Welcome to Little Britain USA
On Tuesday, Bermuda marks the 400th anniversary of its discovery by the British. But, Simone Kane asks, is it growing closer to America these days?
Sunday 26 July 2009
As the last tables are stashed away and the music fades into memory, there's a post-fete atmosphere in the town square. It's the aftermath of a ceremony steeped in history. Amid much pomp, a venerable Freemason offered a state official a velvet cushion bearing a peppercorn on a silver platter, before the assembled dignitaries retired for afternoon tea.
How very British. But then this is St George, once the capital of Bermuda and the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the Americas. Historical events such as the annual Peppercorn Ceremony – which commemorates the day in 1816 when the Freemasons began renting the old State House, paying with peppercorns – have taken on extra significance this year.
For this Atlantic island, just off America's south-east coast, is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its "discovery" by the English. (Actually, the Spaniard Juan de Bermudez arrived a hundred or so years earlier, but didn't think it had much to offer – pink-sand beaches and turquoise waters don't do it for everyone.)
Beldwin Smith, a retired civil servant and part-time guide, is showing me around. He imparts his encyclopaedic knowledge of the island in his softly spoken, perfectly enunciated English, with a distinctive Bermudian lilt. St George, he explains, was named for Admiral Sir George Somers, who was shipwrecked off the coast on 28 July 1609 en route to Virginia.
"The settlers he left behind built homes first from local cedar, but quickly progressed to houses made from the island's limestone," he says. The puritanical asceticism was eventually abandoned, too, and the buildings were later decorated in a palette of pastels that makes them undeniably quaint. St George's historical significance has earned it the status of a World Heritage Site.
Beyond the harbour, Beldwin leads me through narrow, winding lanes, where he points to reminders of Blighty. "Notice the names," he says, "Needle and Thread Alley, Printers Corner ...." We take a breather in the cool interior of 17th-century St Peter's, the oldest continuously used Anglican church in the Western hemisphere. "The roof," says Beldwin, "is built like an upturned boat hull – perhaps that is all the first settlers knew how to craft."
From St George we head for the other end of the island, passing through a landscape of lush hills speckled with more brightly painted cottages. "You should feel at home here," Beldwin laughs. "We drive on the left, put our post in red letterboxes, and our islands are divided into parishes and villages." They're big on cricket, football and rugby, too.
Britain's first colony, now "overseas territory", and home to the world's fifth-oldest parliament, hasn't been allowed to let go of the apron strings completely. A large portrait of Her Majesty smiles benevolently over passport control at LF Wade International Airport. It's a reminder that Bermuda is still represented on the world stage by the UK.
Yet, sitting just 700 miles off the coast of North Carolina, Bermuda inevitably has a "special relationship" with the Americans, too, stretching back to the time when the forts on the island's north-east shoreline and the Royal Arsenal just outside St George were working. "During the American Revolution, we avoided a US blockade by trading British gunpowder for food," says Beldwin. "Later," he adds, "during the Second World War, the American military built our airport." Today, in the Botanical Gardens, there's a poignant reminder of this friendship: a piece of metal from Ground Zero commemorates the victims of 9/11.
Fostering this relationship has taken on a sense of urgency for the Bermudians since President Barack Obama declared his intention to crack down on tax havens, Bermuda's main source of income. Recent negotiations between the Americans and Bermuda's Premier, Ewart Brown, about accepting four former prisoners from Guantanamo Bay – a cause of consternation for the British – seems to indicate the pro-independence leader is keen to strengthen ties with his US neighbour.
Apart from the obvious advantages of snuggling up to a superpower, Americans are also key to Bermuda's second- biggest industry – tourism. Roughly 80 per cent of the island's visitors come from the US, in search of a short-haul hop for a little sunny R&R.
In the capital, Hamilton, there are signs of creeping Americanisation, particularly along the main drag, Front Street, where big business has added nondescript, glass-fronted buildings to the traditional architecture on the skyline. But the Bermudians aren't a walkover. They have resisted the golden arches of McDonald's (franchises are prohibited, although there is a small KFC with no external branding) and formal protection for some of the indigenous architecture has been in place since the 1930s. There are notable features that you wouldn't see anywhere else, such as the ubiquitous white stepped roofs. "These roofs are unique to Bermuda," says Beldwin, "a way of collecting rainwater for domestic use. The water is channelled into a tank below and purified on its way down by the chlorine-based paint."
Bermuda's identity might be deeply influenced by the UK and US, but it has not been totally obscured. Down on the beach, where the rum cocktails flow to a soundtrack of homegrown reggae there's a distinctly Caribbean-style vibe. "You know, the Americans say we're like the British, while the British say we're more American," says Beldwin. "We're proud of our mixed heritage, but really we're Bermudian."
HOW TO GET THERE
Simone Kane travelled to Bermuda courtesy of BA Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which offers accommodation at Elbow Beach from £1,316 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick, and room-only.
Bermuda Tourism (bermuda tourism.com).
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