For Bermudians, the sea has long been both a barrier and a bridge to prosperity. Endowed with few natural resources, they have long been dependent on the outside world for sustenance. In the eighteenth century, they raked salt in the Turks and Caicos and sent their cedar sloops into the Caribbean. In the nineteenth century, Bermuda exported winter vegetables—notably its famous onions—across the Gulf Stream to America. When Americans grew their own onion patch, Bermuda brilliantly reinvented itself as a mid-Atlantic tourist paradise, adapting to the hedonism of patrician North Americans.
Alluring advertising—“Come to the Isles of Rest”—enticed tourists to Bermuda. Posh hotels, designer golf courses and booze on the Prohibition-free “British” island completed the makeover. And to shuttle its customers across the Gulf Stream from New York, Bermuda engaged the steamship company Furness Withy. Its 22,500-ton ships Queen of Bermuda and Monarch of Bermuda set the mark for pampered liner travel. As tourism flourished, rival liners put Bermuda on their schedule. By the late 1930s, the first cruise passengers—“cruisers”—began frequenting the island. In 1937, the big flying boats of Pan Am and Imperial Airways began whisking élite visitors from New York to the Great Sound in hours.
The Sea Gives and the Sea Takes Away
War in 1939 abruptly severed this lucrative connection. The island was again reminded that the sea could give and the sea could take away. In the first year of war, the sea delivered two unexpected surprises to Bermuda’s shore: one regal and the other artistic. Each skirted the menace of war at sea to find sanctuary in Bermuda.
And danger on the seas indeed there was. Bermuda was vulnerable to marauding German submarines. American tourists, still neutral in the conflict, became skittish about venturing across the Gulf Stream. To compound the tourist downturn, the British Admiralty requisitioned the Queen and the Monarch. The Pan Am Clippers kept coming, but increasingly conveyed not pleasure-seekers but wartime travellers—diplomats, refugees and politicians eager to cross the Atlantic by expedient means. Bermuda thus became a waystation between America and neutral Portugal.
As always, Bermudians proved pragmatic in adversity. Whether providing rebellious American colonists with purloined British gunpowder in the 1770s or later turning a blind eye to Confederate cotton passing through their ports, Bermudians knew how to adapt to a changing world. As this newest conflict unfolded, the island’s Trade Development Board—desperate to retain its tourists—signed contracts first with the Holland-America Line and then the United States Line for subsidised service to New York. In 1940, the S.S President Roosevelt became Bermuda’s new connection to the world.
The spring of 1940 abruptly ended the Phoney War. The German blitzkrieg surged across Northern Europe. In June, France fell, bringing German air power to within lethal reach of Britain. U-boats headed out from French bases to seek Atlantic prey. War on the Atlantic removed any hope that Bermuda might insulate itself from conflict. It quickly became a mid-Atlantic fortress garrisoned by foreign troops, its economy now fueled by military spending. Tourism evaporated. This was driven home later in 1940, when Churchill bartered with American president Franklin Roosevelt for access to base lands in Bermuda in return for American weaponry. Soon, the President Roosevelt too was gone, commandeered by the US Navy. Now all Bermuda could rely upon were sporadic visits of allied and neutral vessels to maintain its lifeline across the Gulf Stream.
One of these periodic visitors was the American Export Lines’ S.S. Excalibur. Launched in 1931, the Excalibur typified the new breed of luxury liner. At 9,300 tons, she was smaller than Furness Withy’s glamorous Queen and Monarch, but matched their elegance in every other respect—private bathrooms, smoke rooms, a Country Club Veranda Café and a neoclassical-style dining room. American Export Lines placed the ship on a New York–Mediterranean run, ferrying well-heeled Americans to the southern European sun. When war made Mediterranean tourism problematic, the ship was repositioned onto a Lisbon–New York run. American flags boldly painted on her hull projected her neutrality to predatory periscopes.
In July 1940, American Export Lines received an unusual request. Would the company, the British government inquired, divert the Excalibur to make a fleeting call on Bermuda to disembark two special passengers? Twenty-thousand dollars was offered in recompense. A ten-cabin suite would be required to accommodate a party of six, plus its trove of baggage. The deal struck, the Excalibur slipped out of Lisbon harbour at 6:40 p.m. on August 1.
The Wandering Duke
The ship’s special passengers were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, perhaps the most talked-about couple in the world. Four years earlier the duke, then King Edward VIII, had abdicated his throne only months after ascending it in order to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. In December 1936, Edward famously told the nation that he could no longer assume “the heavy burden of responsibility” borne by a king without “the woman I love.” He then slipped away across the Channel into exile. His brother, now George VI, dubbed him the Duke of Windsor. In the ensuing years, two issues soured the duke’s relations with his estranged relatives: the new king’s adamant refusal to accord any royal status to Wallis, particularly the title “Her Royal Highness,” and the duke’s persistent complaints that the annual stipend he received from his brother was stingy and demeaning.
Detached from his royal duties, Edward became restless and hankered to assert some influence on a world succumbing to militarism. Never a man to consider the long-term implications of his actions, the duke drifted into positions that caused alarm in Britain. He showed fascination with Hitler’s Germany as it began to flex its rejuvenated strength. In 1937, Edward and Wallis toured Germany and met with Hitler and his henchmen—Goering, Hess and Goebbels. Newsreel footage of the duke inspecting German troops conveyed the impression of his endorsement of the Nazis. Subsequently, the duke championed appeasement with Germany, an attitude that many Britons deemed treasonous. He attacked “socialism,” which hardly endeared him to Britain’s Labour Party. Increasingly, the duke became a liability to his homeland.
In the spring of 1940, the Windsors fled their Paris home as the Panzers approached and headed for neutral (and fascist) Spain. British intelligence picked up stories that Berlin was trying to inveigle the duke into lingering in Madrid, where he might be called upon to return to Nazi-conquered England as a puppet king. Operatives despatched from Berlin hatched a scheme to snare the duke—code named Operation Willi—by means of lavish payments and, if necessary, kidnapping. From London, Britain’s new prime minister Winston Churchill warned the duke that “[M]any sharp and unfriendly ears will be pricked up to catch any suggestion that Your Royal Highness takes a view about the war, or about the Germans, or about Hitlerism which is different from that adopted by the British nation and Parliament.” The key, Churchill concluded, was to get the Windsors out of Europe, out of harm’s way. A governorship in a distant colony would do the trick.
Thus, after four years in exile, the couple were on their way to take up the duke’s role as governor of the Bahamas, a place he privately dismissed as “a third-rate colony.” When London nixed any thought of flying across the Atlantic, passage on the Excalibur was booked. The duke told the New York Times that it gave him “great pleasure to make this journey under the protection of the United States stars and stripes.” A proposal to have British warships guard the liner was quashed by American secretary of state Sumner Welles because it would compromise America’s neutrality.
The Windsors travelled in style. Accompanying them were a maid, an aide-de-camp, a personal secretary, an army major—and their three cairn terriers. They brought their own bed linen—pink. In the hold of the ship were crates of personal possessions deemed necessary for gubernatorial duty, plus a huge black limousine. By day, the couple basked on deck and by evening they dined with prominent American diplomats returning from Europe. In conversation, the Windsors talked of their ambition to visit New York “briefly,” especially since they had not been in Wallis’s native land since the abdication. The Times concluded that the duke and the woman he loved were “just as other passengers.”
But the Windsors were not just like the other passengers. They were being hustled out of Europe into an exile deemed imperative by the British government. And, despite their declared hope of making an American landfall, the Windsors were perforce bound for Bermuda. Churchill feared that, if allowed ashore in New York, the duke might make statements that would feed American isolationism, thereby souring Churchill’s behind-the-scenes entente with Roosevelt.
Six Days Under the Bermuda Sun
By August 3, rumours of the duke’s arrival began to spread through Bermuda. Some of this scuttlebutt was highly speculative—for instance, that the Windsors would be carried on to the Bahamas on the yacht of American mogul Vincent Astor, who had a home at Ferry Reach. And as it seemed increasingly unlikely that the duke would reach New York, American reporters hurried to Bermuda, jockeying for seats on the Pan Am Clipper. A buzz ran through the community. On instruction from London, Government House put it about that the visit would be “informal,” not an official royal visit. As Prince of Wales, the duke had visited Bermuda twice before. In 1920, as part of a globe-trotting tour of the Empire, he visited long enough to lay the cornerstone of the war cenotaph. Then, in 1931, he had returned for a more leisurely visit, taking time to golf with local merchant Eldon Trimingham at the Mid-Ocean Club.
The Bermuda newspapers reported a mingling of nostalgia for the one-time prince’s previous connection with Bermuda with the prospect of a brief diversion from the angst of war. The American papers told a different story. In the eyes of the New York Times “Bermudians were cool to Windsor visit.” Memories of the abdication lingered on an island that prided itself in being “British.” Edward VIII had in many Bermudian minds abused both the monarchy and the Anglican Church by marrying a divorcée. Bermuda did not as yet permit divorce and many Bermudians were staunchly Anglican. In 1937, for instance, Bermuda’s Anglican bishop, Arthur Heber Browne, had been obliged to apologise to a secretary in the Royal Gazette’s office after he petulantly ripped a photograph of the duke and duchess off the wall above her desk. Divorce in Bermuda was taboo: “…[T]he word ‘divorce’ itself is often mentioned in a whisper,” The Times reported.
The suspense ended at one o’clock on August 8 when the Excalibur dropped anchor in the Sound and was met by the admiral’s barge from the West Indies Squadron. Earlier in the day, the Pan Am Clipper had saluted the liner offshore with a low flypast. Now the barge brought the Windsors to Hamilton’s Royal Bermuda Yacht Club. At 2:30 p.m. they stepped ashore under a hot August sun to be greeted by Bermuda’s bachelor governor Sir Denis Bernard and his sister Mrs Hastings Brooke. A military guard of honour lined the quay, behind which onlookers waved Union Jacks. The tanned duke wore a light grey suit, brown and white brogues and sported a straw boater. The svelte duchess wore a pink and blue satin dress. Joining the official welcoming party was Andrew, the five-year-old son of the duke’s old Bermuda friend Eldon Trimingham, decked out in a sailor suit. Andrew delivered a bouquet of orchids into Wallis’s hands. When asked a question by the duchess, little Andrew went speechless. The band then struck up “God Save the King,” prompting the New York Times to point out the irony that the duke was no longer the man in question.
After inspecting the troops, the couple departed for Government House. The crowds along the route, the Royal Gazette reported, produced “spontaneous cheers and applause.” Pathé newsreels (now available on YouTube) captured the day’s festive mood. That mood changed as soon as the couple reached the governor’s residence. The duke was livid that he had not been accorded full royal courtesy: Mrs Hastings had given him only a half curtesy and the duchess received only a handshake. And the prohibition against calling Wallis “Her Royal Highness” held. She was simply “Your Grace.” The duke ranted to Governor Bernard that if this was harbinger of what awaited him in the Bahamas, he would abandon his mission forthwith. Bernard, who had personally harboured a low opinion of Wallis since the abdication, countered by showing the duke the memorandum he had received days before from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Lloyd, in London. Lloyd instructed Bernard to treat the visit as unofficial and to abide by the Royal Family’s insistence that Wallis never be given HRH status. Meanwhile, down at Hamilton Harbour, the Excalibur docked and was busily unloading the Windsors’ belongings. Canadian soldiers took charge of the cairn terriers. The limo was hoisted ashore. Trunks, cases of gin and port and golf clubs were hauled away in army lorries. The Excalibur then hurried on its way to New York. Back at Langton Hill, the duke and duchess met the press in the garden. With their dogs skittering about them, the couple freely took questions. Would the duke be driving his big Buick around Bermuda? No, the duke replied; he knew that private cars were banned from local roads. The couple’s graciousness became a keynote of the press coverage. One impression which the Windsors still seemed intent on getting across was the hope that their residency in Nassau would allow them to visit the United States freely.
The Windsors remained in Bermuda for six days. They did predictable things. Wallis toured the aquarium. The duke inspected Canadian troops garrisoned at Prospect, later doing the same with Bermuda volunteer units. He visited the Anglican cathedral in Hamilton and St. Peter’s in St. George’s. He met Eugene Meyer, the mayor of St. George’s. He said flattering things about Bermuda’s unique architecture and verdant landscape. He golfed at the Mid-Ocean Club with lawyer James Pearman and planted a poinciana at Langton Hill. The evenings were given over to dinners with the local élite. The crowds continued, but the initial excitement abated. Indeed, their departure for the Bahamas on a Canadian “Lady Boat,” the Lady Somers, on August 15 almost went unnoticed. “I have been made to feel welcome here,” the duke wrote in a farewell message, “and we can assure you that we leave the island with regret.”
Au Revoir to the Duke and Bonjour to Impressionism
The Windsors would never return to Bermuda, nor, it seems, did their seeming affection for the island last. Three years later, Prime Minister Churchill, still anxious to keep the duke on the periphery of the war, offered him the governorship of Bermuda. The duke’s biographer, Philip Ziegler, says that the duke regarded the possibility as “an insult.” In the duke’s own words, the offer was “further proof of the limitations placed on my capabilities.”
The Excalibur, however, did return to Bermuda. Less than two months after the Windsors departed, the American liner reappeared in the Great Sound, after being corralled on the high seas by a British cruiser. Unlike her arrival with the duke, there was no fanfare, no guard of honour and no smiling governor. Despite the fact that the British and American governments had just signed the destroyers-for-bases accord, this latest Excalibur visit could hardly be described as voluntary. As soon as the ship dropped anchor, her captain, Norman Groves, made it clear that he was in Bermuda under duress. America, he vehemently protested, was neutral. The arrival of a naval launch bearing Bermuda customs officials and a young British intelligence officer, H. Montgomery Hyde, brought matters to a head. What then unfolded became a dramatic intersection of high art and wartime intrigue. Although very few knew it then, Bermuda was about to take possession of one of world’s largest collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
The story began in Paris in June 1940. As the German army surged toward Paris, those who could, such as the Windsors, snatched up their movable possessions and fled south to safety in what would soon be Vichy France or into neutral Spain and Portugal. Among this hasty exodus were many custodians of French culture. Fearful that the Germans might loot or destroy France’s artistic patrimony, Parisian art dealers either hid their inventory or desperately tried to carry it to safety. Many would have recalled that the Germans regarded modern art—by artists such as France’s renowned modernists Renoir, Gauguin and Manet—as “degenerate.”
The doyen of pre-war French art dealers was Ambroise Vollard. Born on the French island of Réunion, Vollard had initially trained in the law, but then succumbed to the allure of art and opened a gallery in 1893, using it to harvest the work of up-and-coming French artists. His discerning eye spotted the potential of Cézanne, Renoir, Gauguin and Picasso. His art books and exhibitions propelled French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists to the forefront of modern art. His home and gallery on rue Laffitte were said to house an inventory of 10,000 works of art. As The Times in London noted, “There is almost no one of note in the Parisian art world of the last forty years that was not his friend or acquaintance.” Vollard’s eminence attracted young disciples. In the late 1930s, a fellow Frenchman, Martin Fabiani, and a young Serb, Erich Slomovic, came into Vollard’s orbit as apprentice impresarios.
In July 1939, just as war tensions grew taut, Vollard was killed in a car crash. In the ensuing chaos of settling his estate, Fabiani bought over six hundred canvases and sketches from Vollard’s brother and executor, Lucien. At the same time, Slomovic scooped up another six hundred or so Vollard canvases. Lucien’s legal right to do this was cloudy, but the impending conflict invited expediency. The rest of the collection stayed with the family. What seemed imperative was the need to remove the art from the German maw. Slomovic entrusted some of his haul to a bank vault and then fled to Belgrade with the rest packed in his car. Two years later, Slomovic, a Jew, died in the Holocaust, but his trove fortuitously remained safely hidden behind a wall of a peasant house. Fabiani escaped Paris on May 24, loading his car with 12 boxes of art, and headed for Bordeaux and eventually Lisbon. To accommodate the bulk of their cargo, Slomovic and Fabiani cut their canvases out of their frames, removed their rigid stretchers and then delined (attached a stiffer backcloth) each canvas to fortify it for the transit.
Once in Lisbon, Fabiani, conscious that Portuguese neutrality had a fascist hue, determined to get his art out of Europe. A fellow Parisian dealer, Étienne Bignou, had a subsidiary gallery in the Rolls-Royce Building on 57th Street in New York. Fabiani determined to get his collection to America, where it might be safeguarded or possibly sold through Bignou. At this point, a shadow of intrigue began to fall across Fabiani and his precious collection.
Bermuda Joins the Behind-the-Scenes War
When war broke out in September 1939, Britain girded itself for conflict by creating new government departments to help it weather the conflict. One of these was the Ministry of Economic Warfare. It was rooted in the realisation that the war would be a total war, one not won only by boots on the ground, but also by the sustained economic strength of the combatants. Moreover, economic strength was not just a question of material production, but also of financial flows, contraband and illegal transactions. The surreptitious exchange of precious commodities such as gold, nickel and art could help fill the coffers of war. The Ministry of Economic Warfare was therefore given draconian powers to hunt down such flows.
Other agencies, notably MI6 (the intelligence branch of the British military) and the new Ministry of Information, joined in this effort by monitoring all forms of public and private communication. Here Bermuda became intimately involved. Bermuda became a mid-Atlantic beehive of censorship, one that combed through the Clipper-borne Atlantic mail in search of secrets and betrayals. By October 1943, the Royal Gazette reported that over 450 censors were at work in cramped quarters at one-time holiday hotels. Many of them were young women—“censorettes”—who carefully opened correspondence, checked it for suspicious language and codes before resealing it and sending it on its way to Europe or America.
In these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that suspicion might fall on Martin Fabiani and his dockside consignment of art in Lisbon. As the war deepened, the spectre of looted art and “Nazi gold”—gold pilfered by the Nazis from Jews and other captured nationals—became the focus of intense suspicion as an ingredient of war. In 1940, however, the patterns of such evil were only just emerging. Fabiani was about to get snared in its initial unfolding. In Lisbon, Fabiani managed to obtain a certificate of origin from the British consul. He validated his ownership of the art by attesting that he had departed Paris before the German occupation of the city. Thus sanctioned, Fabiani consigned four crates, weighing 301 kilograms, to the S.S. Excalibur for delivery to Bignou in New York. Although the shipment was nominally valued at only $10,000, a later inventory would reveal that the crates contained 270 works by Renoir, 30 by Cézanne, 12 by Gauguin, seven by Degas plus other canvases by Manet, Monet and Picasso. Their value, even in the uncertain time of war, would have been immense.
Tense Encounter at Grassy Bay
On Sepember 25, Fabiani bid his cargo farewell and the Excalibur sailed into the fog of war. Back in London, the Ministry of Economic Warfare grew sceptical of Fabiani’s bona fides, concluding that the Frenchman had hoodwinked the Lisbon consul and was in fact conveying the art on behalf of the Germans, who were keen to sell their loot on the American market. As the Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, told the House of Commons, it was government policy “to take all practical action to prevent the acquisition of foreign exchange by the enemy.” That practical action almost immediately involved Bermuda, the only British outpost between the Excalibur and New York.
Just weeks before, H. Montgomery Hyde, an eager Oxford-trained intelligence officer with MI6, had arrived in Bermuda to take up a post as the security officer. (Future James Bond author Ian Fleming worked on the same Bermuda team.) His work principally concerned monitoring the endless volume of mail being censored in Bermuda. But in early October—he recalled in his 1982 memoir Secret Intelligence Officer—communiques arriving on his Princess Hotel desk bristled with concern over a neutral American liner crossing the Atlantic. There was no ambiguity in the intelligence reports: the Excalibur was transporting a trove of precious European art “seized by the Germans and consigned to a Paris art expert in New York named Martin Fabiani, with the object of selling the treasures and thus much-needed dollar currency for the Nazis.” The first challenge would be to catch the ship; here the Royal Navy was readily at hand.
A cruiser despatched from the Dockyard intercepted the Excalibur and guided her to an anchorage in Grassy Bay on October 3. Captain Groves was furious; his ship had been knocked off its New York schedule and the British were wantonly abusing American neutrality. Hyde and Bermuda customs officials received a frosty reception. Hyde explained his mission—to locate and confiscate Fabiani’s artistic trove. Reluctantly, Groves led the British party to the ship’s strong room. His reluctance may have in part also reflected the fact that the vault held three million dollars’ worth of gold bullion. Access to the strong room proved daunting. Not only was its door locked, but steel plates had been welded across its seams. Nonplussed, Hyde radioed the Dockyard for a welder, who promptly arrived and went to work. That task complete, Hyde demanded the key to the strong room from Groves, who balked until Hyde threatened to blowtorch a hole in the steel door. The open door quickly revealed the four crates, all clearly consigned to Bignou in New York. Hyde displayed no interest in the gold.
The crates were removed and the welder went to work welding the metal strips back into place. With the crates aboard his launch, Hyde bid Groves adieu. Such was Groves’s subsequent haste to be free of Bermuda that Excalibur’s prop wash nearly capsised the launch. In hindsight, we can only speculate what a dosing in salt water would have done to paintings which today would be worth millions of dollars. Once ashore, the crates were taken to the Princess Hotel. They remained unopened; indeed they would never be opened in Bermuda. Then an age-old Bermuda ritual began. For over two centuries, goods seized on the high seas by British warships and privateers were deemed “prizes,” the profits from which would be determined by an Admiralty Court. On October 19, a notice in the Royal Gazette gave Bermudians 30 days to lay claim on the crates under the auspices of the Supreme Court of Bermuda.
Nazi Art Comes to Bermuda?
Meanwhile, news of the seizure spread across the world. One theme surfaced in the reportage: that the British had snatched the art out of German clutches and that Fabiani was a Nazi henchman. The Royal Gazette told its readers that Fabiani, who was not in Bermuda and therefore unable to defend himself, was “a German agent” and that because of Hyde’s quick action there was “no danger of their [the art] again falling into German hands.” The foreign press echoed the story. Toronto’s Globe and Mail decried the “Nazi ruse…to secure dollar exchange.” The New York Times entertained the notion that the Germans were following the Bolshevik example of selling valuable art to finance their nefarious purposes. As far away as Melbourne, Australia, the Bermuda seizure was cast in a heroic light: “Britain Seized Pictures, German Move Fails.” Only a few newspapers queried the story. The Montreal Gazette was prepared to cite Britain’s rationale that the art constituted an “enemy asset,” but at the same time acknowledged the obvious fact that Fabiani had left Paris before the Germans arrived and perhaps an “error” had been made. Even the New York Times admitted that the incident was a “puzzle” in some respects.
A Canadian art historian, Nancy Caron Karrels, has written a meticulous recounting of the saga of the Fabiani collection. Her 2015 article in International Journal of Cultural Property definitively punctures what might be termed the Nazification of Fabiani and his fabulous art collection. Fabiani vigorously protested his innocence to British authorities. He retained a Bermuda lawyer, Reginald Conyers, who reiterated the fact that Fabiani had removed his collection from Paris before the Nazi occupation and was simply trying to protect his investment. But Fabiani never got his day in a Bermuda court. On November 1, Bermuda’s attorney general rejected Conyers’s attempt to have the issue speedily resolved in Bermuda. The matter, he argued, was of strategic imperial importance and should thus be referred to the High Court of Justice in London. Bermuda’s Acting Chief Justice, R.C. Hollis-Hallett, endorsed the decision.
Conyers scored one point, however. Sending Fabiani’s collection as court evidence back across the Atlantic would place it in a “danger zone.” This reasoning coincided with a wider concern that the art would deteriorate in Bermuda’s hot and humid climate. Bermuda at the time had no national gallery and therefore lacked any ability to conserve art. In the British Parliament, Dalton acknowledged that the “pictures should be removed from the climate of Bermuda at an early date.” Thus, on November 11 the four crates, still unopened, departed Bermuda on the Lady Rodney bound for Montreal and from there to Ottawa’s National Gallery. Some of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century had therefore been in Bermuda without a single eye falling on their beauty.
By 1940, Canada had already established a reputation for the wartime safekeeping of precious objects. In July 1940, British warships had secretly transported a large portion of the Bank of England’s gold reserve across the Atlantic—code named Operation Fish—into the hands of the Bank of Canada. Worth $160 billion in 2017 dollars, the gold assured Britain a ready, off-shore source of capital if the British Isles ever fell to the Germans. Now Fabiani’s art took up similar residency just blocks away in Ottawa at the National Gallery. The crates were eventually opened in 1943 and the art carefully conserved, but never displayed. Although Fabiani persisted in his legitimate claim to the Vollard collection after his return to Paris, his reputation during the rest of the war did indeed become tarnished by his purveying looted French art into Germany. In the immediate post-war, he suffered investigation, fines and the freezing of his assets by the French and Americans. Nancy Karrels concludes that Fabiani was ultimately “no innocent victim of the German occupation.” As such, he became entangled in the maze of Nazi-looted art, a provenance tangle that persists to this day. Finally, in 1948 he concluded a deal with Vollard’s sisters which saw the bulk of the collection delivered into his hands. The agreement was sanctioned by Britain’s High Court of Justice, Admiralty Division. Soon after, Fabiani and the sisters met in Ottawa to divvy up the collection. Legend has it that once the division was accomplished Fabiani packed his haul into a taxi and headed for Montreal and home. Some years later, he donated a single Renoir drawing, Gabrielle et Jean, to his one-time Canadian hosts.
Wars are kaleidoscopic affairs. The cameo appearance of the Windsors and the secretive transhipment of Fabiani’s artworks were soon eclipsed by other wartime excitements in Bermuda. Churchill would pay a fleeting visit to the island to commend its wartime patriotism. American engineers created Kindley Field out of Castle Harbour sand and coral. Once banned automobiles began appearing on Bermuda roads. Change was in the air. But one thing remained unchanged—the sea continued to define island life. Until commercial aviation took hold after the war, the comings and goings at the docks set the rhythm of Bermuda life. For the duration of the war, the shipping news in Bermuda accentuated the vicissitudes of mid-Atlantic life. In June 1942, for instance, the torpedoing of the S.S. City of Birmingham and its 2,400 tons of supplies stunned Bermuda and necessitated severe rationing.
For the S.S. Excalibur, the news would be equally bad. Through the winter of 1940–41, she served Bermuda with scheduled service out of New York, bringing military contractors in and taking Bermuda potatoes out. She was then requisitioned by the US Navy as the U.S.S. Joseph Hewes. A torpedo from U-173 sent her to the bottom off Morocco in 1943. The Lady Somers, which had taken the Windsors to Nassau, was equally unfortunate: an Italian submarine sank her in the Bay of Biscay in 1941.
Life for those involved in the Excalibur’s two dramatic arrivals in Bermuda in 1940 proved more enduring. Governor Sir Denis Bernard stayed on in Bermuda until 1943, before retiring to his family home in Galway, Ireland. The Duke of Windsor governed the Bahamas until 1945, before returning to exiled life in France. Living in a home wistfully named “Villa Windsor,” he would remain shunned by his family, dying in exile in Paris in 1972 with Wallis by his side. Their love story, for all its regal folly, remains one of the great love stories of the twentieth century. H. Montgomery Hyde would make his name in British wartime intelligence, working closely with renowned Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, who would retire to Bermuda after the war. After the war, Montgomery Hyde became an Ulster Member of Parliament and a prolific writer of non-fiction. In 1948, American Export Lines launched a new Excalibur and put Captain Groves at its helm. Martin Fabiani returned to his native France and lived out his life under a cloud of wartime complicity.
Perhaps the most cherished legacy of Bermuda’s 1940 dockside dramas are the inspiring canvases of Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin and others of the Post-Impressionist era which adorn galleries around the world to this day, prompting those who look upon them to ponder the best, rather than the worst, of civilisation.
Dr Duncan McDowall is University Historian at Queen’s University in Canada. He has published extensively on the history of Canada, Brazil and Bermuda. In the 1990s, he headed the Canadian government’s “Nazi Gold” inquiry.