Bermuda’s wealth is rooted in tax avoidance and slavery

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Freedom

There are no significant restrictions on political freedom, and the parliament operates under a two-party system with a free press. Since the closure of the Bermuda Sun in 2014, there is only one print newspaper, the Royal Gazette, but lots of digital-first publications are popping up now.

Income distribution

Robert Stubbs, the ex-head of research at the Bank of Bermuda, dubbed the situation ‘appalling’ after the 2016 Population and Housing Census Report showed that median income among the Black population dropped 13 per cent from 2010 to 2016, a situation exacerbated by poor workers’ rights, no social security system and high cost of living.

Life expectancy

At 82 years (Cayman Islands 82, UK 82), Bermuda has a high life expectancy. With an ageing population, over 65s will represent almost a quarter of Bermuda’s population by 2026. The government hopes it can attract a new working-age population through economic growth and job creation.

Literacy

Bermuda boasts a 98 per cent literacy rate.

Politics

Bermuda follows the Westminster model: a bicameral system with two chambers, one elected and one appointed. Foreign policy and defence are controlled by the UK government, and Bermuda appears on the UN’s list of non-self-governing territories. Independence was rejected by three quarters of the population in a referendum in 1995. The democratic deficit is exacerbated by the dominance of the financial sector.

Position of women

Women are legally equal under the law and hold senior positions across all industries, including politics, finance and others, but there is limited research into the experiences of women on the island.

LGBTQI+

In 2018, Bermuda became the first territory in the world to repeal its same-sex marriage legislation by its Supreme Court. While being openly gay is legal, homophobia is rife and propagated by the strong religious lobby, which has a large sway over the ruling Progressive Labour Party. Despite this, there is a growing grassroots LGBT Pride movement.

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At a glance

Leader:

Premier David Burt, serving under Governor Rena Lalgie, who represents King Charles III on the island.

Economy:

GNI Per Capita $98,610 (Cayman Islands $65,190, UK $48,890)

Monetary unit:

Bermudian Dollar

Main exports:

Recreational boats, passenger and cargo ships, trailers and semi-trailers, planes and hard liquor.

Population:

72,576. Annual population growth: 0.32%.

Health:

Under-five mortality rate: 2 per 1,000 live births (Cayman Islands 7, UK 4). No data on maternal mortality. Bermuda follows a US health insurance model, with one private general hospital and no public hospitals.

Environment:

Bermuda has no natural sources of freshwater, but all homes are legally mandated to have white roofs with specially designed ridges to capture rainwater and store it in a tank under the house, therefore making wet weather an essential part of life. The WHO says that air quality is ‘moderately unsafe’, thanks to incineration, power generation and cars, which are limited to one per household. Bermuda signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, but there has been limited action on the domestic front, despite being threatened with total wipeout from the climate crisis as most of the country is less than 30 metres above sea level.

Culture:

Bermuda’s culture reflects its people’s British and African heritage, along with a strong influence from the nearby US: the currency is pegged to the US dollar, and many watch US TV channels, which advertize fast food franchises that actually can’t operate on the island thanks to competition laws.

Religion:

The Church of England is the official religion, but the Christian majority (69.8%) spreads across many denominations such Catholics, Presbyterians and Seventh-Day Adventists. There is a small Muslim population and roughly 18% declare no religion, with 6.2% following other belief systems.

Language:

The official language is English, but Portuguese is widely spoken among the diaspora who mainly hail from the Azores.

Seven hundred kilometres off the US coast lies Bermuda, one of the last remaining jewels in the crown of the British Empire. With sparkling crystal clear waters, it’s a sub-tropical paradise where life is slow-paced, just like the 35km/h speed limit.

The archipelago has sold itself as a glamorous holiday destination for the wealthy, offering pristine beaches, nine golf courses and friendly residents. Notably warm for its North Atlantic location thanks to the passing Gulf Stream, Bermuda pays the price in hurricane batterings.

A Bermuda “Gombey” masquerade dancer at the territory’s annual carnival. ANDRE PLACE/SHUTTERSTOCK
A Bermuda “Gombey” masquerade dancer at the territory’s annual carnival. ANDRE PLACE/SHUTTERSTOCK

But it was one of these gusts which first put this extinct volcano on the map. Merchant trader George Somers, who was captaining a voyage to the ‘New World’, was forced to take refuge on the previously under-explored islands in 1609. This stormy discovery laid the foundation for the original recorded human settlement, which at the time formed part of the Colony of Virginia.

Bermuda’s economic success, however, cannot be separated from the enslavement of people ripped from Africa. The new colony relied upon unpaid and forced labour to farm tobacco and forge a bustling maritime industry. To mark the 1834 abolition of slavery, each August the island still celebrates Cup Match, where cricket clubs from Somerset and St Georges, at either end of the main connected islands, face off in a match over a two-day public holiday.

Hamilton, Bermuda’s blend of British-colonial and US architectural styles. DARRYL BROOKS/SHUTTERSTOCK
Hamilton, Bermuda’s blend of British-colonial and US architectural styles. DARRYL BROOKS/SHUTTERSTOCK

But as with all societies built on the slave trade, systemic racism still courses through the islands’ socioeconomic institutions. Throughout the 20th century, Bermuda saw an organized struggle to end racial segregation, with events such as the 1959 Theatre Boycott mirroring targeted actions in the US. In 1977, tensions hit a fever pitch when Governor Peter Ramsbotham declared a state of emergency following a spate of violent unrest. This had been triggered by the first executions in three decades after Black Bermudians Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn were found guilty of killing a previous Governor, Richard Sharples.

Nowadays, Bermuda is best described as ‘silently segregated’ as all races are granted equality under the law, and while there has been some progress, systemic racism thrives. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a white minority, which congregates in exclusive enclaves such as beach clubs. Some of the wealth is generational, held by people with names that grace buildings and businesses that have stood since people first settled here. There is also a new middle class of British expats, many of whom moved here to work in the booming international business sector.

Lax tax laws allow multinational giants like Starbucks and Google to dodge billions in tax by domiciling themselves in Bermuda. The 2017 release of the Paradise Papers confirmed much speculation about the nature of the sector’s secretive practices. Bermuda allows not only 12,500 foreign corporations but also individuals to avoid paying their fair share.

A green banyan tree near the popular tourist spot of Crystal Cave in Castle Harbour. YINGNA CAI/SHUTTERSTOCK
A green banyan tree near the popular tourist spot of Crystal Cave in Castle Harbour. YINGNA CAI/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Panama Papers, another leak in 2016, prompted much discussion about the UK’s role in widespread corporate tax dodging. Bermuda’s Royal Gazette published an editorial titled ‘Bermuda should not be another country’s tax collector’, condemning Britain’s then-opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed crackdown on Britain’s Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. These include the Cayman Islands, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, all of which market themselves as attractive business bases.

In 1995, Bermuda rejected a call for independence via referendum, but the question still circulates without an answer as to how the territory would accommodate their uneasy dependence on tax avoidance.

Correction: This article was updated on 10 January 2024. A previous version of the article said that Bermuda was 30 kilometres above sea level, instead of 30 metres.