Onions were first grown in Bermuda in 1616 from seeds sent from England. Bermuda’s soil and climate produced onions that were particularly tasty and by the 17th century the island was exporting them to the Caribbean.
Large scale cultivation began in the 1830s and exports peaked between towards the end of the 19th century. At the pinnacle of Bermuda’s agricultural boom more than 3,000 acres were planted with onions, potatoes, carrots, and other crops.
Bermuda onions were so popular in the US, particularly in the New York markets, that the island was referred to as the ‘Onion Patch’ and Bermudians as ‘Onions’.
Mark Twain, a frequent visitor to the island, referred to Bermuda Onions in his book Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion, published in 1878.
The onion is the pride and joy of Bermuda. It is her jewel, her gem of gems. In her conversation, her pulpit, her literature, it is her most frequent and eloquent figure. In Bermuda metaphor it stands for perfection – perfection absolute.
The onion was Bermuda’s primary export and farmers struggled to meet the demand. Slavery had been abolished in 1834 so farmers needed a new source of cheap labour. It was found in the Portuguese islands of Madeira and the Azores.
In 1849 a Bermudian ship, the Golden Rule, was sent to Madeira and returned with the first of many Portuguese immigrants. Over the next few decades these skilled farmers helped transform the island’s agricultural sector.
Onion exports ceased at the outbreak of World War I but commenced again once the conflict was over. The trade never recovered though. The US imposed high import duties and farmers in Texas began producing Bermuda onions on a massive scale. There was even a farming community in Dimmit County called Bermuda.
Bermuda struggled to compete with Texas’s onions and the island’s agricultural sector went into terminal decline. Today there are just a few hundred acres of land being actively farmed on the island and only a handful of small farms. Bermuda now imports most of the onions it consumes. Locally grown onions can be purchased at Wadson’s Home Farm Market in Southampton Parish.
The legacy of the Bermuda onion lives on today. Descendants of the Portuguese that came to the island from the middle of the 19th century onwards now comprise more than 20 percent of the island’s population. Businesses such as the Pickled Onion on Front Street and the Frog and Onion at Dockyard are named after it.