What a quiet cemetery in St. George’s has to tell us about the Empire
On days when the cruise ships are in port, the mini-bus tours rattle by every five minutes or so. They barely pause, slowing down just long enough to take in the view. Certainly, it is as fine a view as Bermuda has to offer: the aquamarine sea of Hurd Channel to the northeast, the miniscule but photo-perfect pink beach at Drew’s Bay and, on the knoll of the adjacent hill, the monument to Bermuda’s 400th anniversary. Here, on this sea-swept northeast shore of St. George’s, is where the Sea Venture was driven onto the reefs in 1609 and where Bermuda began as a society. Here also—if you pivot and look across the road to the walled cemetery that abuts this picturesque vista—is where Bermuda service ended for many a British soldier.
Before accelerating away, the taxi guide points out that this was the military cemetery on Grenadier Lane, once grimly dubbed the “Yellow Fever Cemetery.” Dying and death, however, seldom register in a tourist’s expectations. Perhaps a pilgrimage to the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison in Père Lachaise in Paris or President Kennedy at Arlington, but hardly a moment to halt and remember anonymous soldiers of the nineteenth century. So the tour hurries onward to the more enticing sights of the Town Cut and the expansive, uplifting vista of St. George’s Harbour. A sunny solitude again retakes the cemetery, the Bermudiana flowers stirring in the warm breeze, the bluebirds flitting above and the sun etching tombstone shadows into this pasture of death. The feral chickens—the only visitors—peck their way from grave to grave.
The Grenadier Lane military cemetery is hardly an oddity. Bermuda’s tightly packed landscape is dotted with steeples and tombstones. Bermudians attend funerals with a zeal and reverence now seldom seen in larger, more secularised societies—long, heartfelt newspaper obituaries precede dark-suited, heavily attended church services. The island has even developed idiosyncratic burial practices—cemeteries contend for precious space and therefore employ vaults which protrude above ground to allow a kind of easily accessed family condominium after death, although Bermuda law prohibits the reopening of such vaults for a year and a day to allow full decay of their incumbents. Hilary and Dick Tulloch have recently published a painstaking inventory of all the inscriptions on Bermuda gravestones. For all its meticulousness, Bermuda Memorial Inscriptions (Bermuda National Trust & National Museum of Bermuda, 2011) understandably conveys little intimate sense of the human experience that these talismanic inscriptions hint at for us today. The inscriptions are, in fact, an invitation not only to ponder lives lived in an embryonic colonial society, but also to remember them in the context of an empire that some grandiosely boasted painted the map of the world imperial “pink.”
Almost exactly a century ago, as the world plunged into a hitherto unimaginable Armageddon along the western salient in Europe, a young English poet reflected on the essence of a pro patria life. Rupert Brooke—an Adonis of an English lad—had been schooled at Rugby and Cambridge, where he became a member of the Apostles, a fraternity of elite, young Britons at the university, dedicated to cultural and political uplift. Brooke’s talent lay in his poetic pen. He wrote in the high diction style so popular in the late Victorian period—writing that foregrounded high moral purpose and noble self-abnegation. The outbreak of war in 1914 irresistibly aroused such instincts. A personal connection with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill brought 27-year-old Brooke a commission in the naval reserve. Military opportunity was accompanied by literary fame. In early 1915, as the realization dawned that the war would be one of bloody attrition, Brooke penned a series of sonnets that epitomised the kind of heroism now demanded. One of these, The Soldier, was read from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915. It evoked the sacrifice that would now overtake millions along the trench lines of the north European plain:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed…
A scant three weeks later, on his way to the slaughterhouse of Gallipoli, Brooke died from an infected mosquito bite on the Greek island of Skyros. His colleagues laid him to rest in his own “corner of a foreign field”—a nearby olive grove. His greatest poem has echoed down through the decades, paradoxically reflecting a romantic sensibility that, for most, the Great War would extinguish forever.
Bermuda’s military cemeteries are full of similar, if less renowned, lives, echoing deep into the century that preceded the Great War. They are repositories of seamen and soldiers caught up in an imperial nexus that bound the globe in that breathtaking century of the pax Britannia. The last British troops garrisoned in Bermuda sailed away in the early 1950s, leaving a naval rump which itself departed at the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. The fortifications—and graves—they left behind offer us a window on a world we have lost.
Few today are, however, inclined to revisit the glory and the pain of Britain’s imperial world. “It is an empire,” Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has written, “that dare not speak its name. It is an empire in denial.” In many minds, “empire” today is neatly synonymous with exploitation, oppression and hegemony. Colonialism is a dirty word. At its worst, the word evokes slavery and eminent domain. Such disdain, however, deflects our attention from a more nuanced appreciation of the complex experience of empire. How did the imperial experience wash through the lives of its workaday emissaries—the men who garrisoned its outposts? Does our rush to judgment of empire as a kind of evil proto-globalization impede our understanding of its real legacies—both negative and positive? Would India be a nation today if it not for the railways, telegraphs, civil service and lingua franca installed there by the British Empire? “The difficulty with the achievements of empire,” Ferguson has concluded in Empire (2002), “is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire.”
A walk through any one of Bermuda’s military cemeteries can open our imagination to the protean legacy of empire. On Ireland Island, the naval cemetery sitting in its palm-lined valley speaks of a century when the Royal Navy “ruled the waves,” thereby building and guarding the world`s first global economy. The inscriptions tell of young sailors falling from the rigging, drowning in Grassy Bay or being crushed by runaway cannons. At the opposite end of the island at Grenadier Lane, over two hundred and fifty tombs tell a similar tale—death in a foreign place—but by different means. The soldiers buried here had been assigned to garrison duty at the east end of the colony.
From its earliest settlement, Bermuda
;felt most vulnerable to seaborne attack at this end of the island, where any approach from seaward was least impeded by reefs. Fortifications dot the St. George’s coastline, supported by an inland complex of barracks, storehouses, drill squares, hospitals and garrison churches. Since the American Revolution, Britain had rotated army units through the colony to guard its ramparts. Each regiment or battalion left its mark on Bermuda—improved fortifications, enhanced weaponry, pomp and circumstance—but perhaps their most evocative legacy lies in the cemeteries they filled. Through most of the nineteenth century, from its consecration in 1806 until its last known interment in 1893, Grenadier Lane served as the last resting place of many a British lad a long way from home.
The graves in Grenadier Lane cemetery defy any rational geography. They are scattered, oblivious to preordained pattern. There is none of the symmetry of modern military cemeteries—“between the crosses row on row/ the poppies grow…” as Canadian poet John McCrae would famously write in the First World War. Some graves are clustered by military affiliation; others by date. The first thing that strikes the modern-day visitor to Grenadier Lane is that virtually none of those buried here died in combat, a reflection of the fact that, for all its formidable military investment, Bermuda has never fired a shot in anger. (Once, possibly, a cannon was fired at a passing Spanish galleon shortly after Bermuda was established as a company colony in the seventeenth century.) Instead, these soldiers died from disease, accident and natural causes. The inscriptions tell it all.
Yellow fever was Bermuda’s grimmest reaper in the nineteenth century. Severe epidemics swept through the colony in 1819, 1829, 1837, 1843, 1844, 1853, 1856 and 1864. In 1853, an estimated 814 colonists and soldiers died of yellow fever, roughly seven per cent of the colony’s 11,000 inhabitants. In 1864, the toll was 471, of whom an extraordinary 206 were military victims. The tombstones at Grenadier Lane record the horrific toll. St. George’s in that fateful year of 1864 was garrisoned by the Second Battalion of the Queen’s Royals. As the second-oldest line infantry regiment in the British Army, the Queen’s Royals boasted a proud lineage. Raised in the 1660s by the Earl of Peterborough to bolster the restored monarchy of King Charles II, the unit`s name honoured Charles’s queen, Catherine of Braganza. Nicknamed “Kirke’s Lambs” after their first colonel, Percy Kirke, the regiment had been deployed to garrison Tangier, and then to fight the Catholic Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Other battle honours followed in the War of the Spanish Succession, in the Peninsula War, against Napoleon at the siege of Alexandria in Egypt, in Britain’s ill-fated incursion into Afghanistan in the 1830s and battling the Kaffirs at the Cape in the 1850s. The regimental motto—“Mindful of Former Valour”—captured this esprit. More tranquil garrison duty in India, Malta, the Caribbean and Ireland punctuated this record of imperial adventure. In 1857, a second battalion of the Queen’s Royals was formed: this unit found itself stationed in St. George’s in that fateful summer of 1864.
Yellow fever usually arrived with the summer heat. Its symptoms were unmistakable: high fever, a flushed face, reddening of the eyes and tongue and, as the virulence entered the kidney and liver, projectile vomiting of putrid black vomit. “Yellow jack” worked quickly. Over a usual cycle of five days, the victim descended into a hell of writhing agony, culminating in a false calm that preceded death. Few survived. Once a sufferer was dead, bodies were hastily buried for fear of spreading the contagion. In 1806, it was this same fear of contagion that prompted the good burghers of St. George’s to purchase a lot on the outskirts of town where epidemic victims might be buried to alleviate the pressure on the town cemetery beside St. Paul’s Church. Grenadier Lane thus received its first grim fever burials in the yellow fever epidemic of 1819.
The first deaths in 1864 came in June and the dying peaked in August. The military, cooped up in their humid, airless barracks, were easy prey. A year later, The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, carried an indictment of the conditions in the St. George’s garrison, conditions believed conducive to the unchecked spread of disease. Surgeon-Major John Barrow reported to the Royal Military Hospital in Hampshire that overcrowded, poorly ventilated and sanitized quarters for the troops had left them defenceless against yellow fever. “Is it too much to say,” Barrow sermonized, “that it is a disgrace to our civilization and a blot on our character as a nation that prides itself on cleanliness as a distinguishing national characteristic?” Barrow claimed that such fetid conditions had been accentuated that summer by a reluctance to move the troops out of their claustrophobic barracks to life under canvas on the breezy heights above the town and at Ferry Reach. What Barrow never mentioned—and what would not in fact be understood until the Americans realized it in Cuba and Panama decades later—was that it was the seemingly innocuous Aedes aegypti mosquito that caused yellow fever, not pollution or proximity to other victims.
Whatever the cause, soldiers of the Queen’s Royals died in droves that summer. Most died in the nearby military hospital, others having been hurriedly sequestered on Nonsuch Island. Eager to remove pestilence from what Barrow called the “tainted district,” hasty burials were arranged. One can imagine the sorrowful yet nervous burial parties marching out to Grenadier Lane, where the chaplain delivered a brisk prayer and frantic shovelling ensued. Only when the contagion flagged later in the year did thoughts turn to more permanent memorials. Grenadier Lane is dotted with such memento mori. Each conveys to the visitor of today something of life and death in an outpost of empire.
Look, for instance, at the white marble obelisk standing proudly on its own on the western slope of the cemetery. Here lies the largest aggregation of fever victims from the Queen’s Royals. On one flank, a solemn list commemorates the 47 privates of the 2nd Battalion swept away by yellow jack in 1864. The monument had been erected by “their comrades.” The stone is durable marble, not soft Bermuda stone, the marble imported to ensure permanence and to ensure due respect over the ages. Atop the obelisk is the regiment symbol: a haloed lamb bearing a flag emblazoned with the cross of St. George. (The regiment was nicknamed “the mutton.”) On the other side is the word “Egypt,” a remembrance of past glories. Just down the slope lies another doleful marker, that of Lieutenant George Turnor of the 2nd Battalion. This too is erected by his “sorrowing comrades” who celebrated their lost colleague in the language of the high diction: “…to the memory of one who by a most zealous and conscientious discharge of his duties gained the respect and affection of all with whom he was associated.” So enduring was the regiment`s regard for Turnor that, when again garrisoned in Bermuda just before the Great War, a new marble stone was set over the grave.
The theme of duty in the face of pestilence surfaces again on stones nearby. So great was the depletion of the Queen`s Royals in the summer of 1864 that medical reinforcement was sent south from the British garrisons in Montreal and Halifax to minster in the fever wards at St. George`s. One such newcomer was a 38-year-old Scottish doctor, David Milroy, of the 30th Cambridgeshire Regiment. He arrived on either August 23rd or 25th and was dead by September 3rd—of the same disease he came to cure. His marble stone was
erected by “his afflicted father,” an Edinburgh minster, and the rest of his grieving family. The epitaph reads like a roll call of imperial honour: “…served with distinction throughout the battles of Alma, Inkerman and Sebastopol” in the Crimean War. The Bible provided the final exhortation: “Soldier of Christ well done,/Praise be thy new employ./The battle fought, the victory won,/Enter they Master’s joy.” Nearby lies John Clark, a surgeon of the 15th Regiment who succumbed the day after his Scottish colleague: “…zealous in the discharge of his public duties…he cometh forth like a flower and is cut down…” Every one of the doctors arriving from the Canadas contracted yellow fever; four never returned north.
Perhaps most poignant is the 1840 tombstone of Private John Wallace of the 30th Regiment, erected by his brother David. Not far away, one is startled to encounter David’s own stone commemorating his 1843 death, presumably a victim of that year’s visitation of the yellow jack.
Even when yellow fever was in abeyance, death reaped its harvest in the garrison. Inscriptions throughout the cemetery bear witness to a grim fatalism: “be ye also ready…we cannot tell who next may fall…[and]…the winter of trouble has passed.” In the nineteenth century, garrison troops were permitted to bring their families with them to the edges of empire. Thus, one encounters small, economically worded stones that capture domestic sadness—a wife lost in childbirth, a daughter drowned in St. George’s harbour. “This lovely bud, so young and fair,” we read, “in paradise will bloom.” Such stones are often crudely carved (sometimes marked by spelling mistakes and cramped lettering, both touching and crude) on slate slabs (possibly purloined from military rooftops) and set in Bermuda stone plinths.
Elsewhere, one senses enduring military camaraderie. When Richard Simmons of the 34th Company Royal Engineers accidently drowned in 1862, his comrades passed the hat to pay for his “humble tablet.” When Sergeant Michael Fynnes succumbed to yellow fever in 1843, his fellow sergeant James Farquhar honoured his “staunch comrade” by paying for his stone. When Drummer Thomas Bennett died in 1867, “his comrade drummers” honoured his loss with a small, vernacular stone barely readable today. To read such small and eroding memorials, one often finds oneself on hands and knees squinting to decipher the faded lettering. But looking up, one is struck by the thought that on such a very powerful, personal level this was the Empire. No textbook can convey this close a sense of history. However historians and politicians today weigh the legacy of empire, this small corner of a foreign field bears intimate witness to the men and women who invested their lives in its unfolding.
Today, the Grenadier Lane cemetery exists under the watchful eye of Bermuda’s National Trust. Periodically, lawnmowers wind their way through the tombstones. Otherwise, this sunny memorial to times long past remains largely unvisited. One is struck by the fact that not a single grave is graced by a bouquet or keepsake. The “sorrowing comrades” have long departed; next of kin in Great Britain, informed of death in a faraway and unreachable place, would very rarely have ventured to visit so distant a corner of empire. Perhaps genealogists occasionally frequent the place, now more likely however via the Internet or through the pages of the Tullochs’ exhaustive catalogue than in person. But the graves along Grenadier Lane await our curious eyes over a century and a half later. They speak of lives expended in an imperial cause which at the same time shaped Bermuda’s evolution. They contain the “rich dust” of Rupert Brooke’s lost world. In the words of one 1833 inscription: “Short was my time and long shall be my rest.”
Duncan McDowall is University Historian at Queen`s University in Kingston, Ontario. He has explored the nooks and crannies of Bermuda for decades and has written extensively about its history and heritage in books and magazines. The National Museum of Bermuda will shortly publish Short Bermudas, a collection of articles written jointly with his wife, Dr. Sandy Campbell.