Heritage & Tourism: Bermuda’s first century – The Royal Gazette | Bermuda News, Business, Sports, Events, & Community

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Heritage & Tourism: Bermuda’s first century

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‘Historic shipwrecks represent one of Bermuda’s most important cultural resources. The waters of Bermuda are like a museum offering scholars, students and the public a unique opportunity to investigate the remains of vessels that made our Western Hemisphere what it is today. Archaeological and historic research on submerged cultural resources makes sound economic sense as developing these attractions generate tourist dollars that go directly into the local economy to pay taxi drivers, hotels, restaurants, and store owners to identify just a few.’

Dr. Gordon Watts, Bermuda Shipwrecks, forthcoming.

On July 11 in this year of Our Lord 2012, Bermuda will be 400 years old, at least as regards its permanent settlement by humans, marked by the entrance of the

Plough with 50 settlers from Britain into St George’s Harbour on that day in 1612. To greet them were the remnant populations of turtles, cahows, Spanish swine and the three ragtag ‘Kings of Bermuda’, left behind in early 1611, when Mathew Somers hightailed it back to England with the body of his uncle, Sir George, instead of returning to Jamestown, Virginia, with Bermudian victuals for the starving settlers thereabouts. Had the

Plough not created a furrow in the waters at the east end of the Island, it is likely that the Kings would have committed regicide over a lump of ambergris, or died of other causes, natural or otherwise, and Bermuda would have remained unsettled for some decades to come. Seven years ago, the year 2005 perhaps represented a more significant milestone in the history of Bermuda, for it was in the late autumn of 1505, half a millennium prior, that the Island had its first ‘encounter’, not only with Europeans per se, but with any member of the human race, from Europe, the two Americas, Africa, Australia, Antarctica or Asia. Prior to that fateful day when Juan de Bermudez cruised into the sight of Bermuda, the Island had been minding its own volcanic, coral and limestone business for more time than the human race has been on Earth. Cahows lived in freedom, joined by other birds of a feather, crabs and turtles, cedars and palmettos, and fish uncountable in one of the last undiscovered lands on this planet. We are lately informed, a bit late perhaps, that messing with the last crabs in Bermuda will land one in jail, unless of course they are of the human variety, in which case some community service might suffice as punishment for a good deed. The Protected Species Amendment Act (2012) declares it a criminal offence to ‘destroy or interfere’ with 33 species not earlier protected under the law. This is good for heritage, as was the earlier Historic Wrecks Act 2001, which aims to protect cultural heritage of wrecked ships under the sea. It was pleasing to read that the new law for natural heritage ‘would be strictly enforced’ by the staff of the Department of Conservation Services and one would hope that the same good intent would apply to underwater cultural heritage. That wish is based upon the fact that the evidence of Bermuda’s first 107 years of human contact before settlement in 1612 is based upon the archaeological heritage found only on shipwrecks that went aground in these waters between 1505 and that date, the last being the 1609 wreck of the

Sea Venture on the reefs just east of St George’s Island. There are several accounts of shipwrecked mariners coming ashore during that period, but no evidence has been found of their sojourns on

terra firma Bermuda, just as there is no archaeological evidence at Spanish Point for the visit of Captain Diego Ramirez who put into that bay for a period of ship repairs in 1603, having in his crew one Venturilla, the first recorded African to see or be see on the island. So does it occur that the heritage of the first century of Bermuda’s contact with people is represented physically only in surviving shipwreck sites, with ship remains and ship-born artifacts, and it the collections of objects from those sites in previous decades. A few maps and written accounts complement that material heritage in European archives and publications relating to the 1500s and early 1600s. Coupled with later maritime losses into living memorv, the shipwrecks of Bermuda represent almost the entire span of European interaction with the New World, from the night the Pinta (with apparently a ‘Juan Bermudez’ on board!) sighted the West Indies on October 12, 1492, master and commander one Christopher Colombus. Their protection, preservation, scientific study, and appreciation by government and others, as a major heritage asset, could help much to enhance tourism in Bermuda. That is because shipwrecks as underwater dive sites and exhibits appeal to certain parts of the human population, much as golf appeals to another segment of, well, humans. Through archaeological information and artefacts recovered from underwater heritage sites, shipwrecks do a second service to the heritage of the country, and the tourist economy, by appearing in exhibits at the National Museum of Bermuda and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Yet while some might consider golfing sites to be ‘sport heritage’, many millions have been invested in golf courses, public and private, over the last 50 years, which investments in tourism assets compare most unfavourably to the small amounts invested in cultural heritage, in this case, shipwrecks and their archaeological legacy over the same period. We cannot say as yet which was the first ship to fall victim to the Bermuda reefs, but as early as the 1530s Spanish search parties were sent here to rescue shipwrecked mariners. What we can say is that several hundred ships have come to grief in the ‘triangle’ of underwater rocks that form a defensive barricade around Bermuda. Many are now dive sites of great beauty, with tremendous visibility in the island’s often crystal-clear waters. However, when compared to the preservation work being carried out, say, in the Great Lakes of Canada, we are behind the times in terms of newer methods of advertising and ‘exploiting’ this important class of Bermuda’s outstanding body of cultural assets, which assets are the foundation, water tank, house and roof of what should be at the core of a national tourism plan. Between natural heritage, fortifications, domestic architecture, St George’s and the Dockyard, and shipwrecks, we do not need any Disney worlds or make-believe attractions, would we but place the proper investment into those very real cultural assets and position them at the forefront of the visitors’ agenda. Shipwrecks are underwater exhibitions, museums in a truly marine environment nestled among the reefs, coral heads and sandy bottoms. As preserved exhibit sites, they are worth millions over time to Bermuda tourism, because of the increase in scuba diving around the world. This is especially with regard to the United States, which has many of the world’s scuba divers and is the country that supplies the most visitors to Bermuda. As the old-timers say, ‘Fish where the fish are’, and we say ‘Use the outstanding “chum” and bait of Bermuda’s Shipwreck Heritage’ to lure visitors to the islands, especially in the winter months.

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. Captions for photos 1. ‘La Bermuda’ made its world debut in this map published by Oviedo in 1511. 2. In 1546, La Bermuda appeared in this chart of the ‘Dieppe School’, just about the central compass rose. 3. Captain Diego Ramirez executed the first detailed map of Bermuda after his visit in 1603. 4. A plan showing the upper edges of Mount Bermuda that posed threats to shipping in the 1500s. 5. An archaeological plan and profile of the wreck of the ship, North Carolina. 6. The stern of the North Carolina, an underwater museum site for the discerning visitor.

The stern of the North Carolina, an underwater museum site for the discerning visitor.
Captain Diego Ramirez executed the first detailed map of Bermuda after his visit in 1603.
'La Bermude' made its world debut in this map published by Oviedo in 1511.
In 1546, La Bermuda appeared in this chart of the 'Dieppe School', just about the central compass rose.
An archaeological plan and profile of the wreck of the ship North Carolina.
A plan showing the upper edges of Mount Bermuda that posed threats to shipping in the 1500s.