New book captures Twain, Trollope's musings
The new book Recollections Of 19th Century Bermuda is a gallery of pen-sketches of the island during the Georgian and Victorian eras, a collection of first-hand accounts that bring an immediacy and vividness to our understanding of the history of those times.
The volume was compiled by Horst Augustinovic, the world-class Bermuda philatelist. In recent years, his own interest in learning more about the periods when the postage stamps, letters and postcards he collects were issued has led to what might be called a thriving “Bermuda cottage” industry in books about the lesser-known byways of our history.
Recollections of 19th Century Bermuda follows from such recent efforts as the three-volume What You May Not Know About Bermuda series and The Golden Age of Bermuda Postcards.
In this latest effort Mr Augustinovic has drawn together eight distinctive narratives chronicling life in Bermuda between 1808 and 1897 from a rich variety of contemporaneous sources.
Included are pieces by two pre-eminent 19th-century writers holding violently, almost ridiculously contradictory views of Bermuda: Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope.
Twain sings Bermuda's praises with gusto and characteristic charm in his Atlantic magazine series Some Rambling Notes On An Idle Excursion, now considered a minor classic of early travel writing.
Originally running over four issues of that magazine in 1877 and 1878, Twain discussed — and extolled — almost every aspect of life on the island which would become his second home and sanctuary.
Twain, who once called Bermuda “the biggest small place on earth”, went to considerable pains in this 15,000-word piece to catalogue the unique customs of folkways of this miniature mid-Atlantic world unto itself.
Twain brought the journalistic voice of authority, a self-trained anthropologist's eye for detail and the spirit of gentle irreverence to bear on traditions as diverse as the placing of tiny cedar saplings atop wedding cakes to the Bermudian habit of sawing the building materials for their homes out of the living rock so “perhaps you fancy that [houses] grew out of the ground.”
The limestone whitewash of Bermuda houses and roofs he described as “the whitest white you can conceive of, and the blinding-est” for those unused to the glare. In fact, after much deliberation and surmising, he finally determined the “unique white of a Bermuda house [is] exactly the white of the icing of a cake, and has the same unemphasised and scarcely perceptible polish. The white of marble is modest and retiring compared with it.”
He wrote with his combination of bemused levity and shrewd insight about the central role the island's leading export and cash crop, its namesake onion, had assumed in local life and culture by the 1870s: “The onion is the pride and joy of Bermuda. It is her jewel, her gem of gems. In her conversation, her pulpit, her literature, it is her most frequent and eloquent figure.
“In Bermuda metaphor it stands for perfection — perfection absolute.
“The Bermudian weeping over the departed exhausts praise when he says, 'He was an onion!' The Bermudian extolling the living hero bankrupts applause when he says, 'He is an onion!' The Bermudian setting his son upon the stage of life to dare and do for himself climaxes all counsel, supplication, admonition, comprehends all ambition, when he says, 'Be an onion'!”
Some modern readers may conclude they've been presented with a depiction of 19th-century Bermuda only slightly less whitewashed than one of the island's houses based on these carefully curated vignettes (Twain never made any claims to being objective about the island he had fallen in love with at first landfall in 1867).
If so, there is an extreme palliative for them in the form of Trollope. For that British writer leaves in no doubt his profound distaste for many of the same aspects of island life which so charmed his American contemporary.
In marked contrast to the whimsical take on Bermuda presented by Twain, Trollope's view of the island taken from his 1860 book West Indies of the Spanish Main is critical to a fault. He fulminates and thunders about Bermuda so incessantly, readers can be forgiven if they think they detect the sulphurous whiff of recently discharged lightning rising from the pages.
Hugely popular in his day for his seemingly endless Chronicles of Barsetshire series and other family sage novels, Trollope, nevertheless, continued to work as an inspector for the early British postal service even as his literary star was already in the ascendant. It was in his capacity as a postal employee that he was sent to the West Indies and Bermuda in 1858 to “cleanse the Augean stables of our post office system there”.
He seems to have taken his instructions very much to heart and clearly would have liked to have cleansed Bermuda in its entirety.
Writing in the ponderous, overly ornate style that was the literary equivalent of High Victorian Gothic architecture, Trollope excoriated every imaginable facet of life in Bermuda.
Despite saying at the outset that “it seems to me there can be no place in the world as to which there can be less said than there is about this Island,” he proceeded to devote more than 20 densely typeset pages of his memoirs to his two-week inspection of Bermuda.
Trollope disliked the food and the climate, the insects and the entire administrative structure of the island's colonial bureaucracy; he complained about the backwardness of local agriculture despite the opportunities afforded farmers, the islands having “many gifts of nature to recommend them”.
But his most wrathful condemnations are reserved for Bermuda's people, who he considered chronically indolent and irresponsible.
“Perhaps, I should add,” he remarked, ”that on the whole she is contented with her poverty. And if so, why disturb such contentment? [The] sleepiness of the people appeared to me the most prevailing characteristic of the place …
“To say that they live for eating and drinking would be to wrong them. They want the energy for the gratification of such vicious tastes.
“To live and die would seem to be enough for them. To live and die as their fathers and mothers did before them, in the same houses, using the same furniture, nurtured on the same food, and enjoying the same immunity from the dangers of excitement.”
The other commentaries collected in Recollections of 19th Century Bermuda — by travellers, military men and even the pioneering Methodist missionary Joshua Marsden — tend to fall between the two polarised extremes represented by Twain and Trollope.
Taken together, these perceptive and generally reflective individual pen portraits provide a panoramic overview of the cultural, social and even natural history of Bermuda in the 19th century. The writers touch on everything from the island's increasing strategic importance to the Royal Navy to its development as a winter market garden and fruit orchard for East Coast cities to the emergence of the nascent tourism industry to, of course, the lingering impact of slavery (in the immediate post-Emancipation period of 1835, Susette Harriet Lloyd yearned for “that glad day [when] the industry and energy of the negro shall no longer be checked by the withering influence” of that only recently abolished institution and be allowed to reinvigorate what she saw as a somewhat listless and directionless community).
Horst Augustinovic would be the last person to ever describe himself as a professional historian. But, he could be called a top-ranking amateur.
And, it's the amateur's boundless love for his subject which informs and illuminates his projects.
Consequently, Recollections of 19th Century Bermuda is yet another comprehensive, well-organised and finely produced volume which will appeal to both researchers into this period and lay readers alike.
• Recollections of 19th Century Bermuda, compiled by Horst Augustinovic, will be available in local bookstores later this month.
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