In the advent of Bermuda tourism, the island was strategically promoted as the ideal playground for affluent (white) Americans. Part II
There were other dimensions to maintaining the racial idyll of Bermuda tourism. Whites coming to Bermuda had to feel that they were in a white paradise. Yes, there would be blacks in their midst but they would be like Acheson’s cook—friendly, efficient and unobtrusive. There was never any suggestion that Bermuda would court black tourists; they would spoil the ethos.
In reality, very few American blacks could afford the tab. To clinch the point, the Colonial Assembly equipped the island’s hoteliers with the power of discrimination. In 1930, the Hotel Keepers Act, first passed in 1905, was stiffened to allow hotelkeepers to “refuse to admit any person on the hotel premises of which he is the keeper.” It was now dubbed the Hotel Keepers Protection Act—note the addition of the word “protection.” If the would-be guest persisted, the hotel might “use such force as may be reasonably required” to bar the way. The police might be called and fines applied to those not wanted at the inn. All the island’s grand hotels, most of its guesthouses and its posh restaurants took advantage of this exclusionary act. Only a handful of relatively humble guesthouses chose to cater to coloured visitors. In America, travel agents quietly assured potential Bermuda visitors that de facto segregation awaited them on the island.
White tourists had controlled access to black Bermudians. While most of the hotel entertainment was imported from the States, local black talent was given a venue. The Talbot Brothers cut their musical teeth in church and polished their talent to perfection before white hotel audiences. However, as the Trade Development Board was quick to point out, theirs was a kindly Bermudian brand of calypso devoid of the harsh social and political insinuations of its Caribbean counterpart. In their prime, the Talbots carried their message of friendly Bermuda to Ivy League campuses every fall. Their success was the exception rather than the rule.
Bermuda’s exclusionary impulse was not confined to blacks. If patrician Americans wanted racial homogeneity, they also wanted class and religious assurances. Jews, for instance, were not welcomed in the glory days of Bermuda tourism. Jews were stereotyped as pushy and loud. They would allegedly not know how to behave in paradise. Sensing that their mainstay clientele would not want Jews in their midst, most of the colony’s hotels quietly made it known that Jews were not welcome. The phrase “restricted clientele” began to appear in hotel ads in the 1930s. Travel agents devised a code to help avoid awkward situations: a stylized oleander beside a hotel’s name indicated that it took only gentiles. In 1936, for instance, Cambridge Beaches advertised that it catered “only to Gentile guests” and asked guests to furnish background information on their “social and business standing” before arriving.
Class also influenced the grooming of Bermuda tourism. Carriage-trade tourists did not want riff-raff to spoil their vacation. They wanted to be alone with their own. Let Coney Island stay on the other side of the Gulf Stream. Once again, American writers captured the ambition. In 1934, Sinclair Lewis, famous for his belittling Babbitt portrait of middle-class America, warned Bermudian readers to shun lower-class tourists. They would bring “petrol stations” and “hot-dog stands.” Bermuda could not be invaded by “shrieking tourists waving beer bottles at you as they roar through the dust.” Let them stay in Pittsburgh and Detroit, Lewis advised.
What is interesting is that Bermuda would at times override these religious and class exclusions. Jews of distinction were quietly welcomed, partially because they intrigued Gentile tourists and partially because they might come to Bermuda when Gentiles stayed at home—at Christmas, for instance. Thus, the social page in The Bermudian noted the presence of Jews like Harpo Marx, Irving Berlin and Albert Einstein. These were Jews who added cachet to island tourism.
Similarly, Bermuda learned to bend in the direction of mass tourism. The 1930s saw the advent of cruise tourism. When competitors like the Bahamas began welcoming cruise ships from nearby Florida, Bermuda cautiously opened its docks to “cruisers” from New York. Fear that “trippers” might swamp the colony resulted in stringent controls on cruise ships. They were not permitted to dash into port and depart. Instead, they had to become “hotel ships,” which would have greater positive impact on the island’s economy. These adroit exceptions to Bermuda’s devotion to patrician white tourism allowed the colony to sail through the 1930s unbattered by the Great Depression: tourist arrivals steadily rose through the decade.
Attitudes to black visitors to the colony were not so flexible. To freely admit blacks would destabilize the delicate social arrangements of the colony. This was made abundantly clear in October 1937 when Jamaican Marcus Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, sailed into Bermuda and was denied permission to come ashore. Garvey—admittedly a political tourist—was obliged to deliver his message of Negro self-determination from the railing of his ship. A year earlier, a group of black businessmen in Bermuda banded together as the Emergency Business Association in an attempt to gain a toe-hole in the local tourism industry. The association quickly withered, frozen out by the white merchants who dominated the trade and confronted by the grim fact that very few American blacks could afford to ponder the joy of travel in the dirty thirties.
These racial impulses and tourist arrangements were not solely a Bermuda phenomenon. North Americans constructed their own racial enclaves where they could relax in segregated comfort. Innumerable country clubs and posh hotels excluded nonwhites and Jews. Residential retreats like Tuxedo Park in rural New York projected a wealthy whites-only image. Hotels in the Canadian Laurentians boasted of their restricted clientele. Sensing their persona non grata status in these resorts, American blacks fashioned their own getaways. In 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, a black insurance millionaire, opened American Beach in Florida, a place where black Americans were welcome to frolic by the sea. In Bermuda, blacks carved out their own out-of-the-tourist-way niches for relaxation—beaches at Spanish Point and nightlife at the Clayhouse Inn on the North Shore.
World War II dramatically upset the equilibrium of Bermuda. U-boats and wartime austerity forced Bermuda tourism into hibernation. The arrival of thousands of British and American servicemen nonetheless jolted the Bermudian economy: fortifications were built, an airport was fashioned out of Castle Harbour coral sand and once-exclusive hotels were turned into military barracks. Military vehicles jostled with horses on the roads. The colonial government tried to cushion the impact of this invasion, insisting that local workers—largely black—be paid on a lower scale than foreign workers. But there was no turning back. For the first time, Bermudians were exposed to large numbers of outsiders who were not cut from patrician cloth. Although the American military remained segregated, it was clear that black Americans were playing a separate but equal role in the war effort. As the prospect of victory became likelier, thoughts turned to the postwar period. All agreed that tourism must remain the centrepiece of Bermuda’s economy: an airport, the lack of wartime damage to the colony and hoped-for postwar affluence in America all gave hope of a
quick return to prosperity.
The problem, however, was that white and black Bermudians drew up different blueprints for peacetime. The Trade Development Board busily courted shipping companies and fledgling airlines like Pan Am. On the home front, the TDB reminded black Bermudians that they were prosperous and that postwar success would depend on the attitude they brought to the peace. For instance, the education department was urged to train young Bermudians “in good manners and courtesy.” In 1944, a public-relations officer was hired to implement “a systematic campaign to make Bermuda tourist-conscious.”
Black Bermudians carried somewhat different ambitions out of the war. Yes, tourism must return but the rewards of the industry must be more equitably shared. The war had seen the birth of the Bermuda Workers’ Association under the leadership of a fiery Trinidad-born doctor, E. F. Gordon. The association had flexed its muscle with a longshoreman’s strike. Wages must improve and workers’ rights must be entrenched.
Bermuda blacks viewed politics as the handmaiden of social and economic change. Even before the war, a Guyanese-born schoolteacher, Edward Richards, had agitated in editorials of The Recorder, a paper dedicated to giving black Bermudians a voice, for more equal treatment of blacks in education, the professions, policing and colonial administration. Symbolic of this inequality, Richards often stressed, was the “policy of exclusion” that prevented black Bermudians from eating in the restaurants and staying in the hotels that they themselves staffed. The old deference in Bermuda society that had so charmed Mark Twain and his ilk was evaporating. In 1943, a local minister, Rev. Smith, warned the TDB that change was in the air: “There was a gap of sympathy between those represented by the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and the masses.”
Despite incipient tensions, tourists did return—by the thousands. Within five years of the peace, tourist arrivals in Bermuda were cresting over 100,000. And while readers of Holiday magazine in the U.S. were told as late as 1947 that the colony was still a place where “old families own and run” the economy and blacks were “secure” but behaved “in the manner of American Negroes in Gone With the Wind,” the ethos of Bermuda tourism was shifting. The war had aroused new attitudes that had little tolerance for the prejudices embedded in prewar behaviour. For instance, Jews were no longer prepared to be discriminated against in travel agents’ offices or at hotel front desks. A Jewish American lawyer complained to the British ambassador in Washington that the exclusion of Jews from most Bermuda hotels “savors of the Hitlerism we have all sacrificed so much to destroy.” When The Times of London carried a story on Bermuda’s chilliness to Jews, the Bermuda Hotel Association partially budged and introduced a quota system for Jewish visitors.
Bermuda’s class phobia about “trippers” also shifted. The rapid emergence of an affluent postwar middle class and the advent of ever-cheaper air and sea travel put the prospect of a Bermuda vacation within reach of many more Americans. The leisurely days of liner tourism to Bermuda were waning. Cruise ships now offered package deals across the Gulf Stream and, even though the cruisers stayed fewer days and spent less, they could not be turned away because Bermuda’s loss would be the Caribbean’s gain. And that reflected another postwar shift: the colony no longer occupied an exclusive niche in the North American travel market. Airliners and speedy cruise ships could now deliver seekers of sunshine to new shores. What was more, globetrotting vacationers could now compare Bermuda to other destinations, not just in price and quality of service but also in the ethos of the society they were visiting. In a western world in which human rights and social equality were ascendant (in 1948 the United Nations unveiled its Declaration of Human Rights), the once-flattering equation of Bermuda’s differentness no longer played to its advantage.
Postwar changes prompted another group to look Bermudaward: black Americans. Peacetime prosperity nurtured the emergence of a black middle class in America, not large, but upwardly mobile and prone to the same travel bugs that bit white Americans. At the same time, black Bermudians traditionally employed in white tourism began to see entrepreneurial opportunities in catering to black Americans.
In 1944, blacks purchased the Brunswick Hotel in Hamilton for blacks. Other blacks began opening restaurants and small guesthouses and driving taxis. Other blacks like the Talbots and Sidney Bean enjoyed success as entertainers by selling black culture to white visitors. Driven by the scent of an untapped market, a handful of black businessmen formed the Bermuda Tourist Association (BTA) in 1950 and set about fostering the Bermuda habit in the minds of black Americans. A booking office for black Bermuda guesthouses like Cannville, Archlyn Villa and the Imperial Hotel was opened in New York, and advertising was devised to lure black tourists to Bermuda. Pivotal to this initiative was Hilton Hill, a local photographer turned public-relations man, who saw tourism not only as a lucrative opportunity for black Bermudians but also as a means of raising political consciousness in the black community. Hill, for instance, brought the black American actor James Edwards (star of the 1949 movie about racial prejudice in the U.S. army, Home of the Brave) to Bermuda to showcase the colony to American blacks.
Not surprisingly, the TDB was cool on the idea of black tourism to Bermuda. Not only, they feared, would it tarnish the whites-only patina that they had polished for many decades, but there was also the unspoken fear that American blacks might inspire Bermuda blacks to greater activism.
Conscious of such anxiety, Hill, as president of the Bermuda Tourist Association, told the TDB that the goal was to attract a “better class” of coloured tourist, clearly showing that he understood the board’s penchant for quality over quantity. More visitors would allow the BTA to “better capitalize” its investments. With this in mind, they wanted access to the TDB’s hefty advertising budget. Hill complained that the Board’s existing ads in The New York Times appealing to white American values created a “psychological barrier” to would-be black tourists to Bermuda. Board chairman Sir Henry Vesey demurred. The TDB did not, he said, advertise to “selective” groups, not recognizing that this is exactly what it had been doing since Nature’s Fairyland. To target blacks alone would be a “radical departure” that might risk the well-being of the colony’s “biggest industry”—echoes of a familiar argument.
In 1953, under pressure from a committee on racial relations in the Assembly, Vesey was obliged to consult the Board’s advertising agent in New York. There he was convinced that ads courting black visitors could be “tastefully and graciously” carried in Ebony magazine. He was assured by the advertising gurus that the ads would only attract “successful” blacks, who would come knowing that certain hotels, restaurants and golf courses were off limits. The TDB also financed a brochure listing accommodation for blacks. It was a breakthrough of sorts, but few American blacks responded. Bermuda was indelibly associated with white tourism and the spell was slow to wear off.
The 1950s produced two new pressures that changed Bermuda’s trajectory: the emergence of political independence sentiment in the Caribbean and the growing assertion of black rights in the United States. Neither development augured well for the continuance of the unequal racial balance of Bermuda tourism. The anachronism of Bermuda’s racial arrangements was unpleasantly revealed in 1953 when Edwin McDavid, a
Guyanese politician en route to London for a knighthood, attempted to stop over in Bermuda for a night and was denied a bed at a St. George hotel and told to go to a blacks-only hotel. In protest, he slept in the airport. Three years later, Grantley Adams, a Barbadian politician, suffered the same fate and was obliged to stay at Government House. At the same time, many Americans, both black and white, spoke out about Bermuda’s quiet segregation. An American medical convention at the Princess Hotel was cancelled when it was discovered that black American doctors would have to stay elsewhere. The New York Times covered the incident.
The fifties saw increasing cohesion among Bermuda blacks. Despite the death of Dr. Gordon, labour found a voice in the Bermuda Industrial Union, and in the House of Assembly a growing bloc of black-elected members learned to act in concert. For the first time, black Bermudians were appointed to the Trade Development Board. The battle for racial equality would be fought on many fronts, from parity in the civil service to equal access to hospital care. However, it was tourism and its implicit culture of entitlement and exclusion that in many ways initially set the tone for the campaign. In a society dominated by a tourist economy, the equal treatment of visitor and local regardless of skin colour seemed an inescapable first hurdle.
In the spring of 1957, E.T. Richards moved in the Assembly that the sections of the Hotel Keepers’ Protection Act that allowed hotels and restaurants to restrict entry based on race be struck from the act. The act, he said, was a “blot on this Colony’s escutcheon.” Such discrimination caused “embarrassment, insult and humiliation” for “Negroes, Jews and other non-Caucasian races.” The issue was shunted into a special committee of the Assembly. Familiar reactionary arguments were trotted out in opposition to any sudden dismantling of the old tourism. “If unwise counsels prevail,” The Royal Gazette editorialized, “it can be disastrous, not for the rich minority, but for the average man and woman whose livelihood depends on a continuation of present conditions. Changes there must eventually be, but they cannot be forced.” While the committee deliberated, the issue of segregated movie theatres in Bermuda provoked a theatre boycott that won the mixing of colours on more than the screens of local cinemas in 1959.
By the time the special committee reported in 1960, seven of the island’s largest hotels had quietly lifted their front-desk policy of exclusion. Bermuda’s ingrained political gradualism may have avoided the kind of head-on racial clashes that were to grievously wound the United States in the sixties, but it only postponed the inevitable in Bermuda. The committee recommended that a “uniform open policy” be extended to all hotels and restaurants. Legislation followed and by 1961, Bermuda tourism became open to all. A few pockets of exclusion remained—golf clubs, for instance—but the tide had turned. Taking a page from the playbook of the old tourism, black tourism promoters invited prominent American blacks, including Louis Armstrong, Cassius Clay and Alex Haley, to set the tone of the trade they wished to establish. However, progress was predictably slow. In 1963, only 2,200 black tourists stepped ashore in Bermuda, a sliver of the 200,000 white tourists arriving.
However, the corner had been turned. A central value of Bermuda’s social personality had been fundamentally altered, and the effort of alteration had demonstrated that black Bermudians could exercise control over their own destiny. Tourism open to all comers changed the social and cultural ethos of Bermudian society.
Significant battles over constitutional reform, suffrage and labour rights lay ahead in the sixties. In 1968, for instance, the Trade Development Board ceased to exist as an arms-length agency of government and was replaced by a Department of Tourism. But the struggle to redefine tourism, one could argue, set the tone for the modernization of Bermuda in the ensuing decades. Black Bermudians learned how to rewrite the prescription of their society. How empowering must it have felt as a black Bermudian or tourist to make a reservation at a Front Street restaurant in 1961?
What is well worth noting is that the transformation of Bermuda tourism’s core values in the sixties did not come at the cost of dismantling a tourism industry that had for so many decades fuelled the Bermuda economy. Bermuda’s reputation for friendliness and quality profitably persisted through the rest of the twentieth century. The new Mark Twains, like Jaws author Peter Benchley, found ample reason to frequent its shores.
There are, however, lingering legacies of the “old” tourism. One frequently hears the complaint that young Bermudians are reluctant to enter the tourism industry: tourism is about “service,” they say. It is about what grandfather did, what was done in the old Bermuda. It is hard to know how to counter such resistance except to say that tourism is the world’s largest industry; it is also lucrative, globalized and open to entrepreneurial initiative in a way that bureaucratic life can never be. The soothing images of Bermuda that worked for Front Street merchants a century ago should work with similar reward today even with the subtraction of racial stereotypes.
Finally, one often reads that Bermuda still faces challenges in attracting black tourists to its shores. Old stereotypes apparently linger. Well, Bermuda may not have an underground railway or the remnants of plantations, but perhaps it could be sold to outsiders as a society that has evolved into one of the world’s most successful biracial societies, one that in the past has proven capable of changing its ground rules and moving on. Were he on the porch of the Hamilton Princess today, the ever-opinionated Mark Twain would be obliged to alter his opinion of Bermuda.
A version of this article was originally given as part of the Department of Community & Cultural Affairs 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.