The Early Years
The discovery of Bermuda is attributed to the Spanish—probably the navigator Juan Bermúdez—sometime before 1511, because in that year a map published in the Legatio Babylonica included “La Bermuda” among the Atlantic islands. A little over a century later, the English staked a claim to Bermuda and began colonization.
In 1609, the flagship of Admiral Sir George Somers, the Sea Venture, was wrecked on Bermuda’s reefs while en route to the colony at Jamestown, Virginia. The dauntless crew built two small sailing ships called the Deliverance and the Patience and headed on to the American colony, but three sailors hid out and remained on the island. They were Bermuda’s first European settlers. Just 3 years later, the Bermuda islands were included in the charter of the Virginia Company and 60 colonists were sent there from England. The Town of St. George’s was founded soon after in 1612.
Bermuda’s status as a colony dates from 1620, when the first parliament convened. Bermuda’s is the oldest parliament in continuous existence in the British Commonwealth. In 1684, Bermuda became a British Crown Colony under King Charles II and Sir Robert Robinson was appointed the colony’s first governor.
Slavery became a part of life in Bermuda shortly after the official settlement. Although most slaves came from Africa, a few were Native Americans. Later, Scots imprisoned for fighting against Cromwell were sent to the islands, followed in 1651 by Irish slaves. This servitude, however, was not as lengthy as that of plantation slaves in America and the West Indies. The British Emancipation Act of 1834 freed all slaves.
Many tales are told about the fate of persons condemned for witchcraft during the 1600s. Anyone suspected of collusion with the devil was thrown into St. George’s Harbour; whoever did not sink was judged guilty. Many women floated because of their skirts and petticoats. The first woman to be found floating after her trial was Jeanne Gardiner, in 1651. Since her failure to plunge to the depths “proved” that she was a witch, the court ordered her removed from the water; she was then burned at the stake. Not only women were tried for witchcraft; in 1652, a man was condemned to death for having cast a spell over his neighbor’s turkeys. Justice in those Puritan times was stern, in Bermuda no less than in the American colonies.
Relations with America
Early on, Bermuda established close links with the American colonies. The islanders set up a thriving mercantile trade on the Eastern Seaboard, especially with southern ports. The major commodity sold by Bermuda’s merchant ships was salt from Turks Island.
During the American Revolution, the rebellious colonies cut off trade with Loyalist Bermuda, despite the network of family connections and close friendships that bound them. The cutoff in trade proved a great hardship for the islanders, who, having chosen seafaring over farming, depended heavily on America for their food. Many of them, now deprived of profitable trade routes, turned to privateering, piracy, and “wrecking” (salvaging goods from wrecked or foundered ships).
Britain’s loss of its important American colonial ports led to a naval buildup in Bermuda. Ships and troops sailed from Bermuda in 1814 to burn Washington, D.C., and the White House during the War of 1812.
Bermuda got a new lease on economic life during the American Civil War. The island was sympathetic to the Confederacy. With the approval of the British government, Bermuda ran the blockade that the Union had placed on exports, especially of cotton, by the southern states. St. George’s Harbour was a principal Atlantic base for the lucrative business of smuggling manufactured goods into Confederate ports and bringing out cargoes of cotton and turpentine.
When the Confederacy fell, so did Bermuda’s economy. Seeing no immediate source of income from trading with the eastern states, the islanders turned their attention to agriculture and found that the colony’s fertile soil and salubrious climate produced excellent vegetables. Portuguese immigrants arrived to farm the land, and soon celery, potatoes, tomatoes, and especially onions were being shipped to the New York market. So brisk was the onion trade that the City of Hamilton became known as “Onion Town.”
During Prohibition, Bermudians again profited from the situation in the United States—they engaged in the lucrative business of rum running (smuggling alcohol to the U.S.). The distance from the island to the East Coast was too great for quick crossings in small booze-laden boats, which worked well from The Bahamas and Cuba. Nevertheless, Bermuda accounted for a good part of the alcoholic beverages transported illegally to the United States before the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
A Hotbed of Espionage
Bermuda played a key role in World War II counterespionage for the Allies. The story of the “secret war” with Nazi Germany is told dramatically in William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid.
Inside the Hamilton Princess Hotel, a carefully trained staff worked to decode radio signals to and from German submarines and other vessels operating in the Atlantic, close to the United States and the islands offshore. Unknown to the Germans, the British, early in the war had broken the Nazi code using a captured German coding machine called “Enigma.” The British also intercepted and examined mail between Europe and the United States.
Bermuda served as a refueling stop for airplanes flying between the two continents. While pilots were being entertained at the Yacht Club, the mail would be taken off the carriers and examined by experts. An innocent-looking series of letters from Lisbon, for example, contained messages written in invisible ink. The letters were part of a vast German spy network. The British became skilled at opening sealed envelopes, examining their written contents, and carefully resealing them.
The surreptitious letter readers were called “trappers.” Many of them were young women without any previous experience in counterespionage work, yet a number of them performed very well. As Stevenson wrote, it was soon discovered that “by some quirk in the law of averages, the girls who shone in this work had well-turned ankles.” A medical officer involved with the project reported it as “fairly certain that a girl with unshapely legs would make a bad trapper.” So, amazingly, the word went out that women seeking recruitment as trappers would have to display their gams.
During their work, the trappers discovered one of the methods by which the Germans were transmitting secret messages: They would shrink a whole page of regularly typed text to the size of a tiny dot, then conceal the dot under an innocuous-looking punctuation mark. The staff likened these messages, with their secret-bearing dots, to the English dessert plum duff, for these “punctuation dots [were] scattered through a letter like raisins in the suet puddings.” The term “duff method” came to be applied to the technique that the Germans used to send military and other messages through the mail.
When the United States entered the war, FBI agents joined the British in their intelligence operations in Bermuda.
Bermuda Comes into Its Own
In 1953, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill chose Bermuda, which he had visited during the war, as the site for a conference with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the French premier. Several such high-level gatherings have followed in the decades since. Former British Prime Minister John Major and former U.S. President George H. W. Bush met on the island in 1991 and the most recent was a visit by Her Majesty the Queen in 2009, when she and the Duke of Edinburgh came to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Bermuda.
Bermuda’s increasing prominence led to changes in its relations with Great Britain and the United States, as well as significant developments on the island itself. In 1957, after nearly 2 centuries of occupation, Britain withdrew its military forces, and decided to grant self-government to its oldest colony.
As Bermudians assumed greater control over their own affairs, they began to adopt significant social changes, but at a pace that did not satisfy some critics. Although racial segregation in hotels and restaurants ceased in 1959, schools were not integrated until 1971. Women received the right to vote in 1944, but the law still restricted suffrage to property holders. That restriction was rescinded in 1963, when voter registration was opened to all citizens.
On the rocky road to self-government, Bermuda was not without its share of problems. Serious rioting broke out in 1968, and British troops were called back to restore order. Then, in 1973, Sir Richard Sharples, the governor, was assassinated (he’s buried in the churchyard of St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s).
These events, which occurred when several of the islands in the region and in the Caribbean were experiencing domestic difficulties, proved to be the exception rather than the rule. In the years since, the social and political climate in Bermuda has been markedly calm—all the better for the island’s economic well-being, because it encourages the industries on which Bermuda depends, including tourism.
During the 1990s, the political status of the island again became a hot topic among Bermudians. Some people felt it would be advantageous to achieve complete independence from Britain, whereas others believed it was in Bermuda’s best interest to maintain its ties to the Crown. In 1995, most voters in an independent referendum rejected a proposal to sever ties with Great Britain.
In 1997, the governing party of Bermuda, the United Bermuda Party, chose the daughter of a well-known civil rights leader as its prime minister. Pamela Gordon, former environment minister, was named to the post at the age of 41, the youngest leader in the island nation’s 400-year history and the first woman to be prime minister. David Saul, the reigning prime minister, resigned in favor of this younger and more popular leader. In her first months in office, Gordon, a relative political newcomer, pledged to bridge differences between Bermuda’s majority black population and its white business elite.
In that stated goal, at least based on subsequent election returns, she failed. In November 1998, the Progressive Labour Party, supported by many of Bermuda’s blacks, ended 30 years of conservative rule by sweeping its first victory in general elections. Although Gordon is black, as was most of her cabinet, many locals saw her party as part of the “white establishment.”
The Labour Party’s leader, Jennifer Smith, became the new prime minister, claiming Bermuda’s residents had met their “date with destiny.” The Labour Party has moved more from the left to the center in recent years, and Smith sought to reassure the island’s white-led business community that it would be “business as usual” with her party in power. The Labour Party made the economy an issue in the campaign, promising higher wages and better benefits to workers, even though Bermuda residents enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. In 2003, W. Alexander Scott replaced Smith as the prime minister and head of the party.
Also in 2003, tragedy struck the island in the roaring fury called Hurricane Fabian, Bermuda’s worst hurricane in 40 years. For some 12 hours, Fabian pummeled the island with 190 to 225kmph (120–140 mph) winds. This caused small tornadoes to spawn and unleashed a towering surge of ocean that drenched almost all of Bermuda in saltwater, uprooting trees.
In October 2006, Dr. Ewart Brown, also of the PLP, took over the helm as premier. Four years later, in 2010, he was replaced by Paula Cox who served 2 years as head of the party until a new party was formed and took power in 2012. Called the One Bermuda Alliance (OBA), the party campaigned on “Putting Bermuda First,” which included polices like balancing the budget, cutting ministers’ pay and allocating government contracts to small business. Following the resignation of Premier Craig Cannonier, who left office amidst abuse of power allegations, Michael Dunkley was appointed premier in 2014 and his administration is largely credited for bringing the 35th America’s Cup to Bermuda, which in turn stoked local and foreign investment on the island. After 3 years in power, the OBA was defeated by the PLP, which rode a wave of nationalism into the premier’s office when 38-year-old David Burt was elected premier—indeed the youngest in Bermuda’s history—in 2017.
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