Bermuda can be a puzzle. For more than 350 years the linked island chain has been under one flag, yet its history records major social and political diversity -- not so much between neighbors but between its geographic end points.
They say your attitude begins to change as you travel east and cross the world's smallest drawbridge (22 inches wide, just enough to permit passage of a sailboat mast) between Somerset Island and Southampton Parish. As for residents, although East Enders and West Enders occasionally rub shoulders in central Hamilton, only taxi drivers appear to make the tip-to-tip journey very often.
The East End is, well, quaint. St. George's is a restored and prettified English village. Moored off its King's Square is a reproduction of the sailing ship Deliverance, the original of which was constructed in 1609 by shipwrecked survivors of Sea Venture on their way to Virginia. The streets are named after British nobility. A museum in Fort Catherine contains replicas of the British crown jewels.
St. George's is said to be the second English town to be established in the New World after Jamestown, Va. In the East End, tourists can see the Place of Public Hangings or have their pictures taken locked in public stocks.
The West End is rural. If you don't count centuries of drop-in pirates, callers have been more interested in seclusion, sailing, writing books and maintaining low profiles.
Somerset Island claims no towns at all. Its one authentic historic dwelling, Springfield, is also the public library.
Both Somerset and Southampton have beautiful pale pink beaches made from infinitesimal bits of shells. The favorite color for houses is also pink, one of the few things agreed upon, east and west alike.
The Bermudas were unpopulated when discovered in the early 1500s by Spain's Juan de Bermudez. The islands were not colonized until after the British ship Sea Venture, carrying Sir George Somers, was wrecked in 1609.
From the outset it should have been clear that the West End was different. The very name -- Somer's Seat -- was an inside joke. Admiral Somers established his head-quarters at the other end. In 1610, when Sir George died, his body was returned to England, but he left his mark on St. George's, the town he named for himself and Britain's patron saint.
Though it may be irrele the West End is a tad nearer the shores of North America, its inhabitants listened to a different -- and often Yankee -- drummer. When the American Colonies rebelled, St. George's stood solidly Tory, while Somerset supported the revolutionaries.
It was a contingent from the west that in 1775 stole gunpowder from Fort William (after removing the key from beneath the governor's pillow), transported it by whaleboat to Mangrove Bay, then loaded it aboard an American frigate and sent it to Philadelphia. More Bermuda powder found its way to Bunker Hill, Mass. When the new U.S. Congress sent the island food in gratitude and even exempted Bermudans from attacks by American privateers, the loyalists in St. George's furiously decided to make Bermuda another Gibraltar.
The tug of war
The loyalists built forts, and ultimately launched the War of 1812 from Bermuda's shores. The British fleet's attack on Washington succeeded, but other efforts were undercut by West End Yankee sympathizers who alerted those same friendly American ships.
Despite the abolition of slavery in Bermuda in 1834, St. George's was host to an official agency of the Confederacy. The failure of secession in the United States brought recession in St. George's. Today there's a Confederate Museum on King's Square.
When the capital was moved to Hamilton, Bermuda's midpoint, it was said to be strategic for philosophical as well as geographic reasons.
Bermuda is not one island but many. Seven islands have been connected to form the main body, which curves like a fishhook in the Atlantic 570 miles from Cape Hatteras, N.C., and 3,497 miles from London.
Until recently the northwestern tip, Ireland Island, was really the land beyond. The only thing there besides the Royal Naval Dockyard (unused since 1951) were a few warehouses and a prison. Then, in 1975, the Maritime Museum opened in the dockyard. The museum brings together exhibits on navigation, shipping, the Royal Navy and Bermuda's own racing boats. It's an informal place, and visitors are encouraged to climb the ramparts and explore the fortifications.
In the old Cooperage opposite the museum you can see a presentation of the "Attack on Washington." The Bermuda Arts Centre holds changing exhibitions; the Craft Market features artisans in action.
The shoals off St. George's and the Royal Naval Dockyard have been dredged to accommodate cruise ships, part of the official plan to take the pressure off Hamilton. Passengers are given an hour or so to see the local sights before being taken away on buses.