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When the myth becomes fact

There was nothing remotely glamorous about Bermuda at the end of World War One. This was not yet the Bermuda of “beautiful estates and yachts, of stingers at noon and gin and tonics in the evening” as American journalist and columnist Jim Bishop was to remark on the Island's newly acquired grandeur just 20 years later. It was, in fact, a Bermuda which had been reduced to something close to penury by the conclusion of the 1914-18 war.

At the time the Island was still a primarily agricultural community. However, a combination of penal American tariffs and the development of modern refrigerated box cars which allowed for West Coast farm produce to be transported to the East unspoilt meant there were a dwindling number of markets for our export crops of onions, potatoes and Easter Lillies.

Front Street, far from being the glittering “Shop Window Of The Empire” it would later become, was lined with dry goods shops, feed stores and livery stables. There was no market for luxury items among a population eking out a hardscrabble existence in 1919. Tourism, which had been on a growth spurt in the immediate pre-World War One period (Bermuda for the first time attracted more visitors than it had residents in 1911 when 27,000 vacationers arrived here) had been a casualty of the global conflict. The steamer Bermudian, which plied the New York Bermuda run for many years, had been requisitioned in 1917 and by war's end lay grounded and rusting on an Egyptian sandbank. And because German submarine warfare had sent tens of thousands of tons of civilian shipping to the bottom of the Atlantic, by 1919 Bermuda's Trade Development Board — precursor to the modern Tourism Authority — was to ruefully report not “a single passenger ship (is) to be had today” to restore the New York service.

But in the immediate post-war period a serendipitous confluence of events would change Bermuda's fortunes beyond all recognition — and seal the fate of one of the Island's oldest communities.

Late in 1919 the Trade Development Board finally found a partner with whom to not only revive the local tourism trade, but to physically remake Bermuda into what was effectively the first resort destination built to specification.

The British Furness-Withy steamship line headed by Sir Frederick Lewis had been pondering its future, wondering how best to capitalise on post-war developments. The full-throttle affluence which led to the coming decade being labelled “The Roaring 20s” in the US was already getting under way. The success of wealthy retreats like Palm Beach in Florida had demonstrated America's aristocracy would pay a premium for tranquility and exclusivity. The introduction of Prohibition also meant the East Coast elite was eager to find nearby watering-holes where they could clink cocktail glasses with one another. And golf was undergoing an unprecedented flowering of popularity, and had already acquired a reputation as a rich man's game.

Furness-Withy factored all of these considerations into its long-term plans for Bermuda, which included the construction of amenities around the Island to cater to the passengers it intended to bring here aboard its luxury liners. As Canadian historian Duncan McDowell said in his pioneering research on Tucker's Town, the centrepiece of Furness-Withy's Bermuda investments would be a lavish self-contained development: “It would transport Americans to Castle Harbour, tender them ashore, accommodate them in its own luxury hotel and offer them a mid-Atlantic playground.

“The crown jewel of this colony within a colony would be a posh residential community where wealthy Americans could winter among their own kind. Furness-Withy was thus offering to set in place the capstone of Bermuda's edifice of quality tourism.”

The subsequent acquisition of Tucker's Town, then among the most remote and neglected areas of the Island, for redevelopment into a luxury enclave by Furness-Withy subsidiary the Bermuda Development Company remains among the most controversial, and least well-understood events, in the Island's modern history.

That is why Progressive Labour Party MP Walton Brown's bid to establish a commission of inquiry to look into the circumstances surrounding the creation of Tucker's Town and other contentious land expropriations should be welcomed. Such a body would be ideally placed to finally strip away the accretions of myth which have accumulated over the decades, and reveal the truth of the matter. While Mr Brown's calls for additional compensation to be paid to descendants of property owners may be both impractical, and economically unfeasible, the primary purpose of his proposed commission — to fill in the blanks in an important chapter of Bermuda history — is difficult to argue with.

There can be no doubt the inhabitants of Tucker's Town were called on to make a disproportionately large sacrifice to ensure the future prosperity of Bermuda. But the story is both more complex and less clearly black and white (in all senses) than either critics, or defenders of the Tucker's Town redevelopment, are wont to maintain.

The Bermuda Development Company's acquisition (“with limited measures of compulsion”) of 600 acres of Tucker's Town in the early 1920s was not the rapacious land grab some have painted it as. Nor was it an entirely tidy exercise which saw all property owners receive new homes, and generous compensation packages involving prices far higher than the fair market values of the times.

It's true a community with roots dating back to 1616 and, as a contemporaneous petition phrased it, “a natural love and attachment for their lands, houses and homes” was uprooted to make way for rolling golf courses, hotels and millionaires' pleasure palaces. It's equally true the project attracted speculators, opportunists and outright swindlers of both races and all social positions who bought up packages of land in Tucker's Town which they quickly turned around and flipped to the Bermuda Development Company for substantial profits.

It would require a deliberate policy of dishonesty about (and blindness to) our own history to continue to ignore the events which led to the development of Tucker's Town. There's an old rule of thumb to the effect that when the legend becomes fact, you simply print the legend. In this instance it would be immeasurably more beneficial for Bermuda if the legend was finally dispelled, and the facts aired.

Walton Brown

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Published July 09, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 13, 2014 at 2:49 pm)

When the myth becomes fact

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