A cultural death at Shelly Bay
‘My garden is filled with papayas and mangos / My life is a mixture of reggae’s and tangos / From under my lone palm I can look out on the day’… Jimmy Buffett, Lone Palm, 1994.
Surely the latest happenings at Shelly Bay must be keeping the incumbents of the House of Assembly awake, as may have occasioned some ninety years ago over another controversy at that tranquil place.
Then, the imminent death of the fabled “Lone Palm” was enough to bring the House to a standstill.
The trouble for the mice and men of the House was presaged in The Royal Gazette on June 3, 1929, and we quote:
“And talking of the Lone Palm I do hear that the Railway Company has acquired our one and only palm. I do protest in the name of picture postcard art!
“I have ever suspected the company of sinister design, but I never dreamt they would spend £380,000 for the nefarious purpose of acquiring our great asset to honeymoon publicity. I do pray that when the Railway is next discussed in our House that some bold and eloquent Member will block the attempt to gain our lone palm on the flimsy pretext of substituting transportation.
“Were I an American, given to the national practice of experimentation in matrimony, I should threaten never to visit Bermuda on my frequent honeymoons as no lone palm flourished under which I could pledge my undying and unalterable affection and love.
“This would preserve to us our scenic beauty as no railway can, for we derive 80 per cent of our revenue from American visitors, and 99 per cent of them are honeymooners and it is during a honeymoon that a man forgets to spend his money to the best advantage and with a due regard to economy.”
All that rose to hurricane force on 10 June 1929, as an Honourable Member spoke of the impending disaster at the bay:
“I say unhesitatingly that those responsible for promoting this Railway Bill are guilty of the grossest act of vandalism ever committed in this colony.
“That is only emphasised by what took place last Friday at Shelly Bay. The Honourable Member has an amendment today to show the lines of the route. On the map first submitted it did not show that they were in the water. We have it from a director of the Railway Company that they are going to run the line on a bridge of trestles across the bay, and spoil a natural asset from every point of view.
“They also are going to remove as far as I can see what has become a great attraction from the advertising point of view. Every tourist asks their driver to take them to see the lone palm.
“That is going to be removed. I simply ask Honourable Members to take this into serious consideration before they commit themselves to supporting the Bill today.”
The gentlemen of the House voted thumbs down and the Lone Palm, a cultural icon of some decades standing, fell in the name of progress, as did the natural habitat of some 250 acres of Bermuda land, appropriated from all and sundry from Somerset to St George’s for the Railway.
Earlier, in January 1921, the newspaper carried this snippet of cultural tranquility: “On a sun-filled afternoon, to the toot of a horn, and the music of eight pairs of hoofs, twelve miles is a matter of minutes. Our road wound past Shelly Bay, and the old lone palm (the most photographed tree in Bermuda); past fields of rich henna coloured earth …”
The Lone Palm, like Somerset Bridge, captured the local and touristic imagination and was photographed by a number of professionals and appeared on many trinkets for sale, such as playing cards, china plates, postcards, sewing kits and so on.
We were awoken to the subject of the cultural heritage of the Lone Palm when a dozen images appeared from Bermudaphile, Keith Adams, of Delaware.
Late last year, a Bermudian, Saskia Wolsak, completed an MSc thesis on the subject of Sabal bermudana, which documents the importance of the Palmetto to the local economy, long before the Lone Palm assisted the tourist trade.
The birth and death spot of the Lone Palm was located with the assistance of Linda Abend and its absence is a reminder of yet how neglected some of our cultural assets are, despite recent assertions of their irrevocable value to tourism.
• Edward Harris is Founding Executive Director Emeritus of the National Museum of Bermuda