The Barracks are Casemated
A few weeks ago, a group of town-workers abandoned (by corporate policy) their computers, air-conditioned offices and the safety of the City of Hamilton to venture to the Casemate Barracks in the far, not to say too Wild, West of Bermuda, or rather to the extreme northeast tip of the western end of the island, for the Dockyard lands loop eastward, back towards St. George’s as it were. The volunteers from XL Capital have been making this transition annually for the past few years during XL’s Global Day of Giving, as a part of that corporation’s programme of ‘giving back’, or doing more than the much that they already do for local economies, such as Bermuda’s.
On behalf of the National Museum, I hasten to extend our thanks to the XL Team for once again putting themselves out (hopefully not their backs) to assist in the pre-restoration work at the Casemate Barracks at the western end of the Museum. Millions of dollars of work has now been accomplished by such volunteers on that project to bring new life to ‘Casemates’ and Bermuda is indebted to the workers, as well as to the leadership of XL and other like-minded corporations, who are determined to do just that much more to help Bermuda in a way to fit its new tourism slogan, ‘So Much More’.
In order to understand why the XL Team is at the Casemate Barracks, we have to backtrack several hundred years to 1783 and its aftermath upon Bermuda. The Treaty of Paris in that year created the United States of America, through the independence of thirteen of the British colonies in the Americas, specifically some on the east coast of North America. Starting a few years previous with a sort of ‘Tea Party’, which was a protest against taxes, the matter spiralled out of control and in the end poor (and later mad) King George lost his continental possessions between the Canadian Maritimes and Florida, generally speaking. Today of course, we should all be revolting against the onerous tax regimes now being imposed by many governments, whose profligate politicians have overspent for a number of years and now expect the public to pay the price for their mismanagement. But that is now and we are thinking of then.
After the loss of all the wonderful harbours, such as Boston, New York, Norfolk, etc, Bermuda rose to prominence as a central place between Canada and the West Indies for the location of the ‘North America and West Indies Station’ and a dockyard for the Royal Navy in western Atlantic waters. With the construction of the Bermuda Dockyard in 1809, the money started to roll into the island and Halifax, with the West Indies losing the shiploads of cash previous there expended when we had to fight the French in the Caribbean region. The foundation of modern wealth in Bermuda was laid in the decades after 1810, as massive fortifications at Dockyard and St. George’s Parish were built and rebuilt into the early 1900s, to hold the island against an American attack, which would seek to destroy the Dockyard.
Much of the stone of Ireland Island, where the Dockyard was to be situated, was the ‘limestone’ of great hardness, unlike the soft ‘Bermuda stone’ cut by great timber saws, commonly known here as stone saws. Blasting of the Dockyard rock and carving it into building blocks started in 1809 and continued for over 50 years. When the supply of rock ran out in the yard itself, the Royal Engineers hopped over the walls of the fortifications and quarried out the area now called the ‘Moresby Playing Field’. Thus all the older buildings of the Dockyard are composed of the hard limestone, which is waterproof and need not be painted (whitewashed) like the soft rock, but nonetheless we now have proof that most of the structures in the area were painted yellow, being the colour made by the addition of yellow ochre to lime wash. (A move to whitewash the Dockyard yellow again has apparently been defeated by those who like the antique look of the stonework of the buildings.)
Geology aside, the Royal Engineers first cut a ditch from shore to shore on the line of where the Casemate Barracks now stands and on the site of that building originally stood in fort in the centre of the defensive ditch. By the mid-1830s, the fort, most of the ditch and its attendant features, excepting a defensive tunnel found several years ago by an XL Team, were quarried away and in their place arose the great brick and limestone buildings of the Lower and Upper Ordnance Yards and the magnificent Casemate Barracks, the second oldest surviving building in Dockyard after the wonderful Commissioner’s House.
The brick of those buildings is to be found in the vaulting of the roof, comprising some six courses of ‘London Stock’, the purpose of which was to make the structures bombproof against incoming American cannonballs and mortar shot. The three buildings are thus ‘casemated’ in military parlance, though in the instance of the Casemate(d) Barracks, the brickwork was hidden behind a row of false windows, originally blocked up in stone. The object was to make the building more elegant architecturally, an aim that many think was achieved. For a period of 30 years from 1963, the Barracks was a prison, but was abandoned in 1994, when a new correctional facility was made by the destruction of the glacis of the Dockyard defences, south of Casemates and the Land Front.
In 2009, the Bermuda Government moved to include the Casemate Barracks and the adjacent Ordnance Buildings into the existing Bermuda Maritime Museum, which at 16 acres would become the National Museum of Bermuda. The XL Team, other corporate groups and many individual volunteers, have thus been working for some years to prepare the Casemate Barracks and the other features of the Land Front defence area for a new life for exhibitions and other heritage uses. By so doing, they are adding a new type of ‘casemating’ to the structures to defend them against the climate, vandals, and any other forces that might adversely affect what are a part of the outstanding heritage of the Dockyard and Bermuda itself. Appropriately, the XL Team was led by the distinguished Bermudian military officer, Colonel Sumner H. Waters, USA (retired), assisted by one ‘Doc’ Harris, who managed only to achieve the rank of Private in the Bermuda Cadet Corps in prehistory times.
Dr 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.