Shorts, rum and a triangle; that was pretty much all I knew about Bermuda, the scattering of low-lying Atlantic islands about 650 miles off the coast of North Carolina. I knew nothing of the tragedy suffered 40 years ago this year, when the governor and his aide-de-camp, not to mention the governor’s Great Dane, were murdered by a petty criminal who claimed to be striking a blow against the “wickedness of the colonialist system”. Nor was I aware of the precipitous decline of Bermuda as a tourist destination. But then I went, and was quickly educated, for these are the things that Bermudian taxi-drivers talk about.
To start with the decline in tourism, the figures seem stark. “There were 13,000 hotel beds in 1987 and there are just 3,000 now,” a regretful hotelier told me. Most locals blame this on the politicians, who were so intent on developing Bermuda as a business haven that “tourism became a stepchild ... it didn’t get the attention it needed”.
The politicians are becoming more attentive now, and thank heavens for it, because if ever there was a destination made for tourism, it is Bermuda, a strange but beautiful hybrid of a West Indian island and Weybridge. It has, for example, more golf courses per square mile than anywhere else on Earth, accounting for no less than one-tenth of the land. I played several of them, including Port Royal, as fine a public course as I have ever scarred with divots, and the decidedly non-public, exceptionally swanky Tucker’s Point, where even the electric carts are fitted with GPS technology, a disembodied voice rather bossily telling you how far you still have to hit.
The joining-fee at Tucker’s Point is reputedly $80,000 (£53,000) and yet there is no shortage of people ready to fork out. Thanks to the relentless initiatives of successive governments, Bermuda is now the third-largest insurance centre in the world, behind New York and London, and there is an air of affluence even away from Tucker’s Point and the exclusive neighbouring enclave of Tucker’s Town, where American billionaires live cologned-cheek-by -silky-jowl. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, can be found there most weekends.
Non-Bermudians make up about one-sixth of the country’s 64,000 population. But they contribute considerably more than that to an economy that, in per capita terms, is among the five strongest in the world. It is also a tax haven and an uppity one at that. The territory resisted David Cameron’s recent crackdown on tax avoidance and got plenty of global criticism in return – much to the disgruntlement of Bermuda’s main paper, The Royal Gazette. “It cannot help but appear that Bermuda (a country that still holds slightly mythical status in the UK) has been scapegoated,” thundered an editorial last week.
It was right about the slightly mythical status. But really, we in the UK ought to know more about Bermuda. After all, British Airways is the only European airline to offer direct flights and it remains a British Overseas Territory. In 1995, at the last a referendum on independence, 74 per cent voted against. And, to show how proud Bermudians are of their ties with Britain, when Margaret Thatcher died, even non-official flags were lowered to half-mast. One cab driver also told me that the greatest day of his life was the day the Queen visited his school in 1973 and spoke directly to him. “I will never forget that woman, man,” he said. I asked him his name. It was Winston.
Proud as they are of Queen and Old Country, Bermudians are prouder still of their own 21 square miles and they do all they can to protect the indigenous population from incoming bounty-hunters. Every job that falls vacant has to be advertised for at least three days, usually in The Royal Gazette. If a Bermudian wants it and is qualified to get it ahead of an expatriate, then by law it must be offered to him or her first.
You don’t have to vote Ukip to see that some of Bermuda’s policies might get enthusiastic support here. There is still military conscription – between 18 and 33, everyone must serve three years and three months. Here’s another practice that would go down well in the Old Country: until quite recently, in Bermuda’s former capital, St George’s, a leading politician was frequently strapped into a ducking stool and given a public dunking.
The politician was Senator Suzanne Roberts-Holshouser, a regular player in the historical re-enactment that, for the benefit of tourists, takes place beside the harbour every day from Monday to Thursday during the holiday season. A 17th-century housewife is put on mock trial for scolding and nagging her husband, found guilty, and publicly “humiliated”. Disappointingly, but forgivably, Mrs Roberts-Holshouser has distanced herself from the ducking chair as her political career has flourished.
St George’s, in the very north, evokes the 17th century in other ways too. Settled in 1612, seven years before Jamestown in Virginia, it was the first permanent town settled by the English in the New World and has been meticulously preserved.
In fact, it was a Spanish sailor, Juan Bermúdez, who had discovered the islands 100 years earlier. The Spanish had kept them stocked in case any shipwrecked sailors should wash up there, so there was due consternation in Spain when the shipwrecked crew of an English vessel, the Virginia-bound Sea Venture, claimed Bermuda for the English Crown in 1609. Five years later, the Spanish sent a small fleet to seize Bermuda for King Philip III, but a couple of booms of a cannon convinced them the islands were better defended than they were. The so-called “Repulse of the Spanish” cost just two cannonballs.
Bermuda was never invaded again, but the plunder of passing ships became something of an industry. There is still a road called Wreck Hill, where wreckers made their way down to the rocks. One of the many joys of Bermuda is that practically every street name has some historical significance. From St George’s we followed Convict Bay Lane to a small strip of sand locally known as Glass Beach, for the very good reason that mixed up with the sand are thousands of small, multi-coloured pieces of glass, about the size of pennies, worn smooth by the Atlantic Ocean.
The theory is that soldiers stationed at the adjacent fort, after their long, lonely vigils looking for those non-existent invaders, used to toss their empty bottles of gin and brandy into the waves. The tides would smash them against the rocks before, eventually, washing them up on shore. But how long the beach will retain its quirky name is open to question as tourists arrive with every bus that passes, then load up their bags with the glass which, apparently, makes charming jewellery. There lies the paradox for Bermuda and every other exotic holiday island; tourism is a boon, but tourists can also be a curse.
Still, they’d like more of them in St George’s, where those behemothic modern cruise ships can’t dock. Even to get them into the harbour would mean widening the channel at a cost of $70m (£45.5m). The comparative dearth of tourists on the morning we were there meant that we had St Peter’s Church all to ourselves. It is the world’s oldest Anglican church outside the British Isles – a fascinating place, with a haunting graveyard that on its own could tell the story of Bermuda, including one of its more troubling chapters. It is here that the governor assassinated in 1973, Sir Richard Sharples, is buried next to his aide-de-camp, Hugh Sayers, a 26-year-old captain in the Welsh Guards.
The man convicted of the murder, Erskine Burrows, was said to belong to a militant Bermudian group allied with the Black Power movement, called the Black Beret Cadre. But my taxi driver Winston thought, as do many Bermudians still, that there was a much wider conspiracy to undermine British rule, and that Burrows, even if guilty of pulling the trigger, had not conceived the crime.
Burrows and an accomplice, Larry Tacklyn, who had committed another double-murder in a supermarket, were hanged in December 1977, which gives them a notable if unenviable historical footnote: they were the last people to be hanged under British law anywhere in the world.
It might be stretching a point to say that the position of governor is congenitally unlucky, but I met the current incumbent, George Fergusson, who was mugged in London shortly before taking up the post and lost an eye. He was the guest of honour at a golf tournament held at Turtle Hill, the staggeringly lovely par-three course belonging to the Fairmont Southampton hotel. Actually it was golf that took me to Bermuda – for I was playing in the Hackers Cup, a sub- (a very sub-) Ryder Cup event between a team of media folk and a team of celebrities, the latter captained by Sir Steve Redgrave.
Redgrave was responsible for a gloriously, surreally anarchic highlight. It took place at a reception on the roof of the HSBC building in Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital. Sir Steve encouraged one of his teammates, the actor Warren Clarke, to give a speech as a camp version of Sir Winston Churchill. All the visiting Brits laughed uproariously. The Bermudians, by contrast, didn’t seem quite sure where to put themselves. What my cab driver would have made of it, I shudder to think.
Brian Viner travelled to Bermuda with British Airways, which offers a daily service in the summer and five services per week in the winter (0844 493 0787; ba.com).
Fairmont Southampton (001 441 238 8000; fairmont.com/southampton-bermuda).
Bermuda Department of Tourism: gotobermuda.co.uk