Bermuda’s role in the Sack of Washington
Well, if the breeze fails, it will be a good turn I have done the Yankees.’ Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm,
Mount Wyndham, Bermuda, August 4, 1814. In a few weeks, Bermuda will once again commemorate the death of Midshipman Richard Sutherland Dale, USN, the last American victim of the War of 1812. Dale, along with the famous beauty of his country, Anne Willing Bingham, lies to this day in the tranquility of the graveyard of St Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican institution of that ilk in the Americas, now a significant monument in Bermuda’s ‘World Heritage Site’, so designated by Unesco a few years ago. The Commemoration began with the coming of the United States Navy in Bermuda, when that force and others from the continent arrived to construct Fort Bell and Kindley Airfield at St David’s Island in the east and the Naval Operating Base in Southampton in the west. After 54 years in occupation of certain lands in Bermuda, the American forces withdrew in March, 1995, to the regret of some who may have had access to the emporium of the ‘Commissary’. The Friends of St Peter’s have now continued the ceremony as a mark of respect for Midshipman Dale and as a poignant nod towards our longstanding, if occasionally tumultuous, relationship with part of what was once English America to the west of the Gulf Stream. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which was declared against Great Britain by the United States of America in June 1812, even though the latter country had been the recent aggressor in the attack and sacking of York (now Toronto) in Canada. The War was perhaps a continuation in part of the earlier contest that radically changed Bermuda from a sleepy archipelago in a turquoise sea into the centrepiece of British military defense of its trade and possessions to the north and south of the new United States, in the lands of Canada and the West Indies respectively. In the 29 years that had elapsed since the fall of “America”, enshrined for all time in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Bermuda underwent a transformation and, after 1809 a building boom, the like of which would not be repeated until the Second World War and thereafter. From a company town and later a minor satellite in the cosmos of the British Empire, Bermuda became ‘a fixed aircraft carrier’, as later phrased, and the fulcrum of British military interests in the Americas. The change made a lot of Bermudians very rich and officers during the period into the War of 1812 complained of the piratical rents being charged in St George’s, to say nothing of the markups locals must have imposed on all supplies and materials needed to transform Bermuda into the ‘Gibraltar of the West’. During that interwar generation, Royal Engineers surveyed existing fortifications and made plans for new defence works, and Capt. Thomas Hurd RN, no incidental actor in the prelude to the War of 1812, was dispatched to Bermuda to undertake an eight-year survey of its barrier of reefs, a monumental task completed in 1797 and presented in a 13 by 7 -oot watercoloured chart five years later. The survey was known for over 200 years to Bermudians, but the first sight of the original chart only occurred a few years ago, when a copy of the magnificent image was obtained by the National Museum. The significance of Hurd to the war in question is that he discovered both the main ship channel, now the “Narrows”, off the East End, as well as all the minor channels to the north and west, including “North Rock Eastern Channel”, referred to later by some as “North Rock Passage”. The time duly arose within the British Government to teach the upstart Americans a lesson or two and during the summer of 1812, forces were amassed at Bermuda for an assault against the heart of the new nation, at Washington and nearby Baltimore. In July, soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross, arrived from Britain and camped out near Devonshire Dock in their hundreds, much to the delight no doubt of local suppliers of everything that men headed for war in America could desire, or at least obtain during their two weeks on the island. In Murray’s Anchorage, some 18 ships of the line, including the flagship, HMS Tonnant (86 guns, ‘the finest two-decker ever seen in the Royal Navy’: that is perhaps understandable as she was originally
Le Tonnant, and French, being captured by Nelson in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile) and HMS
Royal Oak (74) lay at anchor, awaiting a signal for departure for the continent. The Admiral on command could view the entire fleet from “Mount Wyndham” in Hamilton Parish, an official residence rented from one Stephen Outerbridge and in the dining room of which plans were hatched for the frying of American bacon. The signal duly given, on 1 August 1814, HMS
Tonnant, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane commanding, and HMS
Surprise, carrying General Ross (who was later killed in the War), departed the Narrows for the Chesapeake. While the bulk of the fleet of invaders readied for sea, the wind sprang from the southeast, making a departure via the Narrows impossible, for those were still the days of sail. Over dinner at Mount Wyndham, “a gentleman” suggested that he could take the fleet out through a channel by North Rock, a dangerous passage in a sea of reefs, even for small vessels. Admiral Malcolm made the decision to proceed thus and the channel was buoyed by George Renner of the Bermuda Dockyard and warden of the “King’s Pilots”. Thereafter the plot thickens as to who did what, for Renner had taken a frigate out that way in 1809 (the year the Dockyard began), and it is likely that he, or certainly the local pilots, had obtained knowledge of the passage from Captain Hurd, some of latter likely working with him on the survey of the reefs. The die was cast and on 4 August, led by HMS
Royal Oak, the fleet of 16 departed Bermuda via the North Rock Eastern Channel (possibly marked in white and red buoys, as appears on Hurd’s chart). Later Joseph Nicholas Hayward was credited as being the “only man in the island who would undertake to pilot the Royal Oak through”. However, it is possible that another pilot by the name of Outerbridge was also involved, for a brooch of silver and paste jewels yet exists, which notes on its back: “Rear Admiral Cockburn to Mrs Outerbridge, commemorating her husband’s daring feat of piloting through North Rock Passage the British Fleet responsible for the sacking and burning of Washington. Bermuda 1814.” It is hoped that the descendants of said Outerbridges are not in need of US visas. Sacking is not without its benefits to the able bodied and quick of hand, for Lt Col Thomas Melville Dill OBE wrote in the first issue of the Bermuda Historical Quarterly in 1944 that four paintings of George III and Queen Charlotte were found in a warehouse in Washington on August 24 or 25 and were duly commandeered by the British forces. ‘Sir George Cockburn had the portraits put on board his flagship, which was, I think, at the time the
Euryalus, and on her arrival in Bermuda presented portraits of the Royal Couple to each of the newly created Corporations of St. George’s and Hamilton.’ That booty from the sack of Washington now hangs, two apiece, in Bermuda’s Parliament, the House of Assembly, and at the Cabinet Office: the “Mad King” might have been much amused.
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.