This article was taken from our archives. It comes from the Spring 2012 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
In the advent of Bermuda tourism, the island was strategically promoted as the ideal playground for affluent (white) Americans, Part 1.
Where would tourism be without Mark Twain? From his first visit in 1868 until his last departure in 1910, Twain endowed Bermuda with a trove of quotable quotes that have adorned travel guides and hotel brochures ever since. These islands, Twain said, were “the Islands of the Blest;’ where “British” decorum and “marvelous cleanliness” prevailed. Bermuda was a place of”snow-white houses peeping from the dull green vegetation” where one could really relax among “respectable” people. “You go co heaven if you want to:’ he quipped before he was invalided out of Bermuda days before his death. ”I’d rather stay here.”
There can be no doubt that Twain loved Bermuda. He loved puttering along its lanes in a cart pulled by his favourite donkey, Maude. On hot afternoons, he installed himself on the broad verandah of the Princess Hotel, puffed on a fat cigar and spun tall tales for all and sundry. At his funeral in New York, Bermuda lilies surrounded his coffin.
However, we must understand that to a degree Twain’s Bermudaphilia was an invented persona. Twain was one of the world’s first literary celebrities. Like Charles Dickens before him and like his flamboyant contemporary Oscar Wilde, Twain instinctively understood that his reputation rested not only on his literary output but also on the personality he projected to the public. An author developed a colourful reputation by interacting with the places he visited. Thus, the right witticism here or the cynical barb there forever attached an author to the places he frequented. Like a prototype Paul Theroux, Eric Newby or Bill Bryson, Twain knew how to ingratiate, or at times vilify, himself in foreign places. Paris, with its wee, cool weather was never a Twain favourite. “The objects of which Paris folks are fond;’ he jabbed, ” [are] literature, art, medicine and adultery.” Life in New York, Twain advised, would never be easy until one “learned to swear with utmost fluency in seventeen languages.” He was kinder to Niagara Falls-“a most enjoyable place of resort” – and its Horseshoe Falls -“stupendous … cannot improve on it.”
Whether or not Twain traded on his love of Bermuda, his affection quickly rooted itself in the Bermuda psyche. The colony was a place fundamentally different from the hurly-burly of America; it was tranquil, courteous, untarnished by sooty industry and possessed of British balance and deference. Twain attracted his literary friends to Bermuda, all of whom picked up the Bermuda bug. Charles Dudley Warner, editor of Harper’s, extolled the colony’s restfulness to his readers in 1894: “This protection from the noise and excitement of modern life is one of the great charms of the island.” It was no coincidence that Twain and Warner teamed up in 1873 to write the novel The Gilded Age, the classic indictment of late nineteenth-century American materialism.
For Twain and Warner, Bermuda was the antidote for America’s ills, a place that reminded them of a world they believed civil war and urbanization had snatched from them. In 1907, Twain and Woodrow Wilson, a future American president and Bermuda lover, would be vocal in agitation for the banning of automobiles from their island paradise.
Thus, by the time Bermuda merchants began to groom their island as a tourist destination, they did not have far to reach for promotional rhetoric. When the Trade Development Board-Front Street’s command post for tourism-published its first promotional brochure in 1914, the tide, Nature’s Fairyland, and text were steeped in a Twain-inspired aesthetic. Bermuda, they boasted, was “a wholesome, noiseless country” free of detritus of the Gilded Age. Soon, the colonial post office began franking envelopes with the catch phrase “Come to the Islands of Rest.” Bermuda, it seemed, would dedicate itself to satiating the appetites of affluent but harried Americans.
If Bermuda tourism promoters intuitively knew what values to foreground from late nineteenth-century literary visitors to Bermuda, they also sensed what values they should suppress or, at least, leave understated. Embedded in all the flattering articles about Bermuda in Harper’s, Godey’s Ladies Magazine and The New York Times was a racial interpretation of Bermuda society that in its own way differentiated Bermuda from North American society.
At this point, a historian would remind us of the broader racial and economic context of Bermuda in the late nineteenth century. Bermuda had freed its slaves in 1834 and had installed a property-driven colonial democracy dominated by whites. It was an inclusive society in the sense that black Bermudians”coloureds;’ as they were then called – had certain entitlements under the British scheme of colonial governance. They could farm, work for wages and, if they ever acquired enough property, enjoy certain political privileges. At the same time, Bermuda’s declining agricultural prowess as an onion patch was making it imperative to find a new economic staple. Twain had aroused the hope that instead of onions Bermudians might profitably cultivate tourists.
At the same time, America on the other side of the Gulf Stream was still licking the wounds of the Civil War. Blacks were now free but struggling to secure an economic foothold in the reunified republic. In the South, Jim Crow legislation proscribed the rights of freed blacks. Hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks were soon streaming north in search of factory jobs. America’s cities were becoming a multiracial polyglot nurtured by unregulated capitalism. The seeming stability and deference of prewar American society was gone.
American historian George Fredrickson has written in his seminal The Black Image in the White Mind that late nineteenth-century America was awash with racial anxiety. Fear gripped some: Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina saw the black as “a fiend, a beast seeking whom he may devour.” Others paternalistically believed that the Negro could be integrated into mainstream society through education and suffrage.
In Bermuda, Twain and his ilk believed they had rediscovered the world they had lost. Here was a society where everybody knew their place, where there was balance and deference. Twain, Warner and others noted with pleasure that Bermuda coloureds saluted them in military fashion as they passed, a habit they surmised was copied from the British military. In language alien to us today, Warner described the “comely little pickaninnies” who sat on the walls of lanes decked with flowers and projected a sense of contentment with their station in life. Visiting academics detected a favourable distinctiveness in Bermuda’s blacks. In 1890, The journal of American Folk-Lore praised Gombey dancing as a commendable “festive rite.” “The coloured population of Bermuda have, in general;’ the journal haughtily announced, “attained a higher stage of development and made greater progress in civilization than their kindred in the Southern states.”
The implication was that Bermuda blacks handled their freedom well; they had not usurped their preordained place in society, and they were content to exist in a British society rooted in deference and gradualism. While this inclination had not brought them the wealth of Front Street merchants, they enjoyed a quality of life that outside observers, perhaps fancifully, insisted was admirable.
Writing in Godey’s Magazine in 1894, Mary Child found Bermuda blacks “superior to our own in many ways-intelligent, always polite, and with no dialect. Some are well-to-do, but even the poorest dwells in a neat little cottage that may at the worst need whitewash but is never squalid.” Child wondered, “Where do the poor people live?”
Another American writer, Julia Dorr, remarked that there did not seem to be any overt segregation in Bermuda society. Whites and blacks intermingled in the churches every Sunday. “The still higher development of the coloured race;’ Dorr predicted, “may be looked for in the not distant future.” By the turn of the new century, Bushell’s Handbook to Bermuda touted the virtues of Bermuda’s coloured population: “Their cheerful and easy disposition and good natured humour are proverbial … They stand Bermuda on an entirely different ground from those in the Southern States and even in the Northern cities.”
The stereotype of Bermuda blacks as courteous, progressive and yet deferential persisted into the twentieth century. Take the year 1939, for instance. That year, writing in House and Garden, novelist and one-time Bermuda resident Edward Acheson noted that by visiting the colony “one could go back into the more comprehensible life of the Nineteenth Century.” Bermuda provided America with an “antidote to itself”
“Once you become accustomed to your very black cook speaking with a slight reminiscence of an Oxford accent;’ Acheson assured his readers, “the idyllic quality of the situation is manifest.”
That same year-the year that Gone with the Wind galvanized American theatregoers – Bruce Lancaster and Lowell Brentano published their epic novel of nineteenth-century Bermuda life, Bride of a Thousand Cedars. Here was a society where good had prevailed over bad, where the plantation house didn’t have to go up in flames. “I tell you, Sally;” the family patriarch tells his daughter, “we live in the best colony in the Empire…We may not have the plantations that young Hyatt [an American from the South] was bragging about, but we’ve no slaves either.”
There was a very large dose of wishful thinking and condescension in this view of racial relations in Bermuda. Foreign visitors were often guilty of salving the angst of their homeland in the imagined serenity of Bermuda. Former U.S. president Howard Taft, for instance, told readers of The National Geographic in 1922 that the colony offered “lessons in happiness.” While praising its “unique record of popular government;’ Taft: downplayed any recognition that black Bermudians were largely excluded from the exercise of democracy by the stiff property restrictions on voting in Bermuda. In 1938, the American popular historian Frederick Lewis Allen noted in Harper’s that “in its handling of the colour problem does the ruling class show how to be conservative gracefully.”
These racial stereotypes were keenly noted on Front Street at the Trade Development Board, the government agency established in 1913 to groom the colony’s touristic potential. The attraction was made particularly powerful by the fact that the people who entertained these notions of racial superiority-the wealthy, American patricians in the Northeast states who read Harpers and Godey’s – were exactly the same constituency that Bermuda saw as its tourist mainstay. Let them come to Bermuda, the unspoken logic of the Trade Development Board suggested, and chink that they were in a racial Disneyland.
While this strategy could not, of course, be overtly conveyed, it could be subtly propagated by downplaying blacks in advertising and by allowing word-of-mouth to spread the word in the posh circles of Boston, New York and Philadelphia that Bermuda was a place untroubled by racial tension. Glance, for instance, through the first decade’s issues of this magazine and you would think that Bermuda was an exclusively white society. For all its literary flair, brilliant photography and smart set gossip, The Bermudian of the 1930s projected the image of a place where smiling blacks drove carriages, served drinks and never intruded on the white man’s frolic in the Gulf Stream.
There was an added dimension to the typecasting of racial stereotypes in the Bermuda tourist product. The men who controlled the Trade Development Board wore many hats. Perhaps the most important was the one they wore to the Colonial Assembly, where, as Taft: noted, they monopolized a “small restricted government.”
The exponential success of tourism in the years after 1913 allowed Bermuda’s white tourism promoters to exercise a powerful measure of social control over the entire colony. Bermudians must be trained to act out the roles outsiders believed they had detected in their sojourns in the colony. Friendliness and deference were imperative. Such deportment would attract tourists and at the same time buttress the established order in the colony. Bermuda must conduct itself like a tranquil English village transplanted to the tropics. The Trade Development Board instructed local educational authorities to drill students in the art of being friendly to the tourists. Look, fori nstance, at Phyllis Garrard’s 1938 children’s book Banana Tree House, a book used in local schools to tutor young Bermudians in tourist-friendly deportment. Garrard, a New Zealander who lived in Bermuda, spun the tale of Sukey, a pig-tailed little black girl, and her willingness to show “two elegant white ladies” around her homeland. “The ladies asked so many questions, the carriage halted many times, and Sukey felt like a complete guide to the Bermuda Islands.”
Even the souvenirs sold to tourists conveyed a racial message. The Tucker sisters, famous for their watercolours and tearoom, fashioned a dinner bell in the image of rebel slave Sally Bassett, who had allegedly tried to poison her masters and was consequently sentenced to death by fire. With the bell, Sally could be employed to summon the kitchen staff.
Certainly, Front Street’s management of tourism did bring tremendous prosperity to Bermuda. Tourists did replace onions and allowed Bermuda to pioneer what was probably the most successful carriage-trade tourism industry the world has ever seen. Tourism washed lucratively through the Bermuda economy for almost a century. And undeniably, its bounty trickled down through the whole of Bermuda society, even if the largest tributary flowed down Front Street. Few Bermudians -black or white- would have denied the immense boost tourism gave to all Bermudians.
However, such progress had a political edge. Time and again, whenever a bone of political contention arose, Bermudians outside the charmed inner circle of Bermuda politics were subtly reminded that their prosperity depended on the perpetuation of the colony being regarded as a friendly, stable place not subject to the fissures of a racially charged American society. The message was implicit: rock the boat and the tourist trade will abandon us. The colony had enough cultural contact with the Caribbean for Bermudians to know that they enjoyed a far superior quality of life than the inhabitants of the colonies to their south did, which still struggled to extract a precarious livelihood from sugar, bauxite and bananas. Do you want to be like Jamaica, the query went?
A version of this article was originally given as part of the Department of Community & Cultural Affeirs Historical Heartbeats lecture series in 2011. Duncan McDowall is University Historian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1999, Macmillan in London published his Another World: Bermuda and the Rise of Modern Tourism.