Right from our first visit to the island many years back, I have been hearing that Bermudians are also known as Onions worldwide and Bermuda as the 'Onion Patch'. I was wondering what may be the story behind this, but could not imagine that it actually had to do with real onions, and that too with tons of them.
Here is the story: The first settlers who came to Bermuda from England introduced onions in Bermuda around 1616. Since then onions had become a staple crop in the island.
These sweet and succulent onions also started to become popular in England and USA. In 1847, a first ship load of onions were exported to US east coast from St. George's Port in Bermuda. Although the captain of the ship may not have understood the implication of this sail, it actually started the first real trade relationship between Bermuda and the US, and therefore was considered as a significant and historical event.
Gradually onions became Bermuda's major export item and hundreds of farmers turned to onion harvesting realizing the market potential in the US and all over the world. With its huge and growing popularity, in mid 19th century Bermudians became known as Onions and Bermuda was called the Onion Patch.
By the end of 19th century, Bermuda became widely popular with the American vegetable importers as the source of quality onions and the weekly trip by the ship SS Trinidad was carrying more than 30,000 boxes full of onions to the US.
There were times when over 4,000 tons of onions were shipped to the US. The onion export from Bermuda continued for decades thereafter until the first world war when shipping almost came to a halt and thereby badly impacting the export of onions.
Following World War-I, although the onion export from Bermuda started again, the US imposed higher import duties slowing it down considerably. More over, by then a farmer community in Texas started developing their own onions and even called them Bermuda Onions to sell in domestic market as well as export them easily.
Bermuda now had a fierce competitor to which it had to finally give up. The Texas farmers had the advantage of using North America's new railway system to move and export their locally grown onions in bulk quantities.
Bermuda being isolated on the North Atlantic, had to depend on shipping which was a far slower mode of transport. As a result Bermuda exports dropped from 153,000 crates in 1914 to just 21,570 crates in 1923. On the other hand, the Texas farmers were exporting over 1,000 railway carloads of onions to other countries and growing bigger. A farming community even called itself Bermuda Colony and later Bermuda, Texas.
In the 1930s, Bermuda Trade Development Board tried desperately to curb the trend by sending postcards to their overseas buyers that stated the following:
"It is the flavor of a genuine ‘Bermuda’ that is so different. Maybe it is the Sunshine and Sea Breezes down in beautiful Bermuda or some magic in the soil that is responsible, but whatever it is the flavor tells the difference immediately. Be careful then to always look for the crate... See that it is marked ‘from Bermuda Islands’ and you’ll know you are getting the real thing."
But it was a futile exercise. Slowly the era of the Bermuda's farmers exporting onions came to an end. However the Bermudians still hold themselves proudly whenever they are called 'Onions'.
By Raj Bhattacharya
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