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Surgeon Williamson dissects Bermuda

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‘As yet I have no where abroad seen such peculiar and beautiful scenery' — James Williamson, 1929

By Dr Edward Harris

Communication is key to human life, not to say that it is not to the birds and bees (what is left of both), but that humans developed language, by which we inform one another by cultural rather than instinctual means.

By means of speech, we directly communicate in person, but once distance enters the equation, one resorts to words, to writing, to express oneself over long distance, the last phrase now truly embedded in our language with regard to the more expensive form of telephonic communication.

Before such long distance speech, everyone had to resort to letters, and ultimately postal systems arose for the delivery of such packets of information over very long distances, say from Europe to America.

The Digital Age has put paid to much letter-writing and some claim we are therefore entering an Age of Illiteracy, thanks to the World Wide Web, which makes it possible to communicate with every far corner of the Earth, instantaneously, by voice, ‘texts' and images.

Pictures, or images, in long distance communication, appear late on the human stage and it is perhaps fair to suggest that the coming of photography in the mid-1800s marked the beginning of the digital age, for it was a technology that could capture real life scenes and transmit the same by multiple prints around the globe.

While it was said, after about 1911, that a picture was worth a thousand words, the fact is that words preceded pictures for generations; they were, you might say, the first ‘art' form.

Storytellers wove a thousand words into paintings of the mind and the Bible takes ultimate communication precedence, claiming “In the Beginning was the Word”.

Before the advent of photography, the reality of life in Bermuda was captured in the occasional painting, some of which have survived, but few earlier than 1800, according to local art historian, Jonathan Evans.

Thus we rely on the reports of residents and travelers to weave word-pictures for us of what the place was like in such earlier times.

One such account has been transcribed by Tony Pawlyn, Head of Library and Research of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, and relates to two visits to Bermuda by James Williamson, surgeon on the Falmouth Packet, Duke of York, in 1829 and 1832.

Falmouth is one of the nearest places in Britain to the Americas and it was from there in the nineteenth century that communications were dispatched to the world for a number of decades. It was on such a mail-run that Surgeon Williamson dissected a bit of Bermuda in his journal for his mother's edification.

Before giving some of the juicier, not to say bloody, bits of his autopsy, a word about the travels of his Packet is in order, so one may compare, in the pictures of your mind, the luxury and timeliness that we enjoy today on the boats of the air, as opposed to the ships of the seas.

You will have noticed, given the winds of the heavens, that it is quicker to get to London than it is to return. Such a situation pertained in the reign of William IV, for the trades still blow largely from west to east in the western North Atlantic.

We fret at the slightest delay of the airlines, but Williamson's 1829 Falmouth-Halifax voyage took 49 days, while that of 1831 devoured 65 days, due to contrary winds and weather: the return west-to-east voyages took 19 and 18 days respectively.

The trips Halifax-Bermuda or return took from eight to 17 days. On top of such sometimes unpleasant voyages, the Packets were only allowed to be in port long enough to deliver and receive the mail, often only for a day or so; however, during his first visit, Williamson was held at St George's for eight days, as contrary winds did not allow the Duke of York to transit the channel to the open sea.

This gave the good doctor time to be a tourist and transmit a great deal of imagery of the place, via words in his journal, to mum back home.

He wrote of the general scenery from “tolerably good roads” and of caves formed by the “Arituration of the Sea” and of walking “under a Broiling sun”, after a visit to Dockyard and Government House: “The Captain, in particular suffered so much, that in a day or two his whole facial skin peeled off, and he got a new one in its stead.”

He recorded the whitewashed houses, but “with one glaring red exception, the eye met with nothing everywhere around but white – white – everlasting white”.

Williamson cuts to the chase (or the bone) in his dissection and noted that Bermudians were “persons very proud & very ignorant – their whole ideas of Geography are confined to the narrow extent of the Bermuda islands”.

However, on the fashion side we were up with the best of Britain: “I met with several young Black women, whose dress for elegance and expensive materials might well vie with those of our fashionable belles.

“It is somewhat particular that so many of them should wear a perfectly white dress in preference to one of any other colour, and perhaps their object is to contrast the jetty black of their skins, with the pure white of these garments.”

It is through accounts such as Surgeon Williamson's that we can paint a fuller picture of life in Bermuda before the widespread use of photography and more such reports will hopefully be available, thanks to the Internet and the new availablility of archive materials worldwide.

So while delivering the mail, the Surgeon, with an eye for dissection, has sent us some new social, if not medical, data, from the distant past of Bermuda, just pre-Emancipation.

To add to our modern connections with the Falmouth Packets and other early mail services, it is a pleasure to remind you that the late Dr JC (Jack) Arnell—first Chairman and creator with Andrew Trimingham and others of the Bermuda Maritime Museum, now the National Museum—wrote one of the definitive books on the Atlantic Mails: A history of the mail service between Great Britain and Canada to 1889. So perhaps our sense of Geography has extended a little beyond the North Rocks.

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.

A view by Thomas Cotter of the Bermuda Dockyard towards the end of its second decade. Both Commissioner's Houses are seen, while a few administrative buildings are clustered around the cove of Grassy Bay. This is the scene that Surgeon Williamson would have seen in 1829.
A visitor to Bermuda, Susette Lloyd, published her account of the Island in 1835, with three views, being of Hamilton Harbour looking towards White's Island, the inlet at Flatts (the ‘telephone' poles mark the bridge into Harrington Sound), and an image of ‘Paynter's Vale'. The last was the home of John Paynter and stood above ‘Shark Hole' in the southeast extremity of Harrington Sound, with Paynter's Hill rising above it, now on the Rosewood Tucker's Point hotel property.
An illustration of the flags for the mail packets on the Americas runs, like the white and blue signal (dead centre) for the Duke of York of the 1830s.
Captured in an image of the late 1820s, this is the type of small Bermuda vessel that likely took Surgeon Williamson to or from the Dockyard.

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Published October 05, 2013 at 9:28 am (Updated October 05, 2013 at 9:39 am)

Surgeon Williamson dissects Bermuda

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