Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic Ocean, a group of low-forming volcanoes near the western edge of the Sargasso Sea, about 665 miles (1,070 kilometers) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, 768 miles (1,236 km) south of Cape Sable Island, Canada, and 981 miles (1,578 km) north of Puerto Rico. The archipelago is formed by high points on the rim of the caldera of a submarine volcano that forms a seamount. The volcano is one part of a range that was formed as part of the same process that formed the floor of the Atlantic, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The top of the seamount has gone through periods of complete submergence, during which its limestone cap was formed by marine organisms, and in the Ice Ages the entire caldera was above sea level, forming an island of approximately two hundred square miles.
Bermuda has 64 miles (103 kilometers) of coastline. The two incorporated municipalities in the territory are the City of Hamilton (the capital) and the Town of St George. It is divided into nine parishes, which have some localities called villages, such as Flatts Village and Somerset Village. Although usually referred to in the singular, Bermuda consists of 181 islands, with a total area of 20.6 square miles (53.3 km²). The largest island is Main Island, sometimes called Bermuda. Compiling a list of the islands is often complicated, as many have more than one name (as does the entire archipelago, which has also been known historically as La Garza, Virgineola, and the Isle of Devils. Somers Isles is often rendered “Somers Islands”, or mistaken for “Summer Isles”).
Bermuda was discovered in 1503 by Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez, after whom the islands are named. He claimed the apparently uninhabited islands for the Spanish Empire. Bermúdez never landed on the islands, but made two visits to the archipelago, of which he created a recognizable map. The island is shown as “La Bermuda” in Legatio Babylonica, published in 1511 by historian Pedro Mártir de Anglería, and was also included on Spanish charts of that year. Bermúdez returned again in 1515, with the chronicler Oviedo y Valdés. Oviedo’s account of the second visit (published in 1526) records that they made no attempt to land because of weather. Both Spanish and Portuguese ships used the islands as a replenishment spot to take on fresh meat and water. Legends arose of spirits and devils, now thought to have stemmed from the calls of raucous birds (most likely the Bermuda petrel, or Cahow) and the loud noise heard at night from wild hogs. Combined with the frequent storm-wracked conditions and the dangerous reefs, the archipelago became known as the Isle of Devils. Neither Spain nor Portugal attempted to settle it.
Shipwrecked Portuguese mariners are now thought to have been responsible for the 1543 inscription on Portuguese Rock (previously called Spanish Rock). Subsequent Spanish or other European parties are believed to have released pigs there, which had become feral and abundant on the island by the time European settlement began. For the next century, the island is believed to have been visited frequently, but not settled.
After the failure of the first two English colonies in Virginia, a more determined effort was initiated by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), who granted a Royal Charter to the Virginia Company. It established a colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Two years later, a flotilla of seven ships left England under the Company’s Admiral, Sir George Somers, and the new Governor of Jamestown, Sir Thomas Gates, with several hundred settlers, food and supplies to relieve the colony of Jamestown. Somers had previous experience sailing with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
The flotilla was broken up by a storm. As the flagship, the Sea Venture, was taking on water, Somers drove it onto Bermuda’s reef and gained the shores safely with smaller boats — all 150 passengers and a dog survived. They stayed ten months. William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which the character Ariel refers to the “still-vex’d Bermoothes” (I.ii.229), is thought to have been inspired by William Strachey’s account of this shipwreck. Several of the passengers were lost at sea when the Sea Venture‘s longboat was rigged with a mast and sent in search of Jamestown. Neither it nor its crew were ever seen again. The remainder built two new ships: the Deliverance, largely from the material stripped from the Sea Venture (which sat high-and-dry on the reef, and was still being cannibalized in 1612 — its guns were used to arm a fort) and the Patience. The latter was made necessary by the food stores the survivors had begun to collect and stockpile in Bermuda, and which could not be accommodated aboard the Deliverance. It was built almost entirely from material sourced on the islands. When the two new vessels were complete, most of the survivors set sail, completing their journey to Jamestown.
In 1610, all but two of the survivors of the Sea Venture sailed on to Jamestown. Among them was John Rolfe, whose wife and child died and were buried in Bermuda. Later in Jamestown he married Pocahontas, a daughter of the powerful Powhatan, leader of a large confederation of about 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in coastal Virginia. They arrived in Jamestown only to find the colony’s population almost annihilated by the Starving Time, which had left only 60 survivors out of the 500 who had preceded them, and most of these survivors were sick or dying. The food the Sea Venture survivors brought with them was woefully insufficient, and the colony seemed unviable.
It was decided to abandon it, and to return everyone to England. Loaded aboard the two ships, they were prevented from making this evacuation by the timely arrival of another relief fleet, bearing Governor Lord De La Warre, among others. The Sea Venture survivors had brought pork from the pigs that had been found wild on the island, which had presumably been left by previous visitors. This led the Jamestown colonists to refer to “Bermuda Hogs” as a form of currency. Somers returned to Bermuda with the Patience to obtain more food supplies, but died there from a surfeit of pork. The Patience, captained by his nephew, Matthew Somers, returned to England, instead of Virginia. Somers left three volunteers — Carter, Chard and Waters — behind on Bermuda (two when the Deliverance and Patience had departed, and the third following the Patience‘s return) to maintain the claim of the island for the England, leaving the Virginia Company in possession of the island. As a result, Bermuda has been continuously inhabited since the wrecking of the Sea Venture, and claims its origin from that date, and not the official settlement of 1612.
Returning to Somers’ hometown of Lyme Regis, in Dorset, his body (which had been pickled in a barrel) was landed via The Cobb, the notable breakwater which protects town’s harbor. His heart, however, was left buried on what would subsequently also be known as The Somers Isles. After reaching England, the reports of the survivors of the Sea Venture aroused great interest about Bermuda. Accounts were published by two survivors, William Strachey and Sylvester Jordain.
Two years later, in 1612, the Virginia Company’s Royal Charter was officially extended to include the island, and a party of 60 settlers was sent on the ship Plough, under the command of Sir Richard Moore, the island’s first governor. Joining the three men left behind by the Deliverance and the Patience (who had taken up residence on Smith’s Island), they founded and commenced construction of the town of St. George which was designated as Bermuda’s first capital. It is the oldest continually inhabited English town in the New World.
Bermuda struggled throughout the following seven decades to develop a viable economy. The Virginia Company, finding the colony unprofitable, briefly handed its administration to the Crown in 1614. The following year, 1615, King James I granted a charter to a new company, the Somers Isles Company, named after the admiral who saved his passengers from the Sea Venture,. Formed by the same shareholders as the Virginia Company, the Somers Isle Company ran the colony until it was dissolved in 1684. Representative government was introduced to Bermuda in 1620, when its House of Assembly held its first session, and it became a self-governing colony. Many Virginian place names refer to the archipelago, such as Bermuda City, and Bermuda Hundred. The first English coins to circulate in North America were struck in Bermuda.
The archipelago’s limited land area and resources led to the creation of what may be the earliest conservation laws of the New World. In 1616 and 1620 acts were passed banning the hunting of certain birds and young tortoises. Bermuda was divided into nine equally-sized administrative areas. These comprised one public territory (today known as St. George’s) and eight “tribes” (today known as “parishes”). These “tribes” were areas of land partitioned off to the “adventurers” (investors) of the Company — Devonshire, Hamilton, Paget, Pembroke, Sandys, Smith’s, Southampton and Warwick (thus far, this usage of the word “tribes” is unique to the Bermuda example).
Initially, the colony grew tobacco as its only crop. The Company repeatedly advised more variety, not only because of the risks involved in a single-crop economy, but also because the Bermuda-grown tobacco was of particularly low quality (the Company was frequently forced to burn the supply that arrived back in England). The Bermuda cedar boxes used to ship tobacco to England were reportedly worth more than their contents. It would take Bermuda some time to move away from this, especially as tobacco was the main form of currency.
Agriculture was not a profitable business for Bermudians in any case. The land area under cultivation was so small (especially by comparison to the plots granted settlers in Virginia), that fields could not be allowed to lie fallow, and farmers attempted to produce three crops each year. Islanders quickly turned to shipbuilding and maritime trades, but the Company, which gained its profits only from the land under cultivation, forbade the construction of any vessels without its license. Its interference in Bermudians livelihood would lead to its dissolution in 1684.
Bermudians rapidly abandoned agriculture for shipbuilding, replanting farmland with the native juniper (Juniperus bermudiana, called Bermuda cedar) trees that grew thickly over the entire island. Establishing effective control over the Turks Islands, Bermudians deforested their landscape to begin the salt trade. It became the world’s largest and remained the cornerstone of Bermuda’s economy for the next century.
Bermudian sailors and merchants relied on more than the export of salt, however. They vigorously pursued whaling, privateering, and the merchant trade. Vessels sailed the normal shipping routes, but were required to engage an enemy vessel no matter the size or strength. As a result, many ships were destroyed. The Bermuda sloop became highly regarded for its speed and maneuverability. A Bermuda sloop called HMS Pickle carried the news of the victory at Trafalgar as well as news of the death of Admiral Nelson to England.
Bermudian merchant vessels turned to privateering at every opportunity, during the eighteenth century, preying on the shipping of Spain, France and other nations during a series of wars. They typically left Bermuda with very large crews. This advantage in manpower was vital in seizing larger vessels, which themselves often lacked enough crewmembers to put up a strong defence. The extra crew men were also useful as prize crews for returning captured vessels. Despite close links to the American colonies (and the material aid provided the continental rebels in the form of a hundred barrels of stolen gunpowder), Bermudian privateers turned as aggressively on American shipping during the American War of Independence. The only attack on Bermuda during the war was carried out by two sloops captained by a pair of Bermudian-born brothers (they damaged a fort and spiked its guns before retreating). It greatly surprised the Americans to discover that the crews of Bermudian privateers included black slaves, as, with limited manpower, Bermuda had legislated that a part of all Bermudian crews must be made up of blacks.
The American War of 1812 was to be the encore of Bermudian privateering, which had died out after the 1790s, due partly to the buildup of the naval base in Bermuda, which reduced the Admiralty’s reliance on privateers in the western Atlantic, and partly to successful American legal suits, and claims for damages pressed against British privateers, a large portion of which were aimed squarely at the Bermudians. During the course of the American War of 1812, Bermudian privateers were to capture 298 ships (the total captures by all British naval and privateering vessels between the Great Lakes and the West Indies was 1,593 vessels). British attacks on Washington, D.C. and the Chesapeake were planned and launched from Bermuda, where the headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North American Station had recently been moved from Halifax, Nova Scotia. By the end of the War of 1812, the primary market for Bermuda’s salt had disappeared as the Americans developed their own sources. Control of the Turks had passed to the Bahamas in 1819.
In 1816, James Arnold, the son of Benedict Arnold, fortified Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard against possible US attacks. Today, the National Museum of Bermuda, which incorporates the Maritime Museum, occupies the Keep of the Royal Naval Dockyard, including the Commissioner’s House, and exhibits artfacts of the base’s military history. As a result of Bermuda’s proximity to the southeastern US coast, during the American Civil War Confederate States blockade runners used it as a base for runs to the South to evade Union naval vessels and deliver much needed war goods from England. The old Globe Hotel in St George’s, which was a centre of intrigue for Confederate agents, is preserved as a public museum.
By the end of the nineteenth century, except for naval and military facilities, Bermuda was considered a quiet, rustic backwater. It had been superseded in the development of the English-speaking Atlantic world. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), 5,000 Boer prisoners of war were housed on five islands of Bermuda. They were located according to their views of the war. “Bitterenders” who refused to pledge allegiance to the British Crown, were interned on Darrell’s Island and closely guarded.
In the early twentieth century, as modern transport and communication systems developed, Bermuda became a popular destination for American, Canadian and British tourists arriving by sea. The United States 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act enacted protective tariffs. It cut off Bermuda’s once-thriving agricultural export trade to the US and encouraged its development of tourism as an alternative. After several failed attempts, the first airplane reached Bermuda in 1930. A Stinson Detroiter seaplane flying from New York City, it had to land twice in the ocean: once because of darkness and again to refuel. Navigation and weather forecasting improved in 1933 when the Royal Air Force (then responsible for providing equipment and personnel for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm) established a station at the Royal Naval Dockyard to repair (and supply replacement) float planes for the fleet. In 1936 Lufthansa began to experiment with seaplane flights from Berlin via the Azores with continuation to New York City.
In 1937, Imperial Airways and Pan American World Airways began operating scheduled flying-boat airline services from New York and Baltimore to Darrell’s Island, Bermuda. In 1948, regularly scheduled commercial airline service by land-based aeroplanes began to Kindley Field (now L.F. Wade International Airport), helping tourism to reach its peak in the 1960s–1970s. By the end of the 1970s, international business had supplanted tourism as the dominant sector of Bermuda’s economy. The Royal Naval Dockyard, and the attendant military garrison, continued to be important to Bermuda’s economy until the mid-20th century. In addition to considerable building work, the armed forces needed to source food and other materials from local vendors. Beginning in World War II, U.S. military installations also were located in Bermuda.
Universal adult suffrage and the development of a two-party political system occurred in the 1960s. Before universal suffrage, adopted as part of Bermuda’s Constitution in 1967, voting was dependent on a certain level of property ownership. On March 10, 1973, the Governor of Bermuda Richard Sharples was assassinated by local Black Power militants during a period of civil unrest. Today, Bermuda’s economy is based on offshore insurance and reinsurance, and tourism, the two largest economic sectors. Bermuda had one of the world’s highest GDP per capita for most of the twentieth century and several years beyond. Recently, its economic status has been affected by the global recession.
The first internal postal system for Bermuda was organized by Joseph Stockdale, the owner of the Bermuda Gazette, in January 1784. This service competed with that of the colonial post office, set up in May 1812, until 1818 when it was taken over by the local government. Because of its isolated location, the colony originally depended on packet ships for its external mail, connecting via St. Thomas, New York City or Halifax at different periods. These fast small sailing ships were the first in the world to offer a regular national and international parcel and postal service. Packet ships were vessels employed to carry British post office mail packets to and from British embassies, colonies and outposts on a regular, scheduled service, also carrying freight and passengers. Their crew were referred to by trade as packet men and their industry was the packet trade. A packet agent operating under the British General Post Office managed external mails from 1818, with packet handstamps known from 1820. The internal delivery system was discontinued between 1821 and 1830. The external posts became a colonial responsibility in September 1859, with the chief postmaster based at St. George’s.
Bermuda was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to introduce a uniform postal rate in 1842, only two years behind Great Britain and three years ahead of the United States. Bermuda became only the second British colony (after Mauritius) to issue postage stamps with the first produced locally in 1848 by William Bennet Perot. Perot, the postmaster of the town of Hamilton, always put a mailbox outside the post office for the convenience of users. The users could put their letters in the box together with their required postage (one penny each). However, in most cases, the postage in the mailbox was not enough, and Perot had to deliver all the mails himself. James Bell Heyl, a friend of Perot, suggested he issue his own stamp. Heyl removed the dates from the postmark and stamped it on a piece of paper. These consisted of the words HAMILTON BERMUDA in a circle. Perot wrote the words one penny above the year and signed his name below. He sold them in individually or in sheets of twelve. The imprints were black until early 1849, when the post office switched to red ink. Known as the Perot provisionals, they are among the great rarities of philately. The known examples of Perot stamps were dated from 1848 to 1856. Today, only eleven copies of the stamp are known to exist, six red and five black. Most of them are now owned by European royalty, including three by Queen Elizabeth. As early as in 1981, a Perot provisional stamp had a marked price of US$115,000.
A crown-in-circle design used at St. George’s in 1860, also rare, is attributed to postmaster James Henry Thies. Thomas Thies became Postmaster General of Bermuda in September 1859 and retained that post until he died on August 31, 1860, aged 30. He was succeeded in office by his younger brother, James Henry, who had carried out the duties during Thomas’s failing health and illness for the previous year or more. Whether he was imitator of Perot or innovator, he seems at first to have taken somewhat more care in the production of his stamps than had Perot. There is reason to believe that Thies ruled out the sheet of paper by pencilled lines into rectangles and then struck in red ink in each rectangle his handstamp bearing the inscription PAID / AT / ST GEORGES BERMUDA enclosed by double lines broken by a surmounting crown. The first Thies stamp to be found was discovered by a collector named Ralph Wedmore in a Bristol shop around 1895 or 1896. Four additional copies have since been authenticated.
General stamp issues in Bermuda began in 1865 with a set of three (one penny, six pence and 1 shilling), each with a different design based on the profile of Queen Victoria. These were supplemented with 2 pence and 3 pence values in 1866 and 1873.
In 1902, Edward VII was not honored with a depiction on new stamps; instead the issue depicted a Bermudian dry dock, and remained in use throughout his reign. These were the first stamps in the British Empire that did not depict the monarch’s head. The unusual practice continued, at least in part, with George V of the United Kingdom, with the low values of the issue of 1910 depicting the seal of the colony (a caravel), while the higher values (2 shillings and up) were large-format designs featuring the king’s profile.
Bermuda’s first commemorative stamps were an issue of 1920, marking the 300th anniversary of representative institutions. The design consisted of the caravel seal and a profile of George V, with the inscriptions BERMUDA COMMEMORATION STAMP above and TERCENTENARY OF ESTABLISHMENT OF REPRESENTATIVE INSTITUTIONS below. A second issue, in 1921, commemorated the same occasion with a completely different design, with George V in the centre and various symbols in the corners. Bermuda issued a pictorial series of stamps in 1936, consisting of nine stamps with seven different designs depicting local scenery. Several of the designs were reused, and three more added, for a 1938 issue featuring George VI.
On April 11, 1949, the centenary of Postmaster Perot’s provisional postage stamp was commemorated by the issue of three stamps, a 2½ pence dark brown and deep blue; a 3 pence black and deep blue; and a 6 pence green and rose violet (Scott #135-137). Engraved on paper watermarked with the multi-script CA, they were perforated 13×13½. The Perot provisional stamp was next seen on several stamps in the first definitives to portray Elizabeth II, issued between 1953 and 1958, two of which also pictured the Sea Venture and a “hog coin.”
Bermuda continues to exercise a modest stamp-issuing program with just four separate design issues per year.