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The northern defences of Bermuda

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‘In early October [1794], Murray learned of Hurd’s finding at Bermuda and sent the frigate Cleopatra there “to bring information of a Harbour, which I learned was lately discovered there, fit, it was said, to admit Ships of any Class”. The resulting report described the new anchorage as having “capacity enough for all the Navies in the World to ride in from 7 to 9 or 10” fathoms.’ Ian Stranack,

The Andrew and the Onions, 1990

Maritime discoveries and inventions have been of necessity, or rather unavoidable facts of life in the short history of Bermuda as a place of human occupation, which began, except a few shipwrecked souls in the century or so between its discovery and 1611, in earnest with the July 1612 after the arrival from Britain of some 50 settlers aboard the

Plough, a vessel of the Virginia Company of London. The chance discovery of the island by Juan de Bermudez in the late autumn of 1505 placed a major navigational beacon on the charts of the Spanish for use on their homeward journeys out of the Caribbean Sea, the preferred route being north to Bermuda, there taking a turn to starboard, or right, picking up the trade winds blowing easterly towards southern Europe. As there was never any indigenous population on the island, excepting cahows, cedars and a few other whatnots, the politically correct cannot downgrade Bermudez’s achievement, as they are wont to do with poor old Cristobal Colon, aka, Columbus, at whose feet it seems, all the sins of the inevitable clash between the Old and New Worlds are most fashionable to lay. Being one of the few places in the New World not named for a saint or someone other than its discoverer, the invention of the name Bermuda has resounded down the past four centuries, if only in the far reaches of Mongolia, Patagonia or Timbuktu as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’. As a marketing tool for tourism, ‘Bermuda’ has been an astounding success, at least until some years when some politicians suggested it should be called ‘Bermuda, Inc.’, with the resulting red ink that is now being splashed on the accounts of many involved in the visitor trade, not, one rushes to add, on the books of actuaries, accountants, bankers and lawyers. The discovery that such misguided navigation into the channels of “international business” may result in the end of tourism, except for all-in-one cruise shipping, and thus possible the demise of Bermuda as we know and love it, is slowly seeping into the consciousness of many who are now shipwrecked here, as except possibly to Britain, to where else can one abandon the seriously leaking ship? Some weeks ago, the National Museum acquired a sterling silver cup from the third ‘Bermuda Race’, as it was then called in 1909. That came from a precious scrap metal operation in the United States, possibly one of those ‘Send us your gold and silver and get CASH in return” (as on TV) setups, some of which apparently have been set up here in Bermuda. If that is the case, you better lock up the family gold and especially the wonderful silver objects made in Bermuda, being part of our precious national patrimony, for the thieves will soon be taking that which they ignored in the past as there was no place to sell such loot. If there is such a business, Government should regulate it without delay, with papers of provenence being necessary for any such sales of silver in particular, or the crooks, as they have done for decades with stolen cedar trees, will rapidly deplete the silver artifact inventory of the Island, without any regard for such heritage and history, melting it into oblivion for some short term cash. Getting out the melting pot and back to the warm Atlantic waters, the now-called ‘Newport-Bermuda Race’ (how did the Yankees get to be first?) would be impossible without the invention of the Bermuda Rig, which all yachts in that biennial fetch from New England to Bermuda do carry to power the vessels south across the Gulf Stream to paradise island. Coupled with the speedy Bermuda sloop, also a major maritime invention of these tiny isles, the island for a while held sway for the fastest ships afloat. Indeed, when Admiral Murray left Bermuda after a quick visit in 1795, ‘he named his Flag Captain the “Superintendent of the Port” at St George’s, directing him to establish a depot there and to purchase several fast Bermuda-built cedar vessels for use as advice boats’. So began the two-century association of the Royal Navy with Bermuda, which ended in March 1995, subsequent to the breakup of the USSR and the end of the potentially very nuclear hot ‘Cold War’. The establishment of the Bermuda Dockyard would not have been possible without the discovery by Lt Thomas Hurd of the massive extent of the reefs of the island, which formed the northern and western defences of the place, extending up to a dozen miles to seaward. More importantly, for the locals already knew of the coral heads, Hurd recorded the reef platform and rendered it all on a chart, which yet serves as the primary basis for most such navigational maps for Bermuda. In the long history of the fortification of Bermuda, the northern defences were thus of natural origin and until the coming of the Royal Navy, there were only three forts in that sector, being Fort St. Catherine in the east, Burnt Point Fort at Ferry Reach and Maria Hill Fort to the far west on Ireland Island. After the arrival of the Royal Navy and following the establishment of the Dockyard in 1809, the massive fortifications of that base in the west were complemented by the Martello Tower, and Forts George, Victoria and Catherine to the east. After changes in gunnery in the 1860s, Fort Langton was added in Devonshire, being the only fort ever constructed on the north shore of the main island of Bermuda. With further artillery inventions in the 1890s, only the Dockyard and Fort Victoria defended the northern sector of Bermuda, replaced by the American Army in the Second World War by guns at the latter site and at Scaur Hill Fort. From the end of the Cold War, Bermuda has reverted to its million-year-old defences of its surrounding reefs, particularly extensive to the north and west, as its guns now sit silent, heritage vestiges of the days when the island mattered in global politics. Now defenceless between the Gulf Stream and the Sargasso Sea, its military economy, which succoured the island for several centuries, vanquished, Bermuda relies on so-called “international business” and tourism for the defence of its people. Between xenophobia from some sectors, the “employment rights” in others and the loss of dozens of guests houses and hotels in recent decades, and other barrages of a destructive nature, it looks like, going into our fourth century, the population is as defenceless as it was in July 1612, not only to the north, but to all other points of the compass.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.

The original Thomas Hurd chart based on surveying work from 1788 to 1797: perhaps the most important map ever made of Bermuda.
Bastion: The final form of Fort St. Catherine after an evolution through seven different buildings.
Ferry Point Park which contains the Martello Tower and in foreground, Burnt Point Fort.
The 1984 demolition of Fort Langton and its gate, which was rebuilt at the National Museum.
The location of Maria Hill Fort on Ireland Island, later the site of the Single Mechanics? Quarters.