The presiding spirit or, in the eyes of some, the dragon lady- of old-style history in Bermuda.


Between the 1950s and the 1970s, entering the cool gloom of the Par-La-Ville Library’s ground floor from the bright humidity of Hamilton, you were likely to see her — as I did in 1974. Ensconced behind a table of dark wood amid the artifacts and engravings of the Bermuda Historical Society’s treasure room, Terry Tucker, OBE functioned as the presiding spirit-or, in the eyes of some, the dragon lady-of old-style history in Bermuda.

For the many visitors to the room’s quaint confines who knew little of Bermuda’s past, Tucker was certainly unforgettable. Rail-thin, elderly, tart and shrewd, with a heavily-powdered, Elizabeth I-like countenance, she was apt to announce proudly: “I am Terry Tucker,” pointing to a shelf of her books, an oracle often preceded by startling hisses of ” Shh! Shh! Shh!” directed at hapless tourists foolhardy enough to let their voices violate the Library’s hush. Deferential visitors would receive answers to all their questions about this fascinating island from its premier popular historian. Terry Tucker, one-woman encyclopedia of Bermuda facts and figures, loved to dispense Bermuda lore.

Who was Terry Tucker? Years after her death in 1985 at the age of 90, she is half-forgotten. Mention her now, and Bermudians often confuse her with Teddy Tucker, diver and shipwreck discoverer, and tell you tales of the Tucker Cross. However, at the Bermuda Book Store or in any bookstore in Bermuda, you would have no trouble discovering her identity. Her books on Bermuda history–Bermuda’s Story (1959), Bermuda and the Supernatural (1968), Hang the Witch High (1963), Beware the Hurricane (1966) and several others–can still be found. They are a favourite souvenir for visitors curious about Bermuda and intrigued by the paperback volumes whose titles highlight excitement and drama in Bermuda’s story, their pages often illustrated with her own drawings. Reading the books, however, leaves one alternately excited and depressed. On one level, Tucker’s romanticised vision of Bermuda is compelling. Overall, her work depicts a beautiful but harsh coral isle, at various times the stage for heroic settlers, intrepid salt rakers and cunning privateers, peopling an island periodically swept by hurricanes, and once harried by witch hunts and decimated by yellow fever.

Tucker also chronicled an infamous, gruesome murder in the black community of the West End in the 1870s. That crime produced some of Tucker’s best narrative in her historical novel, What’s Become of Anna? (1972), a recreation, heavily based on other accounts, of the 1879 Skeeters murder case. The book tells the story of a womanising Sandys fisherman. Skeeters was hanged for throttling his dutiful wife after she attended church and anchoring her corpse in the channel off Long Bay, Sandys, from where it was soon retrieved, half-eaten by fishes. That novel is probably Tucker’s best, although her career also boasted several historical novels about medieval and Plantagenet nobles in the Mother Country, brought out by British publishers, including Woman into Wolf and The Unravished Bride.

Reading Tucker’s books on Bermuda history, and mulling her work as editor and contributor to the Bermuda Historical Quarterly, one realises that, as was natural for a woman of her race, class and generation, she envisioned Bermuda in a very traditional, blinkered way. To her, the Colony of Bermuda was above all proudly British, and its history was made primarily by white achievers of various sorts, good and bad- explorers, colonisers, privateers, governors, clergymen, whalers, sea captains, merchants and the like. In short, Tucker’s Bermuda history is largely “hisstory”-not to mention “(w)hi(te)story.”

That is to say, the Island, to use Tucker’s own words in the 1960s, was the Mother Country’s “grown child…stand[ing] sturdily on its feet, remembering with gratitude the past.” Tucker was apprehensive about modernity and much of what it promised to bring be it more cars or a greater black voice in the political and economic life of the Island. In 1947, in her article “Too Much Bush” for the Bermuda Historical Quarterly, she denounced the “vulgarisation” of a “coarse and common” and “vulgar” age so obvious in its billboards and newspapers.

As a woman, Terry Tucker though she chose a masculine-seeming name for the title pages of her books-did feel some interest in Bermuda’s women–from those wrongly harried for witchcraft in the 17th century to the tragic Anna Skeeters. But even in writing of Bermudian women, Tucker hewed to a conservative line. Gladys Morrell and the other early 20th century suffragists who struggled to get women the vote, a feat finally achieved in 1944, get short shrift in Tucker’s landmark Bermuda’s Story, written in the late 1950s at the request of Sir Hereward Watlington for use in the schools of Bermuda.

Black history in Bermuda is even more partial and foreshortened in Tucker’s texts than her treatment of women’s history. In Bermuda’s Story, in an incredible (if ultimately self-damaging) oversight, even for the day, Tucker told the Island’s history, without mentioning such issues (important to many Bermudians) as black expropriations prior to the development of Tucker’s Town in the 1920s. Moreover, she buried the events of the Theatre Boycott of 1959-a campaign crucial to civil rights in Bermuda and thus to the history of Bermudians as a whole in a blanket reference to the “voluntary end of segregation for dining and dancing in the islands’ major hotels.” Moreover, that reference comes in a chapter which begins by describing 1959 as the “splendiferous” 350th anniversary year of Bermuda settlement.

Earlier events receive the same selective treatment. Slaves in Bermuda are depicted as “descendants of warring African tribesmen sold by their chieftains” for Caribbean plantations. Local slave owners, we are told, purportedly found slaves more a burden than a blessing, since the latter had to be scrupulously housed and fed even when incapable of work. Emancipation in 1834 was therefore a “great relief for all Bermudians.”

Cup Match, too, gets a coat of whitewash in Tucker’s account. Those proud that the roots of the Island’s annual cricket bacchanal go back to celebrations of Emancipation from slavery in Bermuda-enacted in the Colony as in the rest of the British Empire in August 1834- must be stunned to read:
The cricket classic is a reminder of those British regiments whose enthusiasm, for the sport is maintained in this popular annual fixture, three matches were played during the first [Cup Match] year, 1902, and since that time it has been a popular annual event.”

The British Regiments certainly stimulated cricket, and 1902 did see a revival. But no Gombey costumes during Cup Match mimic regimental colours, and for good reason. Clearly, Terry Tucker did not like to deal with memories that made the ruling elite of the day, with whom she identified, feel awkward or uncomfortable.

As the time’s best-known historian, Tucker made regular visits to the Berkeley Institute, the jewel of black education in Bermuda, and to schools throughout the Island to lecture and grill classes. Bright students must have wondered why Mrs. Tucker, OBE thought it was important they know just how many islands made up Bermuda (120 by her account) but not what the lives of successive generations of black Bermudians from slaves to segregated soldiers in the Bermuda Militia Artillery who fought in the First World War had really been like. Bemused teachers whose classrooms hosted Tucker’s regal quizzing of students joked that the clouds of white face powder which swirled around her must also have whitened her mental map of Bermuda.

Tucker did leave some positive legacies. Bermuda, like many colonies, has often undervalued its past. Tucker fought such indifference, appealing to all the powers that be, from the Governor down, to recognise the importance of the Colony’s past, particularly the preservation of its historical records. Moreover, unlike such redoubtable historians as Henry Wilkinson in the 20th century and Governor Lefroy in the 19th century, Tucker (like the wonderful travel writer and more liberal historian W.E.S. Zuill of Bermuda Journey fame) knew the importance of accessible, popular history as well as scholarly writing in bringing alive the past. She saw history as full of drama and personality-not as a mind-numbing chronology of dry facts and figures.

As long-time Secretary of the Bermuda Historical Society, Tucker was for decades its workhorse as well as editor of its Quarterly, published from 1944 to 1982. She set up an invaluable Bermuda Index at the Par-La-Ville Library, a godsend to researchers from schoolchildren to journalists and historians. At various times, Tucker served as acting archivist in Bermuda, and secretary to its Monuments Trust. She fielded dozens of historical and genealogical queries (dismissing many as “inept,” “self-inflating,” “ignorant” or “merely idle” in one letter) forwarded to her by all departments of government.

Thus, even though Tucker’s history was partial and arrogant in its assumptions, she also preserved and wrote about many things which otherwise might have been lost forever. For better or for worse, to any historian of Bermuda, the issues of the Bermuda Historical Quarterly are indispensable to any work on the Island.

Ironically, however, the one Bermuda story that Tucker refused to tell was her own. Who was she? Where did she come from? Why did she view Bermuda as she did? What did her tireless work as historian do for her? In some ways, the tale of Tucker remains as colourful, mysterious, and partial as her books.

Tucker was not Bermuda-born. Like Sir George Somers, she came by chance– swept in not by hurricane-force winds, but by the winds of war. In March, 1895, she was born Theresa Wakeford to modest middle-class surroundings on England’s Isle of Wight, origins she steadfastly refused to discuss in any detail. Pressed for her own life story by one reporter, Tucker retorted: “Let [the public] read the blurbs on my books. That will tell them about my life as a writer. That’s all they need to know.”

We do know that, during the First World War, the young Theresa Wakeford was, by her own account, working in England as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nursing auxiliary, tending casualties invalided from the Front. There she met and married Grosvenor Harry St. George Tucker, eight years her senior, one of the Island’s convalescent soldier lads.

Terry Tucker arrived in Bermuda with her new husband on New Year’s Day 1920. In 1921, she gave birth to young St. George, who later became a geophysicist, spending most of his career in South Africa, where he died in 1994. While the Tuckers are a large and distinguished Bermuda family, Terry’s husband was, in the coolly dismissive phrase of one chronicler of Old Bermuda, “not a really significant Tucker.” The marriage foundered, a divorce was granted in 1944, and Harry remarried. A sad but not uncommon story.

One thing is clear, however. Terry Tucker’s immersion in Bermuda history, which started to really flower in the 1940s just as her marriage came to an end, gave her a voice and status in Island society that neither birth, marriage or bank balance ever could. She came to Bermuda equipped with a facile pen, boundless energy, a strong will and a keen interest in the past. In turn, Bermuda’s past never let Terry Tucker down. For many people in Bermuda and abroad from the 1940s to the 1970s, Tucker personified Bermuda history. Public recognition, and eventually the Order of the British Empire, came her way.

On the Rock itself, Tucker’s social clout was intensified in the late 1960s when the Premier, the remarkable Sir Henry Tucker–indisputably one of the architects of modern, biracial Bermuda–hired her to research his own genealogy. She was retained to trace the Tucker past on the Island and in England, and to oversee the work of English researchers into his British forbearers. Naturally, such an assignment turned Terry Tucker’s head somewhat, as the lofty tone of her surviving business letters attests.

All in all, Tucker promoted a certain vision of Bermuda’s past, and that past was very good to her. Tucker’s version of history gave her status and voice in society, no mean feat in the world of the white male Bermuda of her day, by and large little interested in women (or blacks) as powermakers or powerbrokers.

As societal change came, a certain unpleasant arrogance crept into Tucker’s prose. At the end of her life, she did not want to be dislodged or questioned about the rightness of her vision of a sub-tropical British colony peopled with benign whites and friendly if somewhat feckless blacks. She feared the future. She published a grim satire of Bermuda in the mid-21st century in a fable called Bermuda 2065 A.D. which caused an uproar in 1983.

Tucker pictured an atheistic, totalitarian Bermuda blanketed by 30-storey high rises, where whites are forced to marry blacks bygovernment decree, and vice versa, and euthanasia is compulsory.

The story’s heroine, Antonia, a 65-year-old white Bermudian who bears a suspicious resemblance to Tucker herself, heroically commits suicide to avoid enforced euthanasia by her son. Antonia affirms the importance of “moral and spiritual values” before leaping from a rooftop. Earlier, she has defiantly borne an all-white child in spite of the legally-mandated “uniformly chocolate skins of the vast majority.”

Tucker’s dire warnings about encroaching development and endangered trees are still timely, but her narrow racial and social views seem as worrisome of those of the Orwellian future she paints. Once, an admiring American history buff called her Bermuda’s “national treasure,” but like the Tucker Cross, her glitter now seems suspect.

Sadly, Tucker’s work also hints at a story that we will never know, with persistent themes that cry out for a biography which can never be written for lack of documents. Taken as a whole, her work is wistful about romantic love, deeply conscious of the vulnerability of women alone, and fascinated by the power-often pictured as arbitrary and abusive of Bermuda men over women throughout much of its history.

The story of the murdered Anna Skeeters therefore fascinated her, and in the novel, Tucker was mostly able to lay aside her racist depictions of black Bermudians. The cynical might argue that this was only because her male protagonist, Skeeters, was a self-confessedly inept, amoral criminal. But Tucker seems mesmerised by the fate of his wife, and to identify with Anna and her plight in a way that transcends questions of race or racism. Just why we will probably never know.

Terry Tucker’s tomb lies in the Anglican cemetery in St. George’s– the whitewashed vault little visited now. Below her hillside grave lies a vista of St. George’s– now a 21st century landscape, of the century she once envisioned so luridly. Would she recognise Bermuda now? Bermudians are often angry, ashamed or just indifferent if you mention her work today. But Tucker herself, at the conclusion of Bermuda’s Story, reminded us that “history is a story without end…you, and I, and all of us [Bermudians], are part of history in the making.” The picture of the Island’s past is being redone-in black and white this time-by a new, more inclusive generation of Bermuda historians.