From Prussian cabin boy to Bermudian captain of commerce.
The town of St. George today presents a picture of touristic tranquility. Visitors stroll along Water Street, poking into shops and taking in the spectacle of a dunking in King’s Square. Bermudians come and go, picking up their mail or popping into the bank. Around noon, locals and tourists alike gravitate to the water’s edge for lunch. Under umbrellas on Somers Wharf, they sip their wine and beer, and await the arrival of a fish sandwich. Out on the azure waters of the harbour, visiting yachts swing at their moorings, their crews scuttling back and forth in Zodiacs with their cargoes of groceries and laundry. On occasion, this lazy ritual is punctuated by the arrival of a sculpted mega-yacht, slipping alongside Penno’s Wharf or Ordnance Island. St. George’s quietude is seldom disturbed by cruise ships. The floating behemoths now disdain the harbour’s narrow Town Cut and head for the more commodious Dockyard. St. George has become the quiet, if picturesque, end of the island.
A century ago, it was all quite different. St. George was a bustling port. Its appeal was immediate, offering Bermuda’s closest port of call to deep Atlantic water. Freighters and early cruising liners regularly slipped through the Town Cut into St. George’s ample anchorage. Palatial steam yachts with their gleaming brightware and clipper bows dropped anchor there. Freight radiated from the town’s jetties out into the colony. Crates of onions and lilies departed for America. Stockpiled coal replenished ships’ bunkers. In the First World War, American submarine chasers tied up on Ordnance Island ready to dash out into Atlantic waters, a pattern repeated in the next war by American submarines.
These were not the first occasions that St. George’s had attracted American navigation. In the Civil War of the 1860s, St. George’s attracted the lucrative traffic of stealthy blockade runners transshipping cotton to finance the war effort of the Old South, while Yankee warships prowled offshore. All this nautical activity has faded now, displaced by new technologies such as containers, and is relegated to museums.
But for those astute enough to look up from their lunch and gaze around the harbour, there are still hints of past glory. Over in Convict Bay lies the rusty magnificence of a decaying four-masted bark, the Taifun. In 1920, the Swedish windjammer was dismasted off Bermuda and limped into St. George for repair. The age of sail was in its twilight and the ship consequently of marginal value. When the anchored barque was rammed by another merchantman, its cargo of kaolin clay took on water and solidified, thereby immobilising the vessel. When her owners proved unwilling to advance monies for her repair to a local shipping agent, W.E. Meyer & Co. Ltd., the shrewd Bermudians adopted the hulk as a breakwater to shelter their operations at Meyer’s Wharf below Barrack Hill. Such commercial quickwittedness offered proof that the Meyer company, for all the Germanic resonance of its name, had become inseparably associated with the maritime prosperity of St. George.
Like the Taifun, the Meyer connection had begun almost a half-century earlier when a footloose young Prussian mariner had found himself driven into St. George’s Harbour by another mid-Atlantic dismasting. Capt. William E. Meyer (1843-1912) subsequently made Bermuda his permanent home. His son, William junior, would pick up his father’s legacy and carry it deep into the twentieth century, a task that included capitalising on the wreck of the Taifun. Three generations of Meyers would tend to the fortunes of the enterprise. In the early 1950s, control passed to other Bermudian hands. Today, an astute visitor to St. George will, however, notice that the Meyer legacy persists. Operating out of corporate offices on Water Street, tucked in behind Somers Wharf, the Meyer Group of Companies is a home-grown conglomerate, providing Bermuda with services ranging from shipping agency, property management, touring and travel services, and IT expertise on through to forensic accounting. Bermuda’s commercial development has been flagged by many enterprising families—Trimingham, Smith, and Burland, to name a prominent few—but none is cast in quite the same aura of adventure and risk-taking as that of William Meyer. Had the colony not already laid claim to it, Bermuda’s motto Quo fata ferunt—whither the fates carry us—might very appropriately have been adopted by the Meyers.
It all began far away in Danzig, a small enclave attached to the Prussian empire on the shores of the Baltic. Today, Danzig is known as Gdańsk, perhaps best remembered as the birthplace of the Solidarność, the 1980s labour-led movement that broke the back of communism in Poland. In 1848, much of Europe similarly rose up against autocracy. Danzig, with its vital commercial access to the Baltic, had long been contested over by Poland, Lithuania, Russia and Prussia. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was part of Frederick William IV’s Prussian Federation. Despite being allowed a modicum of autonomy, Danzig bridled under Prussian control. The freedom of its press was suppressed. So in 1848, the people of Danzig took to the streets, waving homemade yellow, black and red flags and demanding their emancipation. The Prussian army put short shrift to the ambition. One of the freedom fighters, Peter Meyer, escaped the subsequent round-up of dissidents and fled to America, the land of freedom, and never returned.
Meyer left his five-year-old son, William, behind with his mother and three other siblings. William Meyer never forgot the trauma of 1848. He recalled Prussian troops (many of them fellow Danzig natives) punching holes in the walls of his home with their bayonets as they searched for dissidents. For the next eleven years, the fatherless family persevered in Danzig, hoping that fortune would smile on Peter in America so that the family could be reunited. It never happened. Meyer’s father died in Memphis, Tennessee, leaving his family to struggle on in Danzig.
Young William came to detest the rigid, brutalist Prussian school system. His teachers, mostly retired army men, pounded patriotism and rote learning into their students’ heads. The English were “demented.” The French were never to be trusted. Italians were ineffectual “dreamers.” And, worst of all, America was a land populated by European outcasts prone to anarchy and blighted by snakes and “tomahawking” Indians on city streets. Having read his father’s letters from America, William thought differently. The only Indians in American cities, he boldly told his teacher, were wooden and stood silently outside tobacco shops. When “Herr Doctor” slapped his cheeks for his impertinence, William fled the classroom, never to return.
Meyer knew enough of the rhythm of his port city to understand that his future lay on the docks. He went to the City Bourse, where commodities were traded and where ships booked their cargoes. There, he cornered the captain of the Danzig bark Tugend: “Captain, don’t you want a cabin boy?” Yes, answered Captain Aschenloef, and a sailor was born. “No more school for me,” William told his mother, who blessed his ambition and gave him her Bible. The Tugend took the young cabin boy to the ports of Norway, Holland, Italy and England. (One thinks of the early years at sea of that great Anglo-Polish writer Joseph Conrad or the youthful seagoing wanderlust of the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who would, like Meyer, one day find serenity in Bermuda.) A life before the mast eventually allowed William to follow in the wake of his father across the Atlantic in 1860. When a bout of “yellow jack” laid him low in Cuba, his ship sailed back to Europe without him, leaving him to fend for himself. He soon found himself involved in the trade between the Caribbean and the southern American states as deckhand on the schooner Harriet Lewis, out of Newport, Rhode Island.
The Harriet Lewis—“my floating home”— brought the seventeen-year old sailor into direct contact with the grim realities of New World slavery. Whether taking on a cargo of cotton, sugar or lumber in southern ports, Meyer witnessed slaves labouring on the docks. The master of the Harriet Lewis, Captain Williams, had no sympathy for slaves: “That the nigger,” he announced, “had no soul to save simply because he had no soul.” A dock slave was simply a commodity. Williams, Meyer learned, had made money on “blackbird voyages” to Africa, where he had collected human cargo for delivery to American plantations. Meyer was repulsed by such sentiment. All around him in the fall of 1860, he heard Americans debating the fraying state of their union. The ship’s owner was “a red hot Southerner,” unafraid of the prospect of a southern secession. Williams tried to sit on the fence, predicting that the crisis would blow over. Below decks, Meyer and some members of the crew thought otherwise, eager to preserve the union.
April 1861 found the Harriet Lewis delivering Cuban molasses to Norfolk, Virginia. To the south, Fort Sumter in Carolina had already fallen in the first instance of open southern rebellion. With the Stars and Stripes fluttering from her mast, the schooner stood out in a state boiling with resentment against the North. At night, Norfolk’s streets seethed with rioters. The Navy Yard was burned and dissident Virginians plundered the federal armory. Meyer worried that his Yankee schooner would be the next target. Some crew members deserted. Desperate to escape, the remaining crew painted over the name of the schooner and her Rhode Island home port. Then, under cover of night, they slipped out of Norfolk harbour, “a bragging shot through our mainsail from the shore battery” providing a “farewell.”
Back in home port, Williams, finally committed to the North, joined the federal navy. Meyer sought to follow, but quickly learned that the navy had no use for “boys.” Meyer hastily volunteered for the army. When the recruitment officer came to inspect Meyer’s contingent of Rhode Island volunteers, he drove a nail into the wall of the fire house and announced that only those attaining that height would don a uniform. Meyer was short and only passed muster when a sailmaker friend gave him a surreptitious boost to hike him to the required stature.
Meyer enlisted in Troop A of the First Regiment of the Rhode Island Cavalry as a private. He described it as “the proudest day of my life.” Rhode Island proved itself a loyal Yankee state in the Civil War. With a population of 175,000 in 1864, the state despatched an amazing 25,236 men to fight in federal ranks. Of them, 1,685 never returned. In a sense, Meyer, who was still a Prussian citizen, was not a Rhode Islander or even an American. But the ranks of both the northern and southern armies abounded with foreigners. Winners or losers, the war forged many of them into Americans.
The opening stages of the war demonstrated that victory went to the side with the swiftest and most aggressive cavalry. Here, the South had the advantage. The army of Northern Virginia drew heavily on the equine prowess of the famous first families of Virginia to assemble the much revered Black Horse Cavalry of Virginia, a force that struck terror in Union soldiers’ hearts. Boldly commanded by gentlemen generals such as James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, the Black Horse allowed the South to score impressive victories early in the war. Decked out in his distinctive cape, yellow sash and cocked hat with its ostrich feather, Stuart led his Virginia horsemen as they contributed to the North’s ignominious defeat at First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861. The North initially seemed incapable of countering the southern cavalry, a failure that mostly reflected inept generalship.
Into this melee, Private Meyer arrived. Many years later in 1912, he published a memoir of his war experience, giving it the colourful title of The Sailor on Horseback. Meyer was not a gifted writer. His memoir was a jumbled narrative, often lacking in context and jumpy in focus. Nonetheless, it does convey a keen sense of the greatest adventure of Meyer’s life. Perhaps the crowning legacy of Meyer’s war was that he survived. A photograph he had taken, as virtually all Civil War fighters did to send to loved ones at home, captured him in 1862 in his full military glory. A small man, he stands against the false backdrop of a cavalry camp—“Fort Mud,” he called it—in his full cavalryman’s regalia, cutlass in hand, rifle at his side and cocked hat on his head. Private Meyer became a corporal and acquired the nickname of “Corporal Dutchy,” probably a muddled salute to his Deutschland origin. Over the course of two years, he fought in twenty battles and skirmishes, a career that reflected the steep learning curve that federal cavalry experienced trying to overcome the South’s horse-borne superiority.
The epitome of Meyer’s cavalry career came in the spring of 1863. The previous December, federal forces under the inept command of General Ambrose Burnside had suffered an ignominious defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia. A furious Lincoln dismissed Burnside and placed the army of the Potomac under General Joseph Hooker. As the winter rains began, northern and southern forces settled in along opposite wooded banks of the Rappahannock River, south and west of Washington, in a campaign nicknamed the “Mud War.” Throughout the standoff, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry raided across the river almost at will. Meyer’s Rhode Island Cavalry lived in fear of a visit from the vaunted Fourth Virginia Cavalry under General Fitzhugh Lee. Such was
Lee’s braggadocio that he pinned taunting notes to trees near the federal encampments: “If you don’t go home, return my visit, and bring me a sack of coffee.”
In mid-March, the federal commander on the Rappahannock, Brigadier General William Avery, decided to retaliate. He ordered his cavalry to raid across the river at Kelly’s Ford in Culpepper County. Meyer’s unit under the command of Colonel Alfred Duffié, a headstrong Parisian fighting for the North, was ordered into action. But an obstacle awaited them at the ford. Sensing a federal incursion, the rebels cut down trees to block easy traverse of the ford. Avery called for volunteers to clear the way for the horses. “My boys will go,” Duffié hollered above the din of battle. Meyer and his colleagues dismounted and, under “a squall of bullets” from enemy snipers, began to hack away at the debris. Meyer wrote in his memoir that bullets pinged off the blade of his axe as he swung it. Finally, a crooked path was opened through thicket and “our dear Rhode Island boys” streamed through and galloped into the Confederate lines.
In the ensuing melee, Meyer confessed that his “cowardly feet” were “drumming in the wooden stirrups.” But onward he rode into the face of Virginia’s battle-hardened cavalry. His beloved horse Billy was shot out from beneath him. Meyer “boohooed like a child.” He grabbed a stray horse, threw his saddle on its back and charged onward. He came across a clutch of wounded rebels in a hovel: “I stepped in pools of blood,” he recalled. “It stuck to the soles of my boots like liquid glue.” Moved by their plight, Meyer sought out medical assistance. When federal doctors refused, claiming that their own wounded came first, Meyer returned with bandages. He took the dying rebel’s address, later sending his family an account of his last minutes. As daylight failed, the federal forces retreated across the river. They had dinted the invincibility of Stuart’s once-unstoppable horsemen. To make the point, General Avery tacked a bag of Yankee coffee to a tree. Meyer drew his own conclusion on the day: “In all my war experience this was the only time I had witnessed the fullest misery of the battlefield.”
Corporal Meyer’s war effectively ended in 1864 when he was taken prisoner, an episode that goes unchronicled in his memoir. His obituary in the Royal Gazette suggested that he had fought at the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 and was taken captive there. There is no mention of this in Meyer’s 1912 memoir. Indeed, he seems to have remained through this time to the south of Gettysburg, still on the Rappahannock. The Royal Gazette also suggested that Meyer was incarcerated in the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia. This, too, seems inaccurate. Records indicate that he spent his time at the somewhat less grim Castle Pemberton and Danville prisons in Virginia. Later in life, Meyer told his son that provisions in the rebel prisons were so meagre that he was reduced to eating rats. What does seem certain is that late in 1864, Meyer was part of a prisoner exchange that soon saw him back in Rhode Island and out of uniform. Still a young man in his early twenties, Meyer turned to the opportunities of peace. Education seemed the key to a better future.
By the time the Civil War ended in April 1865, Meyer was a student at the Providence Conference Seminary in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Although the college specialised in the humanities, he studied navigation and engineering. His thoughts were once turning back towards the sea. By 1866, he was again before the mast, having obtained not only his American citizenship but also his shipmaster’s certification. He became master of the schooner Anne Amelia and sailed as far away as China. In the early 1870s, he was again tempted by employment ashore. In the wake of the Civil War, America was girding itself with what we now call infrastructure—railroads, bridges, canals and ports. He became an assistant engineer helping to build the Brooklyn Bridge, where he specialised in constructing the huge wooden caissons which provided a sure footing for the cement, granite and limestone towers which supported the great suspension bridge. The work was dangerous—underwater tunnelling released noxious gases that frequently led to explosions and asphyxiation.
A year later, Meyer was applying similar expertise to the construction of an international railway bridge across the Niagara River. In each case, it is interesting to note that the genius behind these innovative projects was supplied by European emigre engineers—German John Augustus Roebling in Brooklyn and the Russian-born Pole Casimir Gzowski in Canada. Although Roebling had died in 1869, one wonders whether young Meyer drew inspiration from these architects of modern industrial America. Certainly, he continued to regard engineers as the master builders of the New World. In 1921, some years after his death, the New York Port and Terminal Publishing Company published Meyer’s engineering magnum opus under the workmanlike title of Pier and Wharf Units of the United States. Time ashore in the early 1870s also served to establish a domestic foundation: in 1873, Meyer married Mary Anna Stonebanks, daughter of a well-placed Long Island family with hereditary ties to the Earl of Lumley in England. Meyer thus married well above his station.
But the sea continued to beckon. Meyer returned to his oceanic ways, captaining vessels out of the east coast of America. In 1874, on a voyage from New York to China his vessel was dismasted off Bermuda, where it was towed for repairs. St. George thrived on such windfall business. Distressed ships were unavoidably at its mercy for repairs or, as the steamship began to dominate the seas, for coal to replenish their bunkers. With time on his hands while his ship was being repaired, Meyer took work with William C. Hyland, a linchpin of local business. Hyland not only dominated ship provisioning, but was a cog in the town’s politics, religion and fraternal organizations. As master of the waterfront, mayor and Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge, he presented Meyer with a model of success in the tiny colony. The young German-American liked what he saw and decided to stay.
Meyer prospered in Bermuda. He became a shipping broker, arranging for the movement of vessels frequenting St. George’s Harbour. At the same time, he stockpiled coal for ships seeking to continue long voyages across the Atlantic. He also became a ship owner in his own right and launched his own ship repair business. His small fleet of tugs pulled crippled vessels off the Atlantic into the safety of St. George’s Harbour. When ships proved beyond repair, Meyer bought the hulks and scavenged them for parts. Over time, these derelict vessels constituted a maritime graveyard. All this, Meyer orchestrated from his wharf—Meyer’s Wharf to this day—at the east end of the harbour.
On the bluff above the wharf, William and Mary built an imposing family home, Gluckauf (a
name derived from a miners’ good luck tiding in German). In American east coast fashion, the house overlooked the harbour. The grand Victorian residence was topped with a tower and a widow’s walk, designed to permit an anxious seafarer’s wife a perch to await a loved one’s return. Meyer kept a telescope in his tower so that he might spy any ship in distress in need of assistance from a Meyer tug. Gluckauf ’s construction integrated material harvested from Meyer’s graveyard fleet. The house was “guarded” by an array of old muzzle-loaded cannons salvaged from Bermuda waters. Gluckauf became a family compound. Meyer brought his mother to live there from Danzig. A sister, Selma, also came to Bermuda, where she married Herman Gustav Recht, who became active in Hamilton’s retail trade as a tobacconist. Selma sold jewellery and local cedar work to the island’s early tourists.
William Meyer never lost his zest for new opportunities. He became German and Italian consul in Bermuda, a handy accolade for someone in the shipping business. When the Spanish-American war broke out, Meyer capitalised on his American citizenship by chartering out his steamer Gladisfen as a transport and despatch vessel for the American military in Puerto Rico and Cuba. He regaled Bermudians—a people attuned to seamanship—with the tale of how he had outwitted Spanish warships by laying down a smokescreen belched out of the Gladisfen’s boilers.
Meyer never lost his sense of oceanic adventure. In 1892, he wrote a children’s book about Bermuda, Wrecked on the Bermudas: The Thrilling Adventures of Three Boys—A True Story of the Modern Age. Published in Rhode Island, the book comes across as a compendium of Meyer’s own adolescence. Ships are dismasted. “Old Founders,” the cook, in his “greasy shirt and trousers,” doles out the grub. “Captain Grump” commands the Neptune with all the compassion of Captain Bligh and a weakness for the grog. Marooned on the reefs of Bermuda, the boy castaways and their dog, Toss, eat rock limpets and prickly pears. Eventually, the boys discover civilisation on Bermuda, meet the editor of The Royal Gazette, tour a British warship and marvel in the island’s salubrious climate. The book is no Disney classic. Like Meyer’s later memoir of war, it is jumpy and overly contrived. Perhaps it was written to amuse grandchildren or perhaps as a mirror of a life well spent. A man of many talents, Meyer dabbled in painting, adorning the walls of his home with murals of Bermuda scenery. He also played the violin and spearheaded high culture in St. George’s as president of the Beethoven Society. One wonders also how many other citizens of St. George spoke five languages.
There was always something fanciful about Meyer, despite his hard-nosed business personality. The story grew up, for instance, that in 1893 he sailed his family in a small yacht all the way to the Chicago World Fair and then home again. The story strains credulity; to reach the Great Lakes, Meyer would have had to cross the Gulf Stream and then navigate the rapids of the St. Lawrence River —a daunting journey with children. What is true is that Meyer skippered his own yacht across to Rhode Island many summers to reunions with his old Civil War buddies, the closest of whom was one-time cavalry captain George Bliss who had gone on to become a Yankee judge. Throughout the year, Gluckauf was a hive of social activity: costume balls, Christmas parties for underprivileged children and garden parties. Through all this, music and German wines flowed.
In 1903, Captain Meyer gave Gluckauf to his son William Eugene on the occasion of his marriage to Alice McCallan of Longbird Island, St. David’s. The young couple rechristened the house with a much less Germanic name—The Palms. Meyer senior built a new house, Caledonia, across the road. By then, Meyer, the one-time Prussian cabin boy, was a fixture of St. George’s life. He was the commodore of the St. George’s Yacht Club, a diplomat, a friend of the British garrison, an intimate of the Masonic Lodge and influential in local politics. When Princess Louise came to Bermuda in 1883, Meyer erected a triumphal arch festooned with shellfish to welcome her to St. George. (When the arch began to rot and stink, he doused it with perfume.) Meyer senior thus initiated a family tradition: community service—the opportunity Bermuda had given to him, Meyer would reciprocate by serving the colony.
Only once did his new-found Britishness waiver and his Old Prussian instincts resurface. When the British government interned South African Boer War prisoners on islands in the Great Sound at the turn of the century, Meyer, like many Bermudians, saw the captives, with their strong cultural links to Europe, as victims not foes, aiding them with food and moral support. Together with other prominent Bermudians such as Anna-Maria Outerbridge, Meyer lent his support to the Boer National Committee, using his steamship connections to help smuggle Boer escapees off the island.
Nonetheless, Meyer’s businesses continued to prosper. As a shipping agent, he positioned himself on the ground floor of Bermuda’s infant tourism industry. In 1906, for instance, the town welcomed its first luxury hotel, the 150-room St. George Hotel. Meyer’s company quickly offered carriages for tourist outings and ship-toshore tenders. Sensing tourists’ fascination with Bermuda’s coral reefs, he built and patented a glass-bottomed tour boat, the Sea Fern.
The end came in 1912. While hosting a visit from his old American chum Judge Bliss, Meyer was stricken by what the Royal Gazette called “tropical dysentery.” He was taken to New York for treatment. Things did not go well and on April 25th he died. His loss was eclipsed in the newspapers by the galvanising mystery of why the liner Titanic had foundered two weeks earlier. Meyer’s body was returned to Bermuda and brought ashore by the crew of his flagship, the Gladisfen. A huge funeral at Caledonia followed. At Meyer’s request, eight working men from Meyer’s Wharf willingly carried their captain’s coffin. The Gazette remarked that it was “doubtful there has ever been a previous display of floral offerings similar in beauty and quality in Bermuda.” Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic sent a bouquet of American beauty roses. British troops marched behind the casket as it was carried uphill out of St. George’s to the town cemetery. The entire Masonic Lodge marched in a similar procession.
Meyer’s empire did not go to the grave with him. William junior took over the reins and guided the company into new diversifications—travel agency, ship chartering and even a voice in the arrival of air travel to Bermuda. Meyer junior himself became mayor of St. George in the 1930s. Late in the twentieth century, mergers changed the complexion of the original enterprises into a “group of companies” which to this day thrive on the waterfront of St. George and throughout the island. The group’s literature and website today proudly boast that it has been “incorporated since 1876 by Wm. E. Meyer.” In our globalised world today, all tied together instantaneously by the Internet and easy opportunity, it is hard to image a life so full of unpredictable adventure, danger and fulfilment as that of Captain William E. Meyer, the young lad from Prussia who once took a chance on life.
Dr. Duncan McDowall is University Historian at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He has written many books and articles on Bermuda’s history and heritage, most recently publishing, with his wife, Dr. Sandy Campbell, Short Bermudas: Essays in Island Life (National Museum of Bermuda Press, 2015).