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We are what we import

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‘In many places one will probably see for a long time to come the longshoreman carrying 200-pound bags on his back …” — Captain Pierre Garoche, 1941

As goes the saying, ‘We are what we eat’, it is axiomatic in an utterly maritime place like Bermuda that ‘We are what we import’, the import of which for this story is that we remain utterly dependent upon oceanic shipping to maintain life in this sometimes blessed country.

The ‘docks’, now hidden behind security fences and sheer steel walls of the ‘containers’ (the like of which were unknown here until the 1960s), were and remain the main arteries through which the life blood of the island flows, although the recession might presently call for a stent or two, for the Cargo River is not the Amazon it was a few years ago.

From the beginning of settlement in 1612, Bermuda depended upon the men who were responsible for the loading and offloading of ships, which required knowledge and skills, many of which are no longer necessary in the Age of the Container, a new epoch that was ushered in worldwide in the 1960s.

Not only was the Island dependent on the import of cargo, but also in the early times, crops like tobacco had to be stowed and shipped out to earn what is now called ‘foreign exchange’.

Thus rose the professions of the longshoreman and the stevedore, the one generally working on the dock and the other on the ship, though both bore the responsibility for the safe stowage of cargo, to ensure the safety of the goods as well as that of the ship, for shifting material in the holds could spelt disaster for the vessel at sea.

The methods of containing cargo changed little over many centuries: liquids, such as olive oil, needed jars of a sort, grain and the like was usually enveloped in a sack, and boxes and crates had their uses for other types of goods.

Items such as timber went without containment and everything was shipped by what became known as ‘break bulk’.

In the early 1960s, uniform pallets were introduced which speeded up the stevedoring process, but goods were still break bulk by their individual type of material.

That is to say that the process of dealing with ships and cargo was the work of many hands, vibrant limbs and strong backs: thus longshoremen came to occupy a very important role in this society and other maritime communities.

Expert handling for loading and unloading was important and equally vital was the ability to stow cargo to minimise damage and spoiling and to maximise the use of the capacity of the holds of the vessel, so as to increase the potential profit to the shipping company.

In addition to ensuring that the weighting and placement of cargo did not strain the ship or lead to its instability on its oceanic voyage, goods had to be arranged in order of the ports of call, so that time was used efficiently in turning the vessel ‘around’, that is to say, to minimise the time spend in harbour transferring and receiving cargo.

Thus the dockside trades involved much brawn, but also required considerable brainpower to ensure successful voyages and continuation of many forms of commercial business associated with shipping and the sea.

To understand the range of goods that the longshoremen handled, we can look at some of the contents of vessels wrecked on these shores, presumably through no fault of the professionals just mentioned.

In May 1818, the

Caesar ended up on the rocks, when bound for Baltimore from Newcastle, with the marble cornice for a church in that Maryland town, along with bricks and grindstones for flour mills, bottles and glassware, including medicine vials and decorative flasks, and white, red and black lead oxides.

Eleven years earlier, the

Merchant, out of Connecticut for Bermuda, did not make safe harbour with its cargo of barrels of beef and port, lard, ham, cheese, bread and superfine flour, nuts, peas, potatoes and corn and inedible items such as candles, soap and dry goods.

The unfortunate

Caroline ended her first and only voyage in January 1834 and was carrying 60 boxes of sauces, pickles and preserves, 400 chairs, ten wash stands, eight tables and a box of fancy goods.


Charlotte was wrecked on the way from Lisbon to Boston in the 1870s, appropriately with some olive oil of those parts, hats and marble blocks and statues, including one of Apollo Belvedere, which was recovered and sold to GW Carlton, who displayed it in his Fifth Avenue publishing house.

In 1937, the

Iristo saw its end when bound for Bermuda and Demerara, carrying cattle feed and hay, as well as more modern items such as 200 barrels of gasoline, a fire engine and a steamroller.

If one looks about the island, there are monuments to architecture and the Industrial Age, which are also monuments to the heritage of the longshoreman and stevedore.

Imagine the issue of stowing the multitude of heavy, irregular cast-iron plates that, bolted together, formed Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, one of the finest surviving examples of a prefabricated navigational beacon.

Then too consider the Commissioner’s House with its hundreds of wrought and cast-iron members, including its entire roof structure, safely loaded on great sailing ships in Britain, enduring a trans-Atlantic voyage and offloaded at the Bermuda Dockyard, all in the early 1820s.

It might be said of the dockworkers, as it was of the naval forces, that those were the days of wooden ships and iron men.

Much of the dock expertise went down with the ship of evolution, for in 1955, Malcolm P McLean of North Carolina came up with the idea of the container, which spelt the wrecking of the break bulk industry of former millennia.

Being a trucker, his concept was that the cargo was loaded only once and could be transferred from the back of a vehicle to the hold of a ship and then back onto a truck for delivery.

At Bermuda and in many other ports worldwide, the professional break bulk longshoremen and stevedores passed into history, though of course the loading, weighting and spatial arrangements of containers still harks back to those earlier times when the safety of the ship was equal to the survival of its cargo.

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

Off-loading parts for a fuel tank for the Bermuda Electric Light Company in the 1950s; inset is a traditional cargo hook used in many ports into the 1960s.
Donald Stephens Collection NMB The hustle and bustle on Front Street at the end of crop season, with crates of onions and other produce waiting for export, about 1910.
Men loading or unloading barrels via gangplank from the Quebec Steamship Line’s cargo and passenger steamer SS Trinidad, 1899 (from “Bermuda as it used to be” by David Raine).
Gibbs Hill Lighthouse was prefabricated in large cast iron plates and shipped out to Bermuda as cargo: as it appeared in a print by Hallewell in 1848, two years after construction.
AE Outerbridge & Co Album: New York Yacht Club ‘A cargo of onions’ on the wharf at Hamilton together with assorted boxes, bales, sacks and barrels, circa 1900.

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Published April 20, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated April 19, 2013 at 4:57 pm)

We are what we import

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