Sailing into history and heritage
‘Bermuda’s maritime economy wedded her people to sustained intercourse with a wider Atlantic world and dispelled the relative isolation characteristic of the island’s company-period history’ — Michael Jarvis 2002
These days, Bermuda is sailing in difficult winds and troubled seas, trying to navigate a safe course between the reefs of debt and recession and a declining economy, some of the latter particularly as regards tourism the result of self-inflicted wounds, in the views of some crew and passengers, if not the captain, on that fragile and isolated ship of state.
Economically, we can perhaps begin to see a series of periods in the economic development of Bermuda, beginning with the Company Era, when the place was run as a corporation out of London from 1612—1684, as the Bermuda Company.
Thereafter, for a glorious century, ending to some degree with the independence of the United States in 1783, Bermudians took to the water and maritime trading in their sleek sloops, invented here.
Following that Maritime Epoch came the Military Age, when British forces underpinned the economy into the Second World War, with some input from agriculture and tourism from the late 1800s.
After that conflict, the Airplane Tourism Era flourished into the 1980s, when clever chaps created the International Business Age.
We are now stalled in the doldrums and one wonders what propellant we can invent, or reinvent, to get some good winds and a following sea into the Bermuda economy.
Once we were no longer embargoed by the Bermuda Company from building our own ships, many dropped their agricultural hoes for a shipboard position or to construct sloops.
Only a few images survive of the classic Bermuda Sloop, including one of lines and fittings by the famous Frederick Chapman.
The French Ozanne siblings, Pierre and sister Jeanne-Françoise, published a handsome engraving of such a vessel about 1780 and the Englishman Charles Gore produced one a little later, possibly connected with Hurd’s survey of the Bermuda reefs.
In both, the characteristic raked mast of the Bermuda sloop caught the eye of the artist and the beholder.
Two other illustrations have now been obtained in colour, being the portraits of William Stone and Captain John Pigott.
Those paintings are an indication of the wealth that the Bermuda Sloop and oceanic trading were bringing to the island, as they show the two men in poses of middle or upper class gentry of the period, dressed in all the finery a true gentleman could aspire to.
While that of Stone has a classical urn on a plinth as one side of the background, the one of Pigott shows a cedar tree with one branch cut off, perhaps suggesting the origins of the wealth as coming from such timber.
Both have sloops in the other half of the background, while Pigott shows a large Bermuda house, another indication of the increase in the local economy, wrought by the advent of the Sloop.
In a 2002 article in The William and Mary Quarterly, entitled ‘Master Mariners and Seafaring Slaves, 1680—1783’, Professor Michael Jarvis underscored the value of the home-grown vessel (and timber).
“The Bermudian fleet that enabled this Atlantic-wide commercial expansion was chiefly composed of the internationally renowned Bermuda sloop, supplemented by a lesser number of brigantines and schooners.
“On the eve of the maritime transition in 1680, Bermuda owned only fourteen vessels. Seven years later this number had grown to forty-two, and by 1700, the island's fleet included sixty sloops, six brigantines, and four ships.
“In 1716, all ninety-two Bermuda-registered vessels were sloops, and by 1750 the size of the fleet had grown and diversified to 115 vessels: eighty-one sloops, fourteen schooners, eighteen brigantines, and two others.”
“The speed of the Bermuda sloop made it a highly sought-after carrier whose masters found ready customers in ports abroad, especially during wartime.
“The flexibility of the rig allowed it to sail in wind conditions that kept square-riggers at anchor, and the shallow draft of the typical Bermudian hull could navigate over sandbars that stopped larger vessels and up rivers to reach markets deep in the North American interior.
“The durable, native Bermuda cedar from which the sloops were built was highly resistant to rot and marine borers, giving Bermudian vessels a lifespan of twenty years and more even in the worm-infested waters of the Chesapeake and the Caribbean.
“The Bermuda sloop, in short, was wonderfully adapted to overcoming many of the physical and geographic obstacles in America’s intercolonial trade, a factor that played no small part in the island’s success” in the Atlantic economy of the eighteenth century.
Fortunately for present and future generations, the classic Bermuda sloop has sailed into local heritage and is rightly considered one of the major icons in the development of this island-state, along with the “Bermuda Rig”, an evolution in sailing technology that revolutionised the world of sail and still holds its own in harbours and bays, and at sea, after some 350 years in the maritime winds of change.
Unfortunately, for a complete understanding of the iconic vessel, the Bermuda Sloop sailed into history by the end of the Victorian Age and to a degree, oblivion, for but one has been found as a shipwreck, the hull of which was very fragmentary.
To complement the illustrations shown herein, we need an archaeological examination of a reasonably intact hull of our classic sloop; perhaps one will be found in due course in a muddy estuary of North Carolina or other such places.
That might allow us to determine the true hull shape of the vessel, as the “bottom” of a ship holds the key to understanding its speed.
Such information may help to recreate the lines of a Bermuda Sloop, but will be of little help in the reinvention of our tourism economy, unless of course, emphasis is finally and irrevocably placed on selling what really makes Bermuda, “Bermuda”, on selling, that is, our remarkable history and heritage and the monuments that yet survive of its brilliance in many aspects of our lives and land.
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to email@example.com or 704-5480.
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