History of Bermuda
- 1 Initial discovery
- 2 Early colony
- 3 Bermuda, salt and the Turks Islands
- 4 Shipbuilding and the maritime economy
- 5 Bermuda and the American War of Independence
- 6 Naval and military base
- 7 Anglo-Boer War
- 8 Tourism
- 9 World Wars
- 10 Recent history
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 References
- 15 External links
Bermuda was discovered by Juan de Bermudez in 1505. The island is shown as "La Bermuda" in Peter Martyr's Legatio Babylonica (1511). Bermudez returned again in 1515, with the chronicler Oviedo y Valdés. Oviedo's account of the second visit (published in 1526) records that they made no attempt to land because of weather.
In 1609, Sir George Somers set sail aboard the Sea Venture, the new flagship of the Virginia Company, leading a fleet of nine vessels, loaded with provisions and settlers for the new English colony of Jamestown, in Virginia. The fleet was caught in a storm, and the Sea Venture was separated and began to flounder. When the reefs to the East of Bermuda were spotted, the ship was deliberately driven on them to prevent its sinking, thereby saving all aboard (150 sailors and settlers, and one dog). The survivors spent ten months on Bermuda. Several were lost-at-sea when the Sea Venture's longboat was rigged with a mast and sent in search of Jamestown. Neither it nor its crew were ever seen again. The remainder built two new ships: the Deliverance, largely from the material stripped from the Sea Venture (which sat high-and-dry on the reef, and was still being cannibalised in 1612 – its guns were used to arm a fort) and the Patience. The latter was made necessary by the food stores the survivors had begun to collect and stockpile in Bermuda, and which could not be accommodated aboard the Deliverance. It was built almost entirely from material sourced on the islands. When the two new vessels were complete, most of the survivors set sail, completing their journey to Jamestown.
They arrived there only to find the colony's population almost annihilated by the Starving Time, which had left only 60 survivors out of the 500 who had preceded them, and most of these survivors were sick or dying. The food the Sea Venture survivors brought with them was woefully insufficient, and the colony seemed unviable. It was decided to abandon it, and to return everyone to England. Loaded aboard the two ships, they were prevented from making this evacuation by the timely arrival of another relief fleet, bearing Governor Lord De La Warre, among others. The Sea Venture survivors had brought pork from the pigs that had been found wild on the island, which had presumably been left by previous visitors. This led the Jamestown colonists to refer to "Bermuda Hogs" as a form of currency. Somers returned to Bermuda with the Patience to obtain more food supplies, but died there from a surfeit of pork. The Patience, captained by his nephew, Matthew Somers, returned to England, instead of Virginia. Somers left three volunteers – Carter, Chard and Waters – behind on Bermuda (two when the Deliverance and Patience had departed, and the third following the Patience's return) to maintain the claim of the island for the England, leaving the Virginia Company in possession of the island. As a result, Bermuda has been continuously inhabited since the wrecking of the Sea Venture, and claims its origin from that date, and not the official settlement of 1612.
Returning to Somers' hometown of Lyme Regis, in Dorset, his body (which had been pickled in a barrel) was landed via The Cobb, the notable breakwater which protects town's harbour. His heart, however, was left buried on what would subsequently also be known as The Somers Isles. After reaching England, the reports of the survivors of the Sea Venture aroused great interest about Bermuda. Accounts were published by two survivors, William Strachey and Sylvester Jordain. Two years later, in 1612, the Virginia Company's Royal Charter was officially extended to include the island, and a party of 60 settlers was sent, under the command of Sir Richard Moore, the island's first governor. Joining the three men left behind by the Deliverance and the Patience (who had taken up residence on Smith's Island), they founded and commenced construction of the town of St. George.
Bermuda struggled throughout the following seven decades to develop a viable economy. The Virginia Company, finding the colony unprofitable, briefly handed its administration to the Crown in 1614. The following year, 1615, King James I granted a charter to a new company, the Somers Isles Company, formed by the same shareholders, which ran the colony until it was dissolved in 1684 (The Virginia Company itself was dissolved after its charter was revoked in 1624). Representative government was introduced to Bermuda in 1620, when its House of Assembly held its first session, and it became a self-governing colony.
Bermuda was divided into nine equally-sized administrative areas. These comprised one public territory (today known as St. George's) and eight "tribes" (today known as "parishes"). These "tribes" were areas of land partitioned off to the "adventurers" (investors) of the Company – Devonshire, Hamilton, Paget, Pembroke, Sandys, Smith's, Southampton and Warwick (thus far, this usage of the word "tribes" is unique to the Bermuda example).
Initially, the colony grew tobacco as its only crop. The Company repeatedly advised more variety, not only because of the risks involved in a single-crop economy, but also because the Bermuda-grown tobacco was of particularly low quality (the Company was frequently forced to burn the supply that arrived back in England). It would take Bermuda some time to move away from this, especially as tobacco was the main form of currency.
Agriculture was not a profitable business for Bermudians in any case. The land area under cultivation was so small (especially by comparison to the plots granted settlers in Virginia), that fields could not be allowed to lie fallow, and farmers attempted to produce three crops each year. Islanders quickly turned to shipbuilding and maritime trades, but the Company, which gained its profits only from the land under cultivation, forbade the construction of any vessels without its license. Its interference in Bermudians livelihood would lead to its dissolution in 1684.
Indentured Servitude and Slavery in 17th Century Bermuda
The first slaves were brought to Bermuda soon after the colony was established. Despite this, Bermuda's 17th Century agricultural economy did not become dependent on slavery. Unlike the plantation economies that developed English colonies in the southeast region of North America and in the West Indies, the of indentured servitude, which lasted in Bermuda until 1684, ensured a large supply of cheap labour. As a result, Bermuda's white Anglo-Saxon population remained the majority into the 18th Century despite a continuous influx of Latin American and African Blacks, Native Americans, Irish and Scots. The first Blacks to come to Bermuda in numbers were free West Indians, who emigrated from territories taken from Spain. They worked under seven years indenture, as did most English settlers, to repay the Company for the cost of their transport. As the size of the Black population grew, however, many attempts were made to reduce it. The terms of indenture for Blacks were successively raised to 99 years. Many of the Black slaves brought to Bermuda arrived as part of the cargoes seized by Bermudian privateers.
Slaves could be obtained by sale or purchase, auction debt, legal seizure or by gift. The price of a slave depended on demand. Throughout the 17th century Black children sold for £8, women from £10 to £20, and able bodied Black and Indian men for around £26. Blacks and Indians never willingly accepted their status as slaves and seized any available opportunity to escape or rebel. It was not easy to escape because of the size of the island and the nearest land being more than 700 miles (1,100 km) away, but still slaves ran off from their masters and hid in the caves along Bermuda's coast. Others sought to plot 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. As the appointed night arrived for the uprising, two of the slaves lost their nerve and reported the conspiracy to authorities. The conspirators were rounded up and tried by court martial. Two were hung and Force was later sent to the Bahamas with most of the island's other free blacks. In 1673 15 Blacks conspired to kill their masters, Again, one of the conspirators lost his nerve and reported the conspiracy. He was granted his freedom, five were branded, had their noses slit, and were whipped before being executed. The other conspirators were branded and whipped. This conspiracy resulted in the passage, in 1674, of more stringent laws effecting a slave's freedom of movement. A slave found off his estate without a ticket from his owner could be beaten with a rod or whip. A second offense would result in an ear being cut off. Offending for a third time resulted in being whipped until the skin was broken and being branded.
The local government attempted to legislate the emigration of free blacks, and during times of war, with food supplies scarce, it was considered patriotic to export horses and slaves. The first two 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 possibly from as far as Mexico. Native American slaves were reportedly preferred as house servants as they proved less troublesome than the black slaves and Irish laborers, who were constantly fomenting rebellion.
Bermuda had actually tended towards the Royalist side in the English Civil War, but largely escaped the effects of the conflict, and the aftermath of the Parliamentary forces' victory. However, in the 1650s, following Cromwell's adventures in Ireland, and his attempt to force his protectorship on independent Scotland, Irish prisoners of war and civilians, and smaller numbers of Scottish prisoners, were also sent to Bermuda.
The English overlords of Ireland had used forced emigration as a way of pacifying Ireland since the start of the century, but the Cromwellian invasion gave vent to a holocaust in Ireland. Between 1641 and 1652, over 550,000 Irish were killed by the English. 300,000 were forced into indentured servitude, and the Irish population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000. Between 1652 and 1659, another 50,000 Irish men, women and children were sent to the West Indies, Virginia and Bermuda.
After the uncovering of a coup-plot by Irish laborers and Black slaves, however, further emigration of Irish servants was banned. The slave trade would be outlawed in Bermuda in 1807, and all slaves were freed in 1834. At the end of the 17th century, whites composed the majority of Bermuda's population. Blacks and Native Americans were both small minorities. They combined, however, absorbing the Irish and Scots, and no small part of the White English bloodline, to be described as a single demographic group a century later, with the Bermuda's population being divided into White and Black Bermudians. As 10,000 Bermudians had emigrated, prior to American independence, most of them White, this left Blacks with a slight majority. Portuguese immigration, which began with a shipload of Madeiran families in the 1840s has been offset by sustained immigration from the West Indies which began at the end of the 19th century. Today, about 60% of Bermudians are described as being of African descent, although many may have greater European ancestry, and almost all Bermudians would be able to easily find ancestors and relatives of either African or European descent.
As Bermuda's primary industry became maritime, following the 1684 removal of the impediments placed by the Somers Isles Company, most Bermudian slaves worked in shipbuilding and seafaring, or, in the case of the most unfortunate, in raking salt in the Turks Islands.
Bermuda, salt and the Turks Islands
After the elimination of their indigenous population by Spanish slavers, the Turks Islands, or Salt Islands, were not fully colonised until 1681, when salt collectors from Bermuda built the first permanent settlement on Grand Turk Island. The salt collectors were drawn by the shallow waters around the islands that made salt mining a much easier process than in Bermuda. They occupied the Turks only seasonally, for six months a year, however, returning to Bermuda when it was no longer viable to rake salt. Their colonization established the English (subsequently, British) dominance of the archipelago that has lasted to the present day. The Bermudians destroyed the local habitat in order to develop the salt industry that became the central pillar of Bermuda's economy, felling huge numbers of trees to discourage rainfall that would adversely affect their operation. This deforestation, a foretaste of the deforestation of Bermuda by shipbuilding a century before the cedar blight, has yet to be repaired. Most of the salt mined in the Turks and Caicos Islands was sold through Bermudian merchant houses on the American seaboard, including in New England and Newfoundland where it was used for preserving cod. Bermudian vessels carried salted cod on their returns to Bermuda, establishing it as a traditional part of the Bermudian diet (at least on Sundays).
Bermuda spent much of the 18th century in a protracted legal battle with the Bahamas (which had itself been colonised by Bermudians in 1647) over the Turks Islands. Under British law, no colony could hold colonies of its own. The Turks Islands were not recognised by Britain either as a colony in its own right, or as a part of Bermuda. They were held to be, like rivers in Britain, for the common use. As a result, there was a great deal of political turmoil surrounding the ownership of the Turks (and Caicos).
When the Bermudian sloop Seaflower was seized by the Bahamians in 1701, the response of Bermuda Governor Bennett was to issue letters of marque to Bermudian Privateers. In 1706, Spanish and French forces ousted the Bermudians, but were driven out themselves three years later by a Bermudian privateer under the command of Captain Lewis Middleton in what was probably Bermuda's only independent military operation. His ship, the Rose, attacked a Spanish and a French privateer holding a captive English vessel. Defeating the two enemy vessels, the Rose then cleared out the thirty-man garrison left by the Spanish and French.
The struggle with the Bahamas began in earnest in 1766, when the King's representative in the Bahamas, Mr Symmer, on his own authority, wrote a constitution which legislated for and taxed the Bermudians on the Turks. The Secretary of State, Lord Hillsborough, for the Crown, issued orders that the Bermudian activities on the Turks should not be obstructed or restrained in any way. As a result of this order, Symmer's constitution was dissolved. The Bermudians on the Turks appointed commissioners to govern themselves, with the assent of the King's local agent. They drew up regulations for good government, but the Bahamian governor, William Shirley, drew up his own regulations for the Turks and ordered that no one might work at salt raking who had not signed assent to his regulations.
Following this, a raker was arrested and the salt pans were seized and divided by force. The Bahamas government attempted to appoint judicial authorities for the Turks in 1768, but these were refused by the Bermudians. In 1773 the Bahamian government passed an act attempting to tax the salt produced in the Turks, but the Bermudians refused to pay it. In 1774, the Bahamians passed another, similar act, and this they submitted for the Crown's assent. The Crown passed this act on to the Bermudian government which objected to it, and which rejected Bahamian jurisdiction over the Turks. The Crown, as a consequence, refused assent of the Act as applied to include the Turks, and, in the form in which it finally passed, the Bahamas, but not the Turks, were included.
The Bermudians on the Turks continued to be governed under their own regulations, with the assent of the royal agent, until 1780, when a more formal version of those regulations was submitted for the assent of the Crown, which was given. Those regulations, issued as a royal order, stated that all British subjects had the right ("free liberty") to rake and gather salt on the Turks, providing that they conformed to the regulations, which expressly rejected Bahamian jurisdiction over the Turks. Despite this refutation by a higher authority of their right to impinge upon Bermudian activities on the Turks, the Bahamian government continued to harass the Bermudians (unsurprisingly, given the lucrativeness of the Turks salt trade).
Although the salt industry on the Turks had largely been a Bermudian preserve, it had been seen throughout the 17th century as the right of all British subjects to rake there, and small numbers of Bahamians had been involved. In 1783, the French had landed a force on Grand Turk which a British force of 100 men, under then-Captain Horatio Nelson, had been unable to dislodge, but which was soon withdrawn.
Following this, the Bahamians were slow to return to the Turks, while the Bermudians quickly resumed salt production, sending sixty to seventy-five ships to the Turks each year, during the six months that salt could be raked. Nearly a thousand Bermudians spent part of the year on the Turks engaged in salt production, and the industry became more productive.
The Bahamas, meanwhile, was incurring considerable expense in absorbing loyalist refugees from the now-independent American colonies, and returned to the idea of taxing Turks salt for the needed funds. The Bahamian government ordered that all ships bound for the Turk Islands obtain a license at Nassau first. The Bermudians refused to do this. Following this, Bahamian authorities seized the Bermuda sloops Friendship and Fanny in 1786. Shortly after, three Bermudian vessels were seized at Grand Caicos, with $35,000 worth of goods salvaged from a French ship. French privateers were becoming a menace to Bermudian operations in the area, at the time, but the Bahamians were their primary concern.
The Bahamian government re-introduced a tax on salt from the Turks, annexed them to the Bahamas, and created a seat in the Bahamian parliament to represent them. The Bermudians refused these efforts also, but the continual pressure from the Bahamians had a negative effect on the salt industry. In 1806, the Bermudian customs authorities went some way toward acknowledging the Bahamian annexation when it ceased to allow free exchange between the Turks and Bermuda (this affected many enslaved Bermudians, who, like the free ones, had occupied the Turks only seasonally, returning to their homes in Bermuda after the year's raking had finished).
That same year, French privateers attacked the Turks, burning ships and absconding with a large sloop. The Bahamians refused to help, and the Admiralty in Jamaica claimed the Turks were beyond its jurisdiction. Two hurricanes, the first in August 1813, the second in October 1815, destroyed more than two hundred buildings and significant salt stores; and sank many vessels. By 1815, the United States, the primary client for Turks salt, had been at war with Britain (and hence Bermuda) for three years, and had established other sources of salt.
With the destruction wrought by the storm, and the loss of market, many Bermudians abandoned the Turks, and those remaining were so distraught that they welcomed the visit of the Bahamian governor in 1819. The British government eventually assigned political control to the Bahamas, which the Turks and Caicos remained a part of until the 1840s.
One Bermudian salt raker, Mary Prince, however, was to leave a scathing record of Bermuda's activities there in The History of Mary Prince, a book which helped to propel the abolitionist cause to the 1834 emancipation of slaves throughout the Empire.
Shipbuilding and the maritime economy
Due to the islands' isolation, for many years Bermuda remained an outpost of 17th-century British civilization, with an economy based on the use of the islands' Bermuda cedar (Juniperus bermudiana) trees for shipbuilding, and Bermudians' control of the Turks Islands, and their salt trade. Especially as its control of the Turks became threatened, Bermuda's mariners also diversified their trade to include activities such as whaling and privateering.
Bermudians turned from their failed agricultural economy to the sea after the 1684 dissolution of the Somers Isles Company. With a total landmass of 21 square miles (54 km2), and lacking any natural resources, other than the Bermuda cedar, the colonists applied themselves fully to the maritime trades, developing the speedy Bermuda sloop, which was well suited both to commerce and to commerce raiding. Bermudian merchant vessels turned to privateering at every opportunity, during the 18th Century, preying on the shipping of Spain, France 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 defence. The extra crew men were also useful as prize crews for returning captured vessels. Despite close links to the American colonies (and the material aid provided the continental rebels in the form of a hundred barrels of stolen gunpowder), Bermudian privateers turned as aggressively on American shipping during the American War of Independence. An American naval captain, ordered to take his ship out of Boston Harbour to eliminate a pair of Bermudian privateering vessels, which had been picking off vessels missed by the Royal Navy, returned frustrated, saying the Bermudians sailed their ships two feet for every one of ours. The only attack on Bermuda during the war was carried out by two sloops captained by a pair of Bermudian-born brothers (they damaged a fort and spiked its guns before retreating). It greatly surprised the Americans to discover that the crews of Bermudian privateers included Black slaves, as, with limited manpower, Bermuda had legislated that a part of all Bermudian crews must be made up of Blacks. In fact, when the Bermudian privateer Regulator was captured, virtually all of her crew were found to be Black slaves. Authorities in Boston offered these men their freedom, but all 70 elected to be treated as Prisoners of War. Sent to New York on the sloop Duxbury, they seized the vessel and sailed it back to Bermuda. The American War of 1812 was to be the encore of Bermudian privateering, which had died out after the 1790s, due partly to the buildup of the naval base in Bermuda, which reduced the Admiralty's reliance on privateers in the western Atlantic, and partly to successful American legal suits, and claims for damages pressed against British privateers, a large portion of which were aimed squarely at the Bermudians. During the course of the American War of 1812, Bermudian privateers were to capture 298 ships (the total captures by all British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies was 1,593 vessels).
Bermuda and the American War of Independence
American independence was to lead to tremendous changes for Bermuda. Prior to the war, with no useful landmass or natural resources, Bermuda was largely ignored and left to its own devices by the London government.
This ensured that the guiding hands on shaping the colony's society and economy were Bermudian ones. Although the British Government retained theoretical control via the appointed Governor, the real power in Bermuda remained with the wealthy Bermudian merchant families who dominated the economy, and filled the benches of the House of Assembly and the Privy Council, with the President of the Privy Council being undoubtedly the Bermudian with the greatest political power.
The same lack of economic opportunities within Bermuda had led islanders to abandon agriculture following the dissolution of the Somers Isles Company in 1684, and turn wholeheartedly towards maritime activities. Bermuda played key roles in settling the New World, especially the southern colonies of what would become the USA. Bermudian merchant families established branches in ports on the American Atlantic Seaboard, and used their social networks, merchant fleet and their control of the salt trade (with resulted from de facto Bermudian control of the Turks Islands) to achieve a leading position in the merchant trade through those ports.
Bermudians diversified their interests widely, wherever they could reach by the sea. Involved in logging in Central America, merchant shipping between the North American colonies and the West Indies, fishing the Grand Banks ('til forbidden to by the Palliser's Act of 1775), whaling, and privateering.
As Bermuda's economy became wholly concerned with the sea, the colony became dependent on food imports from North America.
The primary enabler of the development of Bermuda's web of commerce across the Americas was the growth of the British Empire, and from the beginning its primary trading partners were the British colonies on the North American continent.
When thirteen of these colonies rebelled, entering a war of secession, the strong bonds of blood, commerce, and history meant that most Bermudians sympathised with the rebels. It is entirely probable that, if Bermuda had not been so remote from the continental coastline, and had the Royal Navy not enjoyed near supremacy on the ocean, Bermuda would have been the fourteenth colony to join the rebellion. As this was not possible, Bermudians initially assisted the colonists by selling them Bermuda sloops via neutral ports to use as privateers. The number is unclear, but seems to have been very many, with British authorities reporting up to a thousand, although this number is clearly impossible given other sources state the number of ships built in Bermuda during the entire century numbered a thousand. Some historians state that the Bermudian-built privateers played a decisive role in the Americans achieving independence. With trade between the rebelling colonies and the rest of the Empire banned by both sides, Bermudians were faced with the threat of starvation, as well as the destruction of their trade. The Americans were dependent on Bermuda for salt, which the islanders offered the rebels in exchange for food. The Americans insisted on receiving gunpowder. Benjamin Franklin and Henry Tucker Sr. (a colonel of the Bermuda Militia, and a former President of the Privy Council, whose son, Henry Tucker, was then President of the Privy Council and son-in-law to Governor Breure, and whose other two sons were a colonel in the Virginia Militia and a politician in the rebel administration), orchestrated the theft of a hundred barrels of gunpowder from a magazine in St. George's, which was supplied to the Americans. Following this, the Continental Congress authorised trade with Bermuda (although this trade remained illegal in Bermuda).
As the war progressed, with no hope of joining the rebellion due to power of the Royal Navy (in the letter he had addressed to Bermudians soliciting the theft of the gunpowder, George Washington had written We would not wish to in volve you in an Opposition, in which from your Situation, we should be unable to support you: – We knew not therefore to what Extent to sollicit your Assistance in availing ourselves of this Supply), with increasing numbers of American loyalists in Bermuda (such as the privateer Bridger Goodrich), and with their economic opportunities dwindling, Bermudians overcame their sympathies for their erstwhile countrymen and unleashed their privateers (which, by the middle of the 18th Century already outnumbered those of any of the mainland colonies) upon American shipping. The Bermudian effectiveness was such that, when the US sued British privateers for wrongful seizures in British courts, following the war, a sizable part of the damages they were awarded were to have come from Bermudians, like Hezekiah Frith (although, with the local authorities tasked with collecting these damages being in sympathy with the defendants, most of these damages were never paid).
The fallout of the war was that Britain lost all of its continental naval bases between the Maritimes and Spanish Florida, ultimately the West Indies. This launched Bermuda into a new prominence with the London Government, as its location, near the halfway point from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean, and off the US Atlantic Seaboard, allowed the Royal Navy to operate fully in the area, protecting British trade routes, and potentially commanding the American Atlantic coast in the event of war. The value of Bermuda in the hands of, or serving as a base for, enemies of the United States was shown by the roles it played in the American War of 1812 and the American Civil War. The blockade of the Atlantic ports by the Royal Navy throughout the first war (described in the USA as the Second War of Independence) was orchestrated from Bermuda, and the task force that burned Washington DC in 1814 was launched from the colony. During the latter war, Confederate blockade runners delivered European munitions into Southern harbours from Bermuda, smuggling cotton in the reverse direction.
Consequently, the very features that made Bermuda such a prized base for the Royal Navy (its headquarters in the North Atlantic and West Indies 'til after the Second World War, also meant it was perpetually threatened by US invasion, as the US would have liked to both deny the base to an enemy, and use it as a way to extend its defences hundreds of miles out to sea, which would not happen 'til the Second World War.
As a result of the large regular army garrison established to protect the naval facilities, Bermuda's parliament allowed the Bermudian militia to become defunct after the end of the American war in 1815. More profound changes took place, however. The post American independence buildup of Royal Navy facilities in Bermuda meant the Admiralty placed less reliance on Bermudian privateers in the area. Combined with the effects of the American lawsuits, this meant the activity died out in Bermuda until a brief resurgence during the American War of 1812. With the American continental ports having become foreign territory, the Bermudian merchant shipping trade was seriously injured. During the course of American War of 1812, the Americans had developed other sources for salt, and Bermudians salt trade fell upon hard times. Control of the Turks Islands ultimately passed into the hands of Bermuda's sworn enemy, the Bahamas, in 1619. The shipbuilding industry had caused the deforestation of Bermuda's cedar by the start of the 19th Century. As ships became larger, increasingly were built from metal, and with the advent of steam power, and with the vastly reduced opportunities Bermudians found for commerce due to US independence and the greater control exerted over their economies by developing territories, Bermuda's shipbuilding industry and maritime trades were slowly strangled.
The chief leg of the Bermudian economy became defence infrastructure. Even after tourism began in the later 19th Century, Bermuda remained, in the eyes of London, a base more than a colony, and this led to a change in the political dynamics within Bermuda as its political and economic ties to Britain were strengthened, and its independence on the world stage was diminished. By the end of the 19th Century, except for the presence of the naval and military facilities, Bermuda was thought of by non-Bermudians and Bermudians alike as a quiet, rustic backwater, completely at odds with the role it had played in the development of the English-speaking Atlantic world, a change that had begun with American independence.
Following the loss of Britain's ports in thirteen of its former continental colonies, Bermuda was also used as a stop-over point between Canada and Britain's Caribbean possessions, and assumed a new strategic prominence for the Royal Navy. Hamilton, a centrally located port founded in 1790, became the seat of government in 1815. This was partly resultant from the Royal Navy having invested twelve years, following American independence, in charting Bermuda's reefs. It did this in order to locate the deepwater channel by which shipping might reach the islands in, and at the West of, the Great Sound, which it had begun acquiring with a view to building a naval base. However, that channel also gave access to Hamilton Harbour.
With the buildup of the Royal Naval establishment in the first decades of the 19th century, a large number of military fortifications and batteries were constructed, and the numbers of regular infantry, artillery, and support units that composed the British Army garrison were steadily increased. The investment into military infrastructure by the War Office proved unsustainable, and poorly thought-out, with far too few artillery men available to man the hundreds of guns emplaced. Many of the forts were abandoned, or removed from use, soon after construction. Following the Crimean War, the trend was towards reducing military garrisons in colonies like Bermuda, partly for economic reasons, and partly as it became recognised that the Royal Navy's own ships could provide a better defence for the Dockyard, and Bermuda. Still, the important strategic location of Bermuda meant that the withdrawal, which began, at least in intent, in the 1870s, was carried out very slowly over several decades, continuing until after World War I. The last Regular Army units were not withdrawn until the Dockyard itself closed in the 1950s. In the 1860s, however, the major build-up of naval and military infrastructure brought vital money into Bermuda at a time when its traditional maritime industries were giving way under the assault of steel hulls and steam propulsion. The American Civil War, also, briefly, provided a shot-in-the-arm to the local economy. Tourism and agricultural industries would develop in the latter half of the 19th century. However, it was defence infrastructure that formed the central platform of the economy into the 20th century.
During the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), Bermuda received and housed a total of 5,000 Boer prisoners of war on five of its islands. They were placed related to their views and authorities' assessment of risk. "Bitterenders" (Afrikaans: Bittereinders), men who refused to pledge allegiance to the British Crown, were interned on Darrell's Island and closely guarded. Other islands were allowed to be nearly self-governing: Morgan's Island held 884 men, including 27 officers; Tucker's Island held 809 Boer prisoners, Burt's Island had 607, and Port's Island held 35.
In June 1901, The New York Times reported an attempted mutiny by 900 Boer prisoners of war en route to Bermuda on the Armenian, noting it was suppressed. It described the preparation of the camps for the men and said that martial law would hold on Darrell's Island. Several escapes happened soon after their arrival. A young Boer soldier escaped from Darrell's Island soon after arrival, reached the main docks, and stowed away on the steamship Trinidad, arriving in New York 9 July. He hoped to be allowed to stay in the US. Three prisoners of war escaped on 10 July from Darrell's Island to mainland Bermuda.
Tourism in Bermuda first developed in Victorian times, catering to a wealthy elite seeking to escape North American winters. Many also came hoping to find young aristocrats among the officers of the Garrison and Naval base to whom they might marry their daughters. Local hoteliers were quick to exploit this, and organised many dances and gatherings during the 'season', to which military and naval officers were given a blanket invitation.
Due historically to a third of Bermuda's manpower being at sea at any one time, and to many of those seamen ultimately settling elsewhere, especially as the Bermudian maritime industry began to suffer, the colony was noted for having a high proportion of unmarried women well into the 20th century. Many Bermudian women had traditionally wed naval or military officers. With the arrival of tourism, young local women had to compete with American girls. Most Bermudian women who married officers left Bermuda when their husbands were stationed elsewhere. Enlisted men married Bermudians, and many of those remained in Bermuda when they left the Army.
In the early 20th century, as modern transportation and communication systems developed, Bermuda's tourism industry began to develop and thrive. The island became a popular destination for a broader spectrum of wealthy US, Canadian, and British tourists. In addition, the tariff enacted by the United States against its trading partners in 1930 cut off Bermuda's once-thriving agricultural export trade—primarily fresh vegetables to the US—spurring the island to put more effort into developing the tourism industry,
Imperial Airways and Pan-American World Airways both began flying to Bermuda in the 1930s (by which time the summer had become more important for tourists making briefer visits). It was not until after the Second World War, when the first airport for landplanes was built and the advent of the Jet Age, that tourism fully realised its potential.
Bermuda sent volunteer troops to fight in Europe with the British Army. They suffered severe losses.
During World War II, Bermuda's importance as a military base increased because of its location on the major trans-Atlantic shipping route. The Royal Naval dockyard on Ireland Island played a role similar to that it had during World War I, overseeing the formation of trans-Atlantic convoys composed of hundreds of ships. The military garrison, which included four local territorial units, maintained a guard against potential enemy attacks on the Island.
In 1941, the United States signed a lend-lease agreement with the United Kingdom, giving the British surplus U.S. Navy destroyers in exchange for 99-year lease rights to establish naval and air bases in certain British territories. Although not included in this trade, Winston Churchill granted the US similar 99-year leases "freely and without consideration" in both Bermuda and Newfoundland. (The commonly held belief that the Bermudian bases were part of the trade is not correct.) The advantage for Britain of granting these base rights was that the neutral US effectively took responsibility for the security of these territories, freeing British forces to be deployed to the sharper ends of the War. The terms of the base rights granted for Bermuda provided that the airfield constructed by the US would be used jointly with the Royal Air Force (RAF).
The Bermuda bases consisted of 5.8 km2 (2.2 sq mi) of land, largely reclaimed from the sea. The USAAF airfield, Fort Bell (later, US Air Force Base Kindley Field, and, later still, US Naval Air Station Bermuda) was on St. David's Island, while the Naval Operations Base, a Naval Air Station for maritime patrol flying boats, (which became the Naval Air Station Annex after US Naval air operations relocated to ) was at the western end of the island in the Great Sound. These joined two other air stations already operating on Bermuda, the pre-war civil airport on Darrell's Island, which had been taken over by the RAF, and the Fleet Air Arm's Royal Naval Air Station, HMS Malabar, on Boaz Island.
Bermuda has prospered economically since World War II, developing into a highly successful offshore financial centre. Although tourism remains important to Bermuda's economy, it has for three decades been second to international business in terms of economic importance to the island.
On 10 March 1973, the Governor of the island Sir Richard Sharples was assassinated, along with his aide-de-camp and his dog. Erskine Burrows was found guilty of this assassination. His hanging, on 2 December 1977 was followed by three days of riots.
Though Bermuda has been classified as a self-governed colony since 1620, internal self-government was bolstered by the establishment of a formal constitution in 1968, and the introduction of universal adult suffrage; debate about independence has ensued, although a 1995 independence referendum was soundly defeated. For many, Bermudian independence would mean little other than the obligation to staff foreign missions and embassies around the world, which would be a heavy obligation for Bermuda's small population, and the loss of British passports (which could severely restrict travel, as few enough countries have even heard of little Bermuda, and could regard travellers with suspicion). Another concern, which raised its head during the 1991 Gulf War, was the loss of the protection provided by the Royal Navy, especially, to the large number of merchant vessels on Bermuda's shipping register. The Bermuda government is unlikely to be able to provide naval protection to oil tankers plying the Persian Gulf, or other potentially dangerous waters. At present, Bermuda is able to take advantage of its status as part of the United Kingdom to attract overseas shipping operators to its register, although it does not contribute to the navy's budget. With independence, it was feared, a large chunk of the money currently flowing into the Bermuda Government's coffers would disappear. The current government is promoting independence – by means of a general election (that is, the government of the day would have the power to decide whether to go independent or not) as opposed to a referendum (a direct vote by the people) – by establishing a committee to investigate (though the committee is notably staffed with party members, and without representation by the opposition party). This stance is being supported by the UN, who have sent delegations to the island claiming that Bermuda is being suppressed by the British.
Effective 1 September 1995, both US military bases were closed; British and Canadian bases on the island closed at about the same time. Unresolved issues concerning the 1995 withdrawal of US forces—primarily related to environmental factors—delayed the formal return of the base lands to the Government of Bermuda. The United States formally returned the base lands in 2002.
The island suffered major damage from Hurricane Fabian in 2003. It was also hit by Hurricane Bertha in July 2008 and Hurricane Gonzalo in October 2014.
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