One humble vegetable brought the Island enormous pride and prosperity…for a while.

Vegetables and national pride seem strange bedfellows. But in the late 19th century, Bermudians’ sense of their stature found expression in a nationalism rooted in onions. As the century slipped away, the ‘onion patch’ seemed to know no bounds. On May 17, 1899, for instance, the Quebec Steamship Company’s SS Pretoria inched out of Hamilton Harbour laden with 64,590 crates of Bermuda onions packed into her hold– the largest single shipment of Bermuda’s leading export ever to leave the Island.

Forty-eight hours later, the Pretoria delivered her cargo to New York’s Pier 47, Bermuda’s long-time commercial gangplank into North America. Days later, The Royal Gazette proudly reported that Courtlin, Golden & Co. on William Street, the merchants to whom the cargo had been consigned, had remitted £7,946 to the colony. Across New York state, signs heralding the arrival of “Bermuda onions” began appearing in greengrocers’ windows. In that golden spring of 1899, 446,551 crates of Bermuda onions, worth £64,225, found their way into American pantries, a record never surpassed. Small wonder that Bermuda was known as “the market garden of New York City” and that its citizens were soon affectionately labeled “onions.”

For just about as long as Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire –1837 to 1901– the onion held sway in the fields of Bermuda. Its heyday came in the 1880s and ’90s when during the spring crop-moving season, farmers’ carts clogged Front Street. Onion crates–slotted wooden boxes made of cheap imported North American lumber — were stacked high inside the waterfront sheds awaiting arrival of the government contract steamer to bear them to market. Like the Empire, the onion’s glory began to fade in the new century. By the 1920s, onions had virtually disappeared as an export. Today, Bermudians eagerly buy the small annual crop of local onions each spring and visitors buy belts, postcards and tea towels emblazoned with the onion. But the glory is gone.

In their death notices for the onion, local historians have long attributed the demise of the onion patch to a blight of American protectionism in the 1890s and the subsequent appearance of copy-cat American-grown “Bermuda onions.” Nasty Yankee farmers and their cronies in Congress are the villains. There is much truth in this. But the Bermuda onion probably contained the seeds of its own destruction. The export was undoubtedly doomed long before protectionist politicians ever set their sights on Bermuda’s translucent treasure. In fact, the onion enjoyed a glorious – yet perilous and ultimately fatal- existence on the edge of the North American market. When they could no longer pick onions profitably, Bermudians turned to the even more profitable art of cultivating American tourists.

Bermudians had in reality been growing onions since the days of the Bermuda Company, the Islands’ original coloniser in the 17th century; these were yellow onions or what we today call “cooking onions.” But Bermudians proved frustrated farmers. The colony initially dedicated itself to the growing of tobacco for England, but the market proved too distant and competition from Virginia too stiff. Sugar, silk, wine and even cotton all had their brief day after tobacco. If slavery never bit that deeply into Bermuda society as it did in the American South, it was largely because the colony never proved capable of sustaining agriculture on the scale of a Caribbean or Virginian plantation.

After the collapse of the Bermuda Company in 1684, the fruits of building ships out of durable local cedar and sailing them proved more lucrative. Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, Bermudians prospered first as privateers and then as the carriers of trade to the Caribbean and the eastern seaboard of North America. The lure of the sea had another impact on struggling agriculture: so many of the colony’s men took to the sea that there was a persistent gender imbalance in Bermuda society. Women outnumbered men on land by as much as 20 percent. Given the shortage of manpower, farming was relegated only to filling local mouths.

By the mid-19th century, the wind began to go out of Bermudian sails. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, there was less opportunity for the dashing privateering at which Bermudian sailors had excelled. And the carrying trade began discovering the economies and speed of steam and iron. Trade routes also shifted, becoming more transatlantic. When Lt.- Gen. William Reid arrived as the colony’s new governor in 1839, he found a society in the commercial doldrums. In 1842, for instance, Bermudians owned 53 vessels totalling 4,089 tons, but by 1854 the fleet would shrink to 44 sailing vessels comprising only 3,175 tons. Bermuda had failed to enter the age of steam.

Governor Reid was appalled by the condition of Bermudian agriculture. He complained that he could find only one workable plough in the whole colony. Bermuda’s farmers, he wrote, were lazy and untutored. Reid was one of those polymaths of the British Empire, a man intent on “improvement” wherever he went. In Barbados in the early 1830s, he had overseen construction of the colonial buildings. Seeing the damage wrought on the colony by hurricanes, wrote a treatise on the “law of storms.” In Bermuda, he determined to “improve” agriculture. The key was to introduce “scientific” farming and to find an exportable crop to fill the void left by the recession in shipping. He hired an emigration agent to attract productive British farmers to the colony’s “salubrious climate.” The British shunned Bermuda’s appeal, but hardworking Portuguese from Madeira soon began appearing in Bermudian fields. Reid also established a Board of Agriculture to school local growers and initiated an annual agricultural exhibition to promote better crops. In May, 1845, for instance, John Stephens won a drill sowing machine and a pronged fork as a prize for producing “the heaviest bunch of six onions from Bermuda seeds.”

Oranges first took Reid’s fancy. Bermuda navel oranges had always been much prized and Reid sought to commercialise them for export. In 1845, he sent a box of them to Queen Victoria, hoping royal patronage would open up the British market. The oranges, he was informed by the Secretary of the Royal Household, had been “served at the Royal Table and admired for their size and flavour…and her majesty was informed by whom they were sent.” This brilliant stroke of marketing,  however, was not enough to overcome the problems of the rust that attacked Bermuda oranges as they grew and the difficulties of shipping them to so distant a market. Citrus fruit was not to be Bermuda’s salvation.

Arrowroot offered better prospects. A tough fibrous root or rhizome, as the botanists call it–arrowroot had many uses. When dried, bleached and grated into a flour, it became the basis of biscuits and pablum renowned for easy digestion. Invalid soldiers in the Crimean War of the 1850s would be fed Bermuda arrowroot by Florence Nightingale. Arrowroot was also a thickening agent and would later be employed to stiffen photographic paper. Beginning as a cottage industry in the 1830s, Bermuda arrowroot soon became the colony’s leading export. By the early 1850s, the Island was exporting about a quarter of a million pounds of arrowroot flour a year. Bermuda arrowroot, along with a Bermuda cedar dinghy, was proudly sent for display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London as evidence of what Bermudians did best. By the late century, two arrowroot “factories” appeared and Bermuda arrowroot, packed in small wooden crates lined with blue tissue paper, gave the colony its first distinctive agricultural export. One of these factories was at Camden- now the centrepiece of Bermuda’s Botanical Gardens, where arrowroot may still be seen growing.

Arrowroot had its drawbacks. Its cultivation took a full crop year and was labour intensive- the drying and bleaching of the root took many hands and much water, a scarce commodity in Bermuda. Worse still, lower-cost arrowroot from West Indian colonies like St. Vincent soon appeared on the market. Bermudian arrowroot peaked in the 1870s and was virtually extinct by the First World War.

Enter the onion. The Bermuda onion–allium cepa. There are many tales of how the onion first came to Bermuda. Nathaniel Cooper, a member of the Assembly for Warwick, supplied one credible rendition in 1902. In 1845, a local captain, John D. Bell of Southampton, had called to buy wine and collect immigrants at Tenerife in the Canary Islands while returning from England in his brig the Golden Rule. There he had seen local farmers drying onion seed in the sun. Tenerife onions were sweeter and whiter than those Bell had tasted at home, so he bought some seed to take home. Bell had initiated a local tradition; late into the century Tenerife onion seed-£952 worth in 1892, for instance– appeared in the list of the colony’s annual imports.

The Tenerife onion flourished in Bermuda. It was not only sweeter and milder than its namesake, but it matured earlier. Bermudians learned that onion seed sown in October or November could be planted a month later and “pulled” in early April. It was this quick maturation in the colony’s famous mild winter that was to prove the “Bermuda” onion’s crucial advantage. Only once in its history–on December 24, 1840-had Bermudians ever recorded the touch of frost. A window of opportunity opened before would-be Bermuda farmers. Here was a fast-growing, robust crop that required a minimum of tending and could be harvested easily, trimmed and sent to market in bulk. And the market was closer than Queen Victoria’s table: the lucrative New York market, only 48 hours’ sailing away.

There was an important “if” in the equation. To make money, Bermuda onions had to beat the competition–American or Caribbean onions-to market. Only if the colony’s onions could be pulled and delivered to New York by mid-April could they command a premium price in New York. A cool Bermuda winter, inadequate ocean transport or a warm winter in the southern American states would expose Bermuda farmers to ruinous competition from other “early” vegetables. It was a risk that Bermudians were prepared to take and onions were soon joined by potatoes, tomatoes, celery and, with the invention of refrigerated “chill rooms” for ships, other truck vegetables.

By the mid-1850s, the onion had surpassed arrowroot as the leading export crop of the colony. As Americans began to crowd into industrialised northern cities, their appetite for food became insatiable. The Civil War accelerated the trend. Thus, in a crescendo that stretched to the end of the century, Bermuda onion production grew impressively to its peak in 1899 of 446,551 crates. The colonial government facilitated the flow by providing subsidised “steam communication” to New York. In “rop-moving season” in April and May, Hamilton harbour took on the appearance of military exercise. An extra contract steamer was brought in and stevedores worked long into the night to load the ships so that they would be ready to take advantage of the next high tide to carry them over the shallow passages that governed access to the port. Since there was no cable link to North America until 1891, returning contract ships were eagerly awaited because they brought the news of prevailing prices in New York.

Despite the boom, it was a precarious game. Bermudians were staking everything on one predominant crop and one predominant market. The market was often fickle. “The past year was one of unusual prosperity for this colony,” the American consul Charles Allen reported to Washington in 1878, “and although the quantity of the products of the islands were below the average for several years, they found a ready market at good prices. The present year has been quite the reverse of the last one–the high prices of the island produce in 1877 caused the planters to cultivate all the land possible at a heavy outlay and although the season was favourable and the crop unprecedentedly large, the prices received in New York the principal market were so low that nearly one half the amount shipped paid but little more than the shipping expenses and large quantities were left ungathered.”

Bermuda’s governors fretted that the colony’s farmers were in a dangerous one-crop rut. Their only monopoly was over the winter weather; at all other times Americans could supply cheaper and more plentiful vegetables. In 1878, Governor Laffan confided his fears to London: “Early spring vegetables are not necessities but luxuries… [and]…during times of commercial crisis and suspension of manufacture there will no longer be the same purchasing power in the working classes with which to procure the Bermudian delicacies, and during periods of commercial depression in America the price of Bermudian produce may always be expected to fall.”

There were other pitfalls. In 1888, a mysterious blight hit the crop, rotting the onions in the Bermuda ground. Exports fell to 146,586 crates. Even in boom times, there was only so much land in Bermuda fit for agriculture. Laffan estimated that only 1,000 of the colony’s 12,000 acres were worthy for agriculture. By the new century, the pressures of growth in Bermuda were driving up the price of land, pushing it out reach of the farmer. “There is no business where we can vie with the outer world because we are too picayune, too small,” a Southampton member of the Assembly alleged in 1914. “Everything is small except money. That is very big. A man has a good piece of property here can get good money for it in renting it.” Hotels, not onions, soon seemed a more lucrative, long-term bet for Bermuda landowners.

Crated onions await shipment to the greengrocers of New York

In the midst of all this the mood of America changed. New food technologies cut Bermuda’s traditional climatic advantage; canned tomatoes tasted the same in February as they did in August. Transportation changed too; in 1914 the Panama Canal allowed new competitors access to the big urban markets of the east coast. Politicians responded to the cries of American producers for protection from foreign competition. The notorious McKinley tariff of 1890 did hit the onion patch hard. Pier 47 now had a stiff tariff wall behind it. In 1892, Bermuda farmers paid £27,800 in duty on an export crop of £107,600, three quarters of which was onions. Not only did American farmers want to grow more within their own borders, but America’s borders in the late 19th century were in fact growing. Warm, semi-tropical additions to the American sphere–Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico- meant that America could grow what it had hitherto had to import. And this included onions.

What Captain Bell did to Tenerife in 1845, the Americans now did to Bermuda. Farmers in Florida and Texas began planting Bermuda onions. Most Bermudians will tell you that they can taste the difference between a Bermuda-grown onion and an onion grown elsewhere. Turn-of-the-century New Yorkers hardly bothered to compare the two, especially since the new onions were cheaper and more plentiful. What had once been an imported delicacy became an affordable staple of the American diet. Bermuda agriculture was in trouble. The earning power of agricultural exports had in fact peaked a decade earlier, at £110,243 in 1890. First tomatoes disappeared. Then beets. Onions reached their high water mark of £84,112 in 1897 and then steadily ebbed away. Value fell quicker than volume. By 1913, 65,074 crates fetched a meagre £8,126. With depressing regularity, the governor’s speech at the opening of the legislative session began with comments on the “unsatisfactory” state of Bermuda agriculture.

The farmers fought back. They sought a reciprocity deal with the Americans, despatching three prominent local merchant politicians to Washington in 1899. There they found that the protectionist McKinley was in the White House. The deal sank in Congress. Desperate to control their access to the New York market, Bermudian farmers formed a producers’ exchange- -a cartel in the hope of breaking the tyranny of the New York middlemen. Bermuda was by now a bit player in New York and the exchange soon collapsed, leaving behind a huge debt. New markets were then sought. In 1902, the Board of Agriculture paid a subsidy of £1,000 to introduce Bermuda onions to mother Britain. “They are the greatest onion-eating people in the world,” a member o the Assembly confidently predicted. Without a regular steamer connection across the Atlantic, Bermuda onions soon lost out to their cheaper Egyptian cousins. Back in the Assembly, one Assemblyman alleged that only the hard working Portuguese family farms could clear a profit in the onion patch. Only the delicate Bermuda lily maintained its seasonal hold on American affections; here alone local agriculture retained its climatic edge on American farms.

As the onion died, tourism was born. In 1911, the speech at the opening of the session contained the good news that the colony had entered a “new stage of development.” For the first time, annual visitor arrivals-27,045 in 1911- had exceeded the island’s population. New hotels appeared on the south shore on Elbow Beach and in St. George’s. Government revenues, long depressed by agriculture, revived. If Bermuda were no longer to be the market garden of New York, it would be a “summer playground in New York’s backyard.” Throughout North America, the onion and the lily had done their work as effective advertisers of Bermudas winter warmth.

By 1926, there were only 140 acres of onion fields left in Bermuda. That year the colony’s Trade Development Board received a letter from its Toronto advertising agency. How should they tackle “the difficulty of overcoming the Texas-Bermuda Onions’ being universally sold as genuine Bermudas”? To this day there is a persistent anecdote that a Texas town actually changed its name to “Bermuda” so as to be able to counterfeit the real thing. A search of old and present-day atlases furnishes no proof of this tale. What had happened instead was that the Bermuda onion had by the 1920s become a generic–like aspirin or Kleenex. In 1925, Bermuda shipped only 21,170 crates of onions to America. Americans ate over two million bushels. The Toronto advertisers were told to do nothing. “Is it reasonable, the clerk of the Board of Agriculture wrote, “that two million bushels of American-grown onions are now sold in every town in the States on our former reputation? American-grown onions are sold where ours were never heard of.” Why hassle the Americans over onions when a fresh crop of tourists with lots of green backs had just left Pier 47 for a week in the onion patch?

Next time you see the “Bermuda onion” proudly offered on a menu in an American restaurant, why not shed a tear for that old friend of Bermuda, the onion? Perhaps the waiter might be given a little history lesson. Just make sure that there’s nobody from Tenerife sitting at the next table.

Reprinted from Short Bermudas: Essays on Island Life, by Sandra Campbell & Duncan McDowall.