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Sailing for the Winwards and Bermuda

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Heritage Matters

“ … they might say that the people of Hamilton live on farmers during the spring and on the Americans during the winter…”—Captain Nathaniel Vesey, 1899.

Perhaps in the absence of a natural cauldron, people hereabout, or some at least, have a tendency to heat up the atmosphere to unnecessarily high temperatures, a habit that is inimical to the tourist trade. As one reporter down south wrote recently, perhaps coining the phrase, there are certain activities that are a ‘crime against the economy’, though he was writing of matters of corruption in government. Nonetheless, it is an interesting concept, ‘a crime against the economy’, but it is left to readers to decide what actions, or inactions, constitute a threat to the economy in its two vital sectors of tourism and international business. Perhaps we need to reflect more often that the real volcano of the place, upon which our house of sand is perched, has lost its ability to heat up, unlike those of some of the Windward Islands, straddled as they are on the edge of an active tectonic plate.

Think for example of the recent eruption of the Soufrière Hills of Montserrat, which not only committed crimes against the tourist economy, but murdered the surrounding countryside by fire and obliterated the Georgian capital town of Plymouth by burial up to its neck, or roof lines, in ash. Many of the inhabitants were forced, and able, to relocate to Britain, because the island was still a British Overseas Territory, now reduced by the continued grumblings of the volcano, which commands more than half of the island’s 70-square mile area as an Exclusion Zone. However, life reappears, often with more fertility, after blasts from Earth’s furnaces, and perhaps ‘Geotourism’, a new concept for touring to see geological phenomena will take root in the ashes of the 1995 eruption and disruption.

The latest theory about Bermuda has a volcano mountain rising above sea level by some 3,000 feet, which was then eroded away over some millions of years, leaving a platform upon which coral reefs would grow and over time be reduced to sand dunes, themselves partly washed into lime and precipitated downwards to dry into rock. The bubbling sea monster that made our 15,000-foot mountain pedestal went to sleep, so that today, we Bermudians are the main forces of destruction of our own back yard. The Great Sound and Castle Harbour are thought to be two of the caldera of that ancient volcano.

Hence our fundamental economy of a trade in visitors is not threatened by natural causes, except during the occasional blow of a passing hurricane, which in these days of instant and constant communications and weather-watching, has the immediate effect of emptying the place of tourists. The heat in our atmosphere is self-generated, but can be just as effective as a volcano in deterring the paying customer upon which our lifestyle depends. It appears it was not always so, particular when agriculture collapsed and the ‘Americans during the winter’ signalled a new road for the economy, one which, if it comes to a dead end, will force the departure of much of the population, at least in the view of some forward-thinkers.

Discounting the thousands of military and other visitors that came to Bermuda by force of circumstance after the American Revolution, tourism as we know it began in the last quarter of the 1800s, when wealthy Yankees cruised to the island in the ships of the Quebec Steamship Line, not out of the St. Lawrence as the name might intimate, but out of the famous Pier 47 of the island of Manhattan. The Line operated ships to and from Bermuda, with another leg, also from New York, running into the West Indies and a brochure of the late 1890s glowed with the descriptions of unspoilt paradises, in the case of Bermuda but two days steaming, for iron ships driven by engines had replaced the square-rigger sailing ship of the previous four centuries.

One of the new ships was the SS Madiana, while another, which appears in the brochure with a happy set of cruisers on the upper deck, was the SS Fontabelle, built originally as the Pembrokeshire of 1882 of the London & Glasgow Shipbuilding Company. Unlike the Madiana, the Fontabelle managed to make it into the early 1920s, when it was scrapped, possibly at Rio de Janeiro. Other famous ships, to Bermudians of the day, were the Orinoco and the Trinidad.

The Madiana, on the contrary, ground to a halt on the reefs at Bermuda on 10 February 1903. Built as the Balmoral Castle in 1877 by R. Napier & Sons of Glasgow, the ship was the San Augustin for a brief period, before reverting to its original name and then being sold to the Quebec Steamship Line in the early 1890s, according to research by Dr. Bill Cooke. It appears that the officers of the vessel mistook Gibbs Hill Light for that of St. David’s Lighthouse and promptly ended up on the rocks. The crew and passengers had a fitful night, somewhat awash, although all and their luggage were apparently rescued the next day. For some years, the Madiana was above water, allowing for the stripping of anything of value, but today the most visible remains are its massive boilers and propeller shaft, home to corals and cruising fish.

One of the places visited on a West Indies trip out of Pier 47 was the French island of Martinique, in particular the town of St. Pierre, the glories of which were touted in the brochure. However on 8 May 1902, after slowing erupting for a period, the nearby Mt. Pelée exploded and destroyed the town and all but two of its inhabitants in a pyroclastic flow of hot gas moving at several hundred miles per hour. The lone survivor was in jail (‘Sometimes your curse is your salvation.’) and the radiant heat burned his skin, without setting fire to his clothes. The Martinique eruption is sometimes rated No. 3 of the world’s top natural explosions in the last three centuries or so.

Overnight, St. Pierre was removed from the tourist itinerary of the West Indies cruise of the Quebec Steamship Line, unless of course, one wished to view the Pompeii-like disaster. A number of ships in the harbour went up in smoke, including a vessel of the Quebec Steamship Line. So next time you are feeling hot under the collar, or yoke some might thing, of an economy of visitors, think dispassionately about where you might relocate should Castle Harbour return to its original nature and wipe out half of Bermuda.

Dr Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

1. The front and back covers of a tourism brochure for cruising to the West Indies and Bermuda of the late 1890s, published by the Quebec Steamship Company.
2. The famous Pier 47 of the Quebec Steamship Company at New York; alongside in the 1890s are the cruise and cargo ships, SS Madiana and SS Pretoria.
3. The town of St. Pierre at Martinique in the 1890s, before its ruination in 1902 when the entire town was destroyed and 30,000 inhabitants killed by a pyroclastic flow from the nearby volcano Mt. Pelée.
4. SS Madiana on the Bermuda reef, with a tugboat alongside and a clutch of Bermuda sloops standing by, no doubt with crews waiting to be ‘helpful’; inset, the ship’s boilers (Robert Steinhoff photo).
5. Image from a photo album of an earlier passenger of the ship who visited the wreck of the Madiana; inset is the SS Fontabelle, another similar vessel of the Quebec Steamship Company of the 1890s.

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Published May 11, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 10, 2013 at 2:32 pm)

Sailing for the Winwards and Bermuda

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