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How Bermuda once nearly started a war with Colombia

It might come as a surprise that Bermuda was once in a virtual state of war with the Bahamas — but Horst Augustinovic's second book of little-known facts about the island is packed full of such surprises.

“What You May Not Know About Bermuda” (volume two) is packed with information — and a fascinating insight into the development of the Island.

The Bermuda-Bahamas stand-off happened in the 1700s, when both British colonies claimed the Turks islands and its lucrative salt trade.

And the book relates how the Bermuda Militia Artillery very nearly started a war with the Colombian Navy after accidentally opening fire on one of its ships with live shells during a 70-shot salute to mark the death of George V in 1936.

The artillery unit in St David's, however, only had 27 blank shells, so the decision was taken to use live shells for remaining 43.

Gunners set their sights at maximum elevation — a range of about 8,000 yards — and opened fire, unaware that the Colombian Antioqiua had strayed into range while on its way to Dockyard for repairs.

Luckily, the destroyer wasn't hit and Bermuda avoided committing an act of war against the friendly South American nation.

And I was intrigued to learn that a 3.5-ton stalagmite removed from Admiral's Cave near Grotto Bay by Admiral Sir David Milne in 1888 eventually wound up as an exhibit at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, only a few miles from where I was brought up.

The 11ft 3in tall stalagmite remained on show at the university until 1973 until, during renovations, it fell through several floors and was smashed to pieces.

And it's also a surprise that one of the pioneers and major players in the once-thriving Bermuda Easter lily trade wasn't even Bermudian — he was an American Civil War Brigadier General in the Union army called Russell Hastings.

The soldier, badly wounded during the conflict, spent a winter in Bermuda for his health and decided to settle on the island.

The enterprising former soldier set up home at Point Shares and he eventually shipped 300,000 lilies a year to New York, the UK and Holland.

Among the other intriguing tales in Mr Augustinovic's book are those of Francis Landey Patton, a theologian, writer and academic, who became president of Ivy League Princeton University — until he fell out with one of his professors, Woodrow Wilson, who went on to become president of the university and later President of the United States.

Princeton crops up again, in connection with Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous and significant scientist the world has ever known, and his stay on the island.

Einstein, a refugee from his native Germany as the Nazis seized power, spent some time in Bermuda in order to qualify him and his family as immigrants to the US, rather than visitors.

For Einstein, who was Jewish, Bermuda played a small part in saving one of the greatest brains of the 20th century from almost certain death in the Nazi Holocaust. Instead, he became a lecturer at Princeton until his death in 1955.

The book also includes stories of a Governor who resigned in the huff because the legislature wouldn't let him have a car, plus tales of Bermuda pirates, one of whom ended up a royal confidante in far-flung Madagascar, and Nazi Germany's faked Bermuda stamps.

Stamps feature heavily in the book, with rows at the Post Office, red pillar boxes and mail censorship during the Second World War all featured, while historic ships and flights are also brought back to life.

It's a treasure trove of offbeat stories and an ideal Christmas stocking filler for anyone interested in the Island and its sometimes wacky history.

Liitle-known Bermuda stories: One of the bizarre tales in Horst Augustinovic's book

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Published October 08, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 07, 2013 at 8:45 pm)

How Bermuda once nearly started a war with Colombia

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