Bermuda’s mapping that changed Atlantic world

  • Unrivalled expertise: Bermudian pilots would position themselves at the front of the ship where they could distinguish every rock ‘by the transparency of the water, luffing and bearing away with great rapidity’

    Unrivalled expertise: Bermudian pilots would position themselves at the front of the ship where they could distinguish every rock ‘by the transparency of the water, luffing and bearing away with great rapidity’


It was one of those watershed moments in world history that gave the slow march of events in Bermuda an abrupt push in a new and entirely unexpected direction.

Britain’s final acceptance and recognition of American Independence in 1783 meant, among other things, the irretrievable loss of warm-water ports for the Royal Navy on the Atlantic seaboard.

Ports, and especially ports that remained ice-free during the winter months, were pivotal to British commercial and strategic policy in the Atlantic in the 18th century.

Britain’s status as an imperial, military and financial power was entirely dependent on maintaining its assured naval superiority over potential rivals. Simply put, Britannia had no option but to continue ruling the waves to ensure its rule over a growing territorial and economic empire.

To strategically and materially minded British officials, the loss of the American colonies gave special urgency to the need to develop a new midway station between Britain, Halifax and the Caribbean colonies.

In principle, Bermuda was the ideal choice, its location close to the North American mainland being of no less importance because of the perceived threats to Britain’s remaining Atlantic territories, interests and trade routes that might emanate from the ambitious and dynamic young republic.

But the practicalities and logistics of establishing a large Royal Naval base in Bermuda had first to be explored.

To this end a young Royal Navy officer called Thomas Hurd was dispatched to Bermuda to undertake the first exact survey of the island’s waters in 1789. The task took him nine years to complete and the results of his monumental study altered Bermuda for ever. Hurd’s survey underscored the maritime and strategic capability of Bermuda and by the early 19th century the island was well on the way to becoming the Gibraltar of the Atlantic, remaining Britain’s largest overseas naval base until after the Second World War.

As a direct result of Hurd’s mapping activities, this remote collection of islands went from “a seaport to a sentry post”, in the words of one historian. A maritime-based community, one that had been centred around shipbuilding, seafaring and trade almost from the earliest days of settlement, quickly gave way to a merchant economy largely dependent on supplying and provisioning the growing British naval and military presence here.

It’s fair to say the entire course of our social, economic and cultural development was changed by Hurd’s unprecedentedly comprehensive charts of the island’s landscape, seabed and reefs. And now his hugely consequential work, his exacting and meticulous attention to detail, are being celebrated in the newly released book Thomas Hurd, RN&His Hydrographic Survey of Bermuda.

Written by British historian Adrian James Webb and published by the National Museum of Bermuda, in its own way this magisterial volume represents as significant a landmark in the almost 500-year history of Bermuda maps and map-making as the actual Hurd survey itself.

Compellingly written and creating a palpable sense of time and place, the book describes the frantic, temperament and daunting strategic and economic realities of the post-Revolutionary War period both in Britain and Bermuda, the difficulties of journeying to and working in remote and sometimes hazardous areas for Hurd and his small but dedicated team, and clearly explains the surveying and cartographic techniques of the day through both the carefully researched text and the precise illustrations.

Webb is as good at describing the personal motives and idiosyncrasies that drove this particular map-maker and his party as he is at explaining the geopolitical imperatives and enormous pressures driving the British admiralty’s Bermuda map-making undertaking.

Bermudians, and particularly Bermudian pilots such as the now legendary James “Jemmy” Darrell, were indispensable to Hurd’s efforts. Webb quotes one contemporary writer who described the Bermudian pilots — slaves and free men both — as “men of colour, very prompt and intelligent in their business ...

“They generally take their position on the forecastle and the bowsprit where they can distinguish every rock by the transparency of the water, luffing and bearing away with great rapidity”, combining tremendous knowledge of local waters with equally great determination and self-assurance.

The Bermuda National Museum is headquartered at the former Royal Navy base, which was built as a result of Hurd’s epic survey. With Thomas Hurd, RN the institution has produced a book that pays fulsome tribute to the largely unheralded founding father of that sprawling coastal fortification and dockyard, and a man who was, in some important respects, also one of the architects of modern Bermuda. It’s a book that will be of no little interest to the specialist and lay reader alike, and which will appeal equally to Bermuda and international audiences.

The National Museum was at the forefront of pursing what is now termed “cultural tourism” long before that phrase was ever coined, taking to heart US President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft’s observation that never has a community so small as Bermuda played such an outsize role on the world stage.

The museum well understands that as part of its mission, it must continue to showcase the longstanding historical and cultural links between Bermuda and the world beyond our shores, to highlight the strategic role we played as a small but hardy bit capable of ruling the great horses of Spain, Portugal, France, the United States and Germany, and their various Atlantic ambitions at various times. And as Thomas Hurd, RN&His Hydrographic Survey of Bermuda so vividly demonstrates, the island was not just a passive onlooker at a watershed moment in modern history, but an active participant in events that unalterably changed not just the story of the Atlantic world but our own story as well.

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Published Apr 15, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 15, 2016 at 12:52 am)

Bermuda’s mapping that changed Atlantic world

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