America and West Indies Station

1930 – 1932



A Short History of Bermuda




The Bermudas were discovered in 1515 by Juan Bermudez, a Spaniard (from whom they took their name), when on a voyage from Spain to Cuba with a cargo of hogs. Due to a gale the Spaniards soon departed, leaving their hogs behind. 


Some years later, Fernando Camelo, a Portuguese and a native of the Azores, submitted a scheme for colonising the island for the King of Spain. This scheme was never carried out, although an inscription on the main island containing the figures 1543 has been taken as evidence that Camelo took possession of it at that date.


Many ships of many nations must have passed by these islands, but rock bound, storm racked, beaten and desolate the Spaniards called them ‘The Isles of Devils.’ The Spaniards steered north towards them in order to take advantage of the Gulf Stream and avoid the Easterly Trades but they were warned to keep clear of the storms and reefs.


In 1591 three trading ships were sent from London to the East, under the command of James Lancaster. On their return journey they went to the West Indies, arriving 1593. There Henry May, one of his followers and 25 others were cast away and remained on the islands for nearly four months, existing on the wild hogs which they found “so lean that they cannot eat them,” native fruits and vegetables. They finally built a vessel, using Bermuda cedar, and set sail for Newfoundland and thence to England, where May published an account of the islands.


One discoverer, after another, including Sir Walter Raleigh 1595, and Champlain, about 1600, continued to bear ill witness against the Bermudas. With the first colonisation of America begins the colonisation of Bermuda.


The Virginia Company received its patent from James I in 1606, and in 1607 its first colonists were despatched to America. In 1609 the Company was reorganised and nine ships were sent out under Sir George Somers and others. Somers was the leading spirit. He was a West countryman, born at or near Lyme Regis, and had been trained in the wars with Spain.  


A violent storm scattered the vessels, and when one of them, the ‘Sea Adventure,’ had given up hope they sighted the Bermudas where they were wrecked, the ship being wedged between two rocks but all the company reached land safely. There they stayed for ten months, finding the islands better than their repute and, finally, having built two ships, they act set sail for Virginia to find the colony nearly starved out. 


The arrival of fresh ships from England prevented the abandonment of the colony, and Somers undertook to fetch food from the Bermudas. He reached the islands safely, but died afterwards. His body was embalmed and taken to England and laid to rest at Whitechurch, but his heart is said to have been buried in Bermuda soil, where the town of St. George now stands. His memory is perpetuated by his name - Somers Islands and Somerset. (Somer’s seat).


Though the authorities had little leisure to interfere with Bermuda during the long struggle between King and Parliament, the political and religious discord still reached the islands. From the first the Puritan Ministers and their followers seem to have caused constant trouble.  In 1620 the Independents formally seceded from the Church and two years later an act of the Long Parliament established freedom of worship in the islands. Later the feeling of the community turned against the Quackers, (Quakers) and eventually the Company made an order, prohibiting their landing in the islands.


At the time of the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth, Royalists seem to have retreated to the islands, and in 1650 the Long Parliament passed an act prohibiting trade with the islands on account of their refusal to recognize the Commonwealth. Two years later, in 1652, the Governor and Council of the Bermudas took the oath of allegiance “to the Commonwealth of England as it is now established without a King or House of Lords.”


The Restoration of Charles II, in 1660, seems to have been welcomed in the colony.


In time, so galling were the oppressive restrictions imposed on trade in the islands and the severity of the discipline enforced by the Company, that many complaints were sent to England. Further, the Company became composed of men who had no direct personal interests in the Bermudas, while the colonists grew in number, strength and independence. A petition, dated 1679, subsequently led to legal proceedings being taken against the Company - their Charter was abolished and the Bermudas passed to the Crown.


Since then the history has been uneventful.  During the 18th and early 19th centuries agriculture and handicrafts were neglected and left to slaves, while the settlers built ships from cedar and busied themselves with trade to the West Indies and North America, with wrecking and, in time of war, with privateering.


The Bermudian seamen were constantly hampered in their efforts. Abroad, they were always liable to be captured by one or other of Great Britain’s enemies. At home they were handicapped by the regulation of 1710, which stated that all incoming cargoes were to be unloaded at St. George’s.


In the early days of the colony whale fishing was expected to produce a source of income, but it eventually fell through.


During the many wars of the 18th century Bermuda was only indirectly affected. The smallness and poverty of the islands and their distance from the mainland proved to be their safety. A close connection always existed between Bermuda and the North American colonies, and since North America was the chief market for the island trade their loyalty was only half hearted during the American War of Independence. In 1775 a store of gunpowder found its way from the islands into American hands by the connivance of the inhabitants, and in return certain supplies were sent from America to them, in spite of the fact that privateers, using Bermuda as a base, were doing damage to American shipping. The gunpowder was used to drive the English from Boston in March 1775.


The return of Somers companions drew English public attention to Bermuda. The dark picture drawn by earlier discoverers was disproved and popular tales now painted it in glowing colours.


In 1612 the Virginian Company procured an extension of their charter so as to cover all islands within 300 leagues of the Virginian shore in order to include the Bermudas. A few months later the Company sold the islands to certain members of their own body, who in 1615 were incorporated under Royal Patent as ‘The Governor and Company of the City of London for the plantation of Somers Islands.’ This company owned the islands until 1684. The letters patent gave them full powers of Government with an absolute monopoly of the import and export trade of the islands.


The first emigrants to the Bermudas, about 50 in number, were sent out in 1612, before the new Company had been formed. Richard Moore, a ship’s carpenter, was the first Governor and the instructions given to him stated various sources of wealth which might be derived from the colony, including tobacco, pearls, silk, timber, salt, sugar-cane, ambergris and whale oil.


Three men who had remained behind from Somers Company, whose main concern was to hide from the Governor a quantity of ambergris they had discovered, received the newcomers. Moore landed at Smith’s Island, but subsequently removed to St. George’s, where he established his headquarters.


One of the first settlers was Richard Norwood a surveyor, who carried out the first division of the islands according to the terms laid down in the letters patent. These were that about a quarter was to be common land to defray charges on the Company and the rest was to be divided into nine tribes, each tribe containing 50 shares of 250 acres each. The tribes were renamed after some of the leading members of the company, while St. George’s with the small islands round it, and part of the mainland, was set apart for the common land. These nine districts constitute the nine parishes into which the Bermudas are divided to this day for ecclesiastical and political purposes.


The Bermudas were the second British colony to receive some form of representative government. The first Assembly was in 1620, one year after a similar institution in Virginia, and the constitution was revised and fully detailed in 1622.


The Bermudas remained under the company during the reign of James I and Charles I, the Commonwealth and Charles II, and the population began to grow until in 1679 it had reached 8,000, including women, children and slaves. It included English planters, tenants of absentee proprietors, Negro slaves (first mentioned about 1617), Indian slaves (shipped off from Massachusetts by a law in 1650) and white bondservants, in great measure Scottish and Irish political prisoners.


As time went on there was a call for a capital other than St. George’s, one in a more central position. Consequently Hamilton was laid out and in 1815 became the seat of Government. In 1794 Admiral Murray, who gave his name to Murray’s anchorage, off the North East of St. George’s Island, recommended the construction of a dockyard. Ireland Island was selected and work began in January 1810.  


To carry it out convicts were sent from England and from 1824 to 1863 some 9,000 English criminals were sent to and employed in the islands, the number at one time being over 15000 after the emancipation of the slaves. The Bermudas, however, were never a convict settlement in the same way as Australia, since convicts were sent here for a definite purpose, to work for the Imperial government. Eventually those who survived the epidemic of yellow fever, which broke out, were re-shipped to England on the expiration of their sentence.


For the last 50 years little or nothing of general interest is continued in the history of the islands. Bermuda is the colony that has owed the longest uninterrupted allegiance to the British Crown.






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