
On Guy Fawkes Day 1901, however, one of the “Guys” set alight by howling revellers was no guy at all. A shocked Royal Gazette reported that a mob in Pembroke had manhandled a female effigy dangled from a gibbet and labelled “Miss Oddybreeze.” The female scarecrow was a sight indeed, roped as she was to a chair despite her ladylike attire of skirt, blue floral shirtwaist and dainty bonnet. That was not all: A bunch of bananas resting in her lap carried a label bearing the words “For the Boers.”
The effigy, plus another dressed in white duck as “Mr. Oddybreeze,” was carried through the streets and mocked by a rowdy mob, while respectable citizens stayed indoors. After a mock trial for high treason, Miss Oddybreeze and her scarecrow accomplice were paraded out to Woodlands and incinerated to howls of glee as fireworks were set off to the strains of “Rule Britannia.” At midnight, Miss Oddybreeze’s head-stuffed with gunpowder-exploded spectacularly.
What in the world was going on? Chivalry was a code in old Bermuda. Ladies, particularly white, middle-to-upper-class women, were usually treated with great respect in public. Whatever had the real Miss Oddybreeze done? Who was this so-called traitor to her class and gender, to be so insulted by the mob? How had she scandalised her colonial island home?
Details of the scandal were already widely known, and tongues had been wagging for months. Miss Oddybreeze was Miss Anna Maria Outerbridge, a fiftyish “old maid” who, after outspoken efforts to win the vote for women in the 1890s, now meddled in matters of war, another male preserve. Not content to do good works by soliciting packages of food (including bananas from the Outerbridge patches), clothing, books and small comforts for the thousands of Boer prisoners of war incarcerated on islands in Hamilton Harbour since the summer, Miss Outerbridge actively supported their political cause.
She helped smuggle uncensored mail to and from prisoners and abetted prisoners in their attempts to escape their captivity. All this while Britain was at war and British soldiers were dying in combat in South Africa, including the son of the governor. Moreover, according to military historian Andrew Bermingham, at least four Bermudians were fighting in the conflict.
Miss Outerbridge’s outspoken subversion infuriated patriotic Bermudians and British military personnel on the island. After all, the Boer War (1899-1902) was a hard-fought, bloody guerrilla war. There were many casualties and much brutality on both sides.
Thousands of Boer men (some of them old men or young boys) were captured and transported out of Cape Colony. After grim sea voyages, they were held as prisoners of war (POWs) in the remote reaches of the Empire-St. Helena, Ceylon, India and Bermuda, among other colonies.
Boer prisoners began arriving in Bermuda in mid-1901, the islanders-who only numbered about 17,000 at the time-were naturally apprehensive about hosting some 4,600 Boer prisoners, even under British guard. Furthermore, pro-Boer sympathisers in America and Europe soon claimed in the press that the Bermuda prisoners were held in dreadful conditions. Research by such modern historians as Colin Benbow seems to suggest that while conditions were Spartan, treatment was acceptable for the time.
Bermudians have a tradition of hospitality, and even these involuntary visitors received some succour, mostly dispensed as works of mercy. Miss Katherine Elwes, who worked at Government House, was such a donor as part of the Association for Boer Recreation. Ironically, the prison islands themselves became a tourist attraction. Groups of Bermudians, black and white, would row or sail out on a Sunday to view the bearded Boer prisoners and their bell tent well back from the guard buoys and sentries’ rifles.
Black Bermudians out for a look were not charmed by the occasional calls of “Hey, kaffir” and worse from the stockades, although one black Bermudian working on the islands is said to have commiserated with the prisoners because both had links with Africa. For its part, the Royal Gazette, stung by bad publicity overseas about the Boer POW conditions, struck back by chiding the Boers for their racist ways. It scorned the mythical Great Trek of 1835 as a search by the Afrikaner for “ample elbow room for himself and a cowhide for the Kaffir.” Most Bermudians, black and white, viewed the captives sternly.
Not so Anna Maria Outerbridge and her few pro-Boer allies, such as shipping grandee Captain Meyer (1843-1912) of St. George’s and her farther, Dr. Thaddeus Outerbridge (1822-1905) of the imposing Willoughby in Bailey’s Bay, prominent islanders both. Danzig-born Meyer was of Dutch descent, and Anna Maria’s late mother had been an American Knickerbocker, making them inclined to favour the Afrikaner cause. Moreover, Anna Maria was neither meek nor reticent in public like most of her upper-class female peers. Why?
Unusually for a Bermuda girl of her day, Anna Maria, the eldest of four sisters, had been sent off the island in 1867 to be educated at the progressive Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She seems to have returned to the island a subversive “New Woman,” interested in greater freedom and the vote for women. By the 1890s, Anna Maria’s small stature and heart-shaped, kittenish face hid a will of iron and aspirations for gender entitlement. Anna Maria Outerbridge took parts in efforts in 1895 and 1896 to give at least some women (i.e., propertied women, usually white) the vote.
Anna Maria’s father, Dr. Outerbridge, was in the House, but the ridicule and sexism of the official debates make it clear that sexism was deeply entrenched in turn-of-the-century Bermuda. Despite a petition to the legislature signed by some 130 women, Thaddeus Outerbridge was howled down as merely wanting female suffrage to empower legally his four daughters, because he had only one son and a lot of property. It became clear that women would have to campaign for decades more to win the vote. For one thing, the 1890s, few blacks could support bestowal of the vote on women who met the property-ownership requirements of the day, because that would mean an even greater preponderance of white voters. The few black members of the house, like Aggeus Outerbridge, for example, where not slow to hint at this.
One can imagine Anna Maria’s sense of frustration, outrage and impatience, and her disdain for the men-many of whom she knew, by reputation at least-who had denied her and her female peers the vote in 1895 and 1896. By nature, she was no conciliator; she seems, ironically, to have had a personality better suited to the male public sphere than to the female private one. So when the Boer prisoners arrived in Bermuda five years later, she became the most prominent and infuriating all-out supporter of the prisoners-and according to the gender codes of the day, the most “unnatural” one in her flouting of military and civilian law.
Though the Boer Relief Committee, Miss Outerbridge, with the like-minded Dutch Reform Minister Rev. J.R. Albertyn-who as chaplain had direct access to the prisoners-and his wife, coordinated relief efforts and solicited support, especially from the many Dutch- and German- Americans sympathetic to the cause. Miss Outerbridge’s work to coordinate the delivery of supplies for the Boers brought her into close correspondence with Helen Parker, a prominent New York society philanthropist, and Boston Brahmin do-gooder Edward Everett Hale-both heady contacts. Letters and packages from a web of sympathisers in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and elsewhere poured in via Anna Maria and her committee.
The Boer prisoners, including their leaders Joubert Reitz and Peter Ferreria, applauded Miss Outerbridge’s “brave heart and willing hands.” Clearly, her POW work gave her kudos that as a feminist she did not get from most of her fellow Bermudians. Freshly appalled at her actions, the latter sucked their teeth and snubbed her at church and tea, even as less refined Bermudians torched her in effigy. When one of the few prisoners who managed to escape was found clinging to the gateposts of her home in September 1901, Bermudians were outraged.
The military authorities, too, saw red at the mention of Anna Maria, calling her “a constant source of unrest.” Official letters to her from the camp authorities, now in the Bermuda Archives, are chilly, to say the least. In December 1901, the Bermuda Assembly passed a law making it a serious crime (up to five years’ imprisonment) to harbour or aid escapees, a clear rebuke to daughter and father. Moreover, one connection of the Outerbridges, a rich, Bermudian-born American resident in Flatts, revised her will at this time to reduce a legacy left to the pair.
But Miss Outerbridge was not deterred by harsh words, altered wills or punitive legislation. The following June she helped Fritz Duquesne, a charismatic and charming but sinister Boer prisoner, escape the island, after which he went on to continue his long career of pro-German espionage through the First and Second World Wars. She cleverly convinced Duquesne’s exhausted fellow escapee to allow her to turn him in, in order to distract the authorities. Then she entrusted Duquesne to Captain Meyer as a stowaway on the private yacht of the millionaire inventor of Bromo-Seltzer. Did she know that Duquesne hid out for the interval in a Hamilton sailors’ brothel, a shrewd choice of concealment, for a fugitive who wanted to hear the visiting ships? Probably not.
Even today, some male Bermudian historians make sneering references to frustrated spinsters foolishly lusting after charismatic rogues in order to explain Miss Outerbridge’s actions. But it seems clear that ideology and lack of legitimate outlets for her abilities, rather than hormones, prompted Miss Outerbridge to aid the Boers.
Moreover, in one important way, Bermudians today have reason to be grateful to her. Miss Outerbridge was a prime mover in making sure the prisoners were supplied with the wood and tools they needed to produce the sophisticated Boer souvenir art so popular on the island at the time and so sought after today by collectors all over the world. These cedar walking sticks, broaches, paperweights, letter openers, cedar boxes and the like were not produced by happenstance. In correspondence with Helen Parker and others, Anna Maria helped arranged for design patterns to be sent to the stockades. She was a prime mover in the ordering and distribution of specialty woods for the Boer artisans as well as in the sale of the finished products-crafts remarkable for their ingenuity and artistry. In this way, the bearded former farmers and tradesmen earned money and passed the bleak hours of incarceration.
When the Boer POWs were released some months after a peace treaty was signed in June 1902, Anna Maria Outerbridge helped them to leave the island and aided the few hard-core “irreconcilables,” who, with Afrikaner stubbornness, refused to swear the oath of loyalty to Britain necessary to be allowed to return to South Africa. She even nursed one of them for several months at her home. Alas, de Witt, the prisoner in question, was a duplicitous creature who borrowed the large sum of $300 from her, never to repay it, despite her appeals to faraway South Africa. Like many single-minded people, Anna Maria Outerbridge was not aways a good judge of character. Helen Parker finally wrote to her that de Witt was in fact a syphilitic villain, adding “I…hate to destroy the beautiful trust that you have in those men and [in general] never have I met men so worthy of it before.”
After such a brouhaha, what of Miss Outerbridge’s later years? Anna Maria Outerbridge had certainly become notorious at home, but for years she continued to receive letters and gifts from many of the former prisoners and even corresponded with Afrikaner leader Jan Smuts. She was “lonesome for [her] boys,” as one New York supporter put it, and she sent gifts of cedar seeds, lily bulbs and the like off to South Africa, even as she in turn received inscribed photographs, ostrich feathers for her hats and requests to stand as godmother. One of the two Boers returned to Bermuda to visit in later years, and in 1905, Anna Maria travelled to New York, doubtless to meet friends she had made by mail in her pro-Boer work.
Back in Bermuda society, Miss Outerbridge was viewed askance, feeling “so lonely” for a time (as she told her many Boer pen pals). But she was from a leading family, and on her father’s death in 1905 she inherited considerable property; she lived at the imposing Willoughby, which still graces the shores of Bailey’s Bay.
Thus she became enshrined as a “character” and “a tartar” on an island that has at times a considerable tolerance for eccentricity. An animal lover, she interested herself in the history of the island, particularly of the Bailey’s Bay area (her writings were valuable in the production of the recent National Trust volume on St. George’s Parish). She took part in renewed efforts after World War I to win the vote for women as the first vice-president of the Bermuda Women’s Suffrage Society in 1923. In 1928, the social columns of the Gazette reported that she entertained at her “beautiful home” the visiting alumnae secretary of her Pennsylvania school and the handful of island graduates. Anna Maria Outerbridge died that year, over a decade before female suffrage was won. However, it is a safe bet that, even to her last breath, the redoubtable, nonconformist “Miss Oddybreeze” did not “go gentle into that good night.”
Author’s note: For a fine history of the Boer POWs, see Colin Benbow’s Boer Prisoners of War in Bermuda as well as Andrew Bermingham’s Bermuda Military Rarities. Anna Maria Outerbridge’s Boer correspondence is in the Bermuda Archives. The National Museum of Bermuda has a comprehensive exhibit on the Boer War prisoners, presenting the museum’s extensive POW collections. My thanks to Dr. Jolene Bean of Bermuda College, the authority on Bermuda women’s suffrage.