Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda History

Panoramic view of Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda; credit JoeyBagODonuts

Bermuda History

Recorded Bermuda History begins in 1503, Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez spotted the uninhabited islands. Though others may have visited in between, Juan de Bermúdez returned in 1511, but bad weather stymied his attempts to land without wrecking the ship. His arrivals were documented, leading to the island being named for him.

Violent storms played another role in island history in 1609. Caught in a storm, the Jamestown-bound Sea Venture was separated from the fleet and began to flounder. When reefs to the east of Bermuda were spotted, Captain George Somers drove the ship on top of them to prevent its sinking, thereby saving all 150 sailors and settlers, and one dog aboard.

Thus, Sir George Somer’s crew and passengers marked the beginning of Bermuda’s inhabitation by the British. Many survivors stayed to work for the Virginia Company. In 1614, the island was surrendered by the Virginia Company to the Crown, making the island Great Britain’s oldest colony. The first slaves were brought to Bermuda soon afterward.

Due to the lack of sufficient tillable land, Bermuda’s early economy did not become dependent on slavery like in the plantation economies of North America, the West Indies, and South America. Instead, a system of indentured servitude evolved in Bermuda.

Bermuda’s Anglo-Saxons remained the majority population into the 18th Century despite an influx of Latin Americans, Africans, Native Americans, Irish, and Scots. Initially, these immigrants worked under seven years of indenture to repay the Virginia Company for the cost of their transport. As the size of the Black population grew, however, the terms of indenture for Blacks were successively raised to 99 years, effectively making them slaves. Many Black slaves were brought to Bermuda as seized cargo by Bermudian privateers.

The first two recorded slaves brought into the Island, a Black and a Native American, had been sought for their skills in pearl diving, but Bermuda proved to have no pearls. Slaves were also brought directly from Africa, and in large numbers from North America, especially from New England, where various Algonquian peoples were falling victim to English expansion. Native American slaves were brought in large numbers as well.

Blacks and Native Americans never willingly accepted their slave status and seized any opportunity to escape or rebel. With the nearest land being 650 miles away, their only hope was to escape on outbound ships. Others plotted uprisings against their masters. One such plot occurred in 1656 when a dozen Black men, led by William Force, a free Black man, plotted to murder their English masters. Unfortunately, he was ratted out. Force was later sent to the Bahamas, but other slave rebellions occurred as well.

Initially, the colony grew tobacco as a cash crop, but Bermuda tobacco was of low quality. The Virginia Company was frequently forced to burn the supplies sent to England. Another problem for Company and residents was the land area under cultivation was too small by comparison to the plots granted to settlers in Virginia on the mainland. Consequently, islanders turned to shipbuilding and maritime trades.

Bermuda History spent much of the 18th Century in a legal battle with the Bahamas over the Turks Islands. Bermudans had a vested interest in the Turks because they developed the salt industry. Yet under British law, no colony could hold colonies of its own. The Turks Islands were not recognized by Britain as a colony or as a part of Bermuda. They were held to be territories for common use. Ultimately, Bermuda lost that battle to the Bahamas, before Turks & Caicos became its own nation.

With a landmass of 21 square miles, and lacking natural resources, Bermuda colonists developed the speedy Bermuda sloop bost, which was well suited to commerce and commerce raiding (privateering). Bermudian merchant vessels turned to privateering at every opportunity, during the 18th Century. They preyed on the shipping of Spain, France, America, and other nations during a series of wars. They typically left Bermuda with very large crews. This advantage in manpower was vital in seizing larger vessels, which themselves often lacked enough crewmembers to put up a strong defense.

In 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain. Given Bermuda’s location only 650 miles off the coast of North Carolina, it became a staging area for British troops on their way to fight the Americans. In 1815, the City of Hamilton succeeds the Town of St. George as Bermuda’s capital. Ultimately, seeing the lack of need for slavery, in 1834 Bermuda’s slaves are emancipated.

Recognizing its maritime heritage and strategic location, the Royal Naval established a large number of military fortifications in Bermuda. Even though this military infrastructure was overbuilt it provided decades of jobs. In 1941, during World War II, Britain and the United States signed a 99-year lease that grants the US one-tenth of the land area of Bermuda for military purposes.

In 1964, the phrase “Bermuda Triangle” was coined for unexplained ships and planes lost near Bermuda. But the myth was finally debunked in the 1970s.

In 2000, the historic Town of St. George and related fortifications are named a World Heritage Site. Today, tourism driven by Bermuda History and import/export business shape the economy.

Return to BERMUDA

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.