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A welcoming blast in friendship

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Heritage Matters

“The guns were therefore originally used to announce the arrival of a ship … to residents living in the interior.” — Gunnery at Cape Town

In days of old, before Swatch and other ‘personal time devices’, the general public relied on signals of sound for the transmission of information about the time of day or the moment of arrival of goods, services or people in a certain locale. The noisemaking devices varied over time and occasions, so as recently as half a century ago, the sound of a blown conch shell announced the presence of a fish seller on the highways and byways of our little island in the middle of the vast North Atlantic. Even more recently, a siren at Fort Hamilton, or thereabouts, signalled the coming of the hour of noon, a custom that has sadly fallen by the wayside of the red-pen accountant or a disinterested bureaucracy.

Another method of telling the time was visual, if one was within range, and thus the first tower for a clock in Bermuda was likely that of the original great storehouse at Dockyard, probably in place a year or two before that of 1814 at St. Peter’s Church, overlooking the ancient and World Heritage Town of St. George’s. That clock was recently restored and returning to its tower cell, whereas the later one at Dockyard of 1856, has been replaced by electrical mechanism, which continues the tradition of old as the ‘four-faced liar’, as the winds assure that the hands of the four dials are always out of sync. The Dockyard carriage clock is on display, after restoration in the 1980s, in the National Museum. The middle of the island and the City of Hamilton did not receive such a time marker until the later 1800s, when the House of Assembly with its elegant tower was erected on one of the eminences of the town. Other turret clocks were later installed at the Whitney Institute and at a masonic lodge in Somerset.

In many places, cannon were used to impart the news of the arrival or departures of ships, letting the locals know that business was to be made in provisioning such vessels for their onward voyage, as well as calling for labour to offload and load cargo. Such arrival salutes were later mirrored with a departing blast from a nearby fort, in the case of Bermuda, the critical one at the turn into the Narrows Channel, a few hundred yards from the freedom of the open sea.

Such a signal was recorded by a military artist, Gaspard Le Marchant Tupper at Fort St. Catherine, pictured here in his watercolour of 1858. The fort itself is well depicted in its formation of the day and is one of but a few such images of the structure before it was altered for the last time in the 1870s to take the new armament of the massive 18-ton Rifled Muzzle Loaders. A Keep, or place of last refuge, is in the centre of a ditch on the landward side of the building, while to seaward is a two-sided rampart facing into the reaches of the Narrows, replete with a decorative cordon, indicating that the work belongs to the first period of the Dockyard fortifications for the old smoothbore cannon of the 1820s. At the apex of the ramparts, smoke appears from a gun that has just saluted one of the great ‘wooden walls’ of the defence of Britain and its empire, a square-rigged sailing ship (possible HMS Nile, second rate 92 guns, later the training vessel HMS Conway) that helped that country to ‘rule the waves’ for over a century into the 1860s and entitled by Le Marchant as the ‘Admiral Going to Sea’ (i.e., Commander-in-Chief, North America and West Indies Station, Vice-Admiral Sir Houston Stewart KCB).

Behind that two-decker sails, or rather steams, the way of the future, as a paddle-wheeled vessel belches smoke from its boilers, adding fuel, perhaps we can say, to its still-present sails. A third ship, bringing up the rear, also appears to be a composite vessel of sail and steam, for few sails are evident in its forward movement into the Narrows. Tupper records a placid sea, ‘like a mill pond’, as our America mother often opined, though we had never seen the like of such a lake on these shores, not even perhaps at Mill Creek. The sound of the departing salute must have reverberated all the way to North Rock and beyond, and hopefully was received as a gesture of friendship and auld lang syne.

Most ships, excepting for a period those of the Royal Navy, would have required a pilot to enter or depart the inner roads of Bermuda and Tupper kindly painted for posterity a striking image of a young man in uniform, possible of a pilot, who may indeed have been such a professional who sailed the artist about the island, so that he could execute a number of watercolours from the sea. It is one of perhaps only a few that depict scarification on a Bermudian face, suggesting that the man was a recent arrival from Africa, where such bodily alterations were sometimes indicative of a coming of age. The need for pilots is clear from the chart of Bermuda, illustrated here and in the Tupper Collection, for the island is encased in reefs, deadly to the vulnerable bottoms of wooden vessels.

For arrival and noonday guns, the great entrepot of Cape Town holds the record, for it has been firing a gun at noon or a time dictated by the local Observatory since 1806. The 18-pounder guns of that early period are still in use and the noonday gun ceremony is extremely popular with tourists, if not with wildlife and other residents thereabouts on the hills above that way-station port on the way to and from the Orient.

Back on the island, a welcoming blast from two 32-pounders at the National Museum greeted the Norwegian Breakaway megaship on its maiden arrival at the Dockyard a couple of weeks ago. Despite the jarring noise at seven in the morning, no complaints were received from Homeland Security, perhaps because staff were made to understand that this was not to be a ‘shot across the bows’ in hostile warning, but a tribute and salute to the five thousand visitors and 1,760 crew on board, who had chosen to grace our shores with their presence and hopefully not a little cash as well. The vast vessel signals a new era in one sector of Bermuda’s tourism economy, a sound that may reverberate here for decades to come.

Dr 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.

A warship of the Royal Navy is saluted by Fort St. Catherine as it departs Bermuda in 1858 (Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, Bermuda Archives).
A webcam shot of two saluting cannon at the National Museum that greeted the Norwegian Breakaway in the early hours of Wednesday, 15 May 2013 on its maiden entry.
The young man in this image was painted by Tupper in 1857 and may have been a pilot in training (Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, Bermuda Archives).
The forbidding position of Bermuda, on top of a submarine volcano, with its surrounding ramparts of reefs caused signal lights to be erected at Gibbs Hill and St. David’s Island (Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, Bermuda Archives).

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Published June 08, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated June 07, 2013 at 1:17 pm)

A welcoming blast in friendship

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