The back seat of Ronald Scraders’ taxi was crawling with giant crustaceans. Three Bermudian spiny lobsters, to be exact. It was the end of the season and he had spotted a fisherman selling them by the roadside, he explained. As we drove, he gave me a recipe for boiled lobster, his lilting accent a relaxed hybrid of British, American and West Indian, with its own distinct inflections. Rather like Bermuda itself, in fact.
At first sight, it does seem peculiarly British, with red postboxes, afternoon teas and parishes named Devonshire, Warwick and Southampton. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it’s very much its own country. Bermudians are at pains to point out that it is not in the Caribbean, as many people believe.
Indeed Bermuda’s seasons follow Britain’s, although with higher temperatures, thanks to the passing Gulf Stream. Nor is it a single island, but a 21-mile string of 138 coral islands and islets less than two miles wide, resting on the exposed tips of an extinct volcano like a fish hook in the startling azure of the Atlantic Ocean.
Britain’s oldest colony was settled by accident in 1609, when Admiral Sir George Somers and his crew on the Sea Venture were shipwrecked en route to Virginia and washed up on the uninhabited shores of an island already known as Bermuda, after Spanish seafarer Juan de Bermudez. This year a whole host of anniversary celebrations are planned, from a re-enactment of the shipwreck to exhibitions and concerts.
The eastern tip of Bermuda, where Somers first landed, became the picturesque town of St George’s. It was the capital until 1815 and has been preserved in a delightful time warp of winding cobbled streets and sugared almond-coloured houses, all topped with brilliant white, lime-washed roofs, designed to collect the unpolluted rainwater.
The first settlers found lush primeval forests of sweet-scented cedar, towering palmetto palms and twisting olive trees. There was a plentiful supply of fruit, including giant guavas, Chinese gooseberries and Surinam cherries.
E Michael Jones, the former mayor of St George’s, is as knowledgeable about botany as he is about history and, as we explored the evocatively named streets – Needle and Thread, Blockade and Featherbed Alley – we plucked tart orange loquats from the trees, tasted peppery red nasturtiums, rubbed indigo leaves between our fingers and smelt wild, white oleander. I lost count of the number of people who greeted us but, as he said, on an island of just over 60,000 people, you’re going to bump into most of them sooner or later.
St Peter’s Church is painted a sea-mist grey, with green shutters and a magnificent cedar door bleached by the sun. The cedar-scented interior is filled with old wooden box pews, one per family, and is still lit by candle chandeliers. In the graveyard, the separate section for slaves and free blacks is a poignant reminder of Bermuda’s segregated past and part of the new African Diaspora Heritage Trail that crisscrosses the island.
Slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834, 30 years ahead of the United States. In 1835, a ship carrying 78 slaves from Virginia to South Carolina was driven off course by a storm. The ship docked in Bermuda for provisions but local customs officials refused to let it sail again until the governor ruled on the fate of the slaves. They were given the choice of staying in Bermuda as free individuals or continuing to the US as slaves. Unsurprisingly, all but six chose to remain.
Read on for masked dances, high society and the connection to Queen Victoria.