History of Bermuda

From Academic Kids

This is the history of Bermuda. See also the history of the Caribbean, history of the Americas, and History of present-day nations and states.


Initial discovery and settlement

Bermuda was discovered in the early 1500s, probably in 1503, although the evidence for the exact year, and the identity of the discoverer, is sketchy. It was certainly known by 1511, when Peter Martyr published his Legatio Babylonica, which mentioned Bermuda. The discovery is attributed to a Spanish explorer, Juan de Bermudez. Nothing is known of his supposed first visit; he returned again in 1515, with the chronicler Oviedo y Valdes. Oviedo's account of the second visit (published in 1526) records that they made no attempt to land because of weather.

During the following decades, other visits from explorers of various nationalities ensued, including many whose stays resulted from being shipwrecked on the treacherous reefs surrounding the then-uninhabited islands. Among the latter were a group of Portuguese sailors in 1543, and Henry May in 1593.

Bermuda was first settled in 1609 by shipwrecked English colonists who were originally headed for Virginia. A fleet of nine ships owned by the Virginia Company of London set sail from Plymouth, England with fresh supplies and additional colonists for the new British settlement at Jamestown. The fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir George Somers on board the flagship, the Sea Venture. During a fierce storm the Sea Venture strayed from the rest of the fleet, and struck Bermuda's reefs. Somers managed to land all 150 crew and colonists on the uninhabited island without the loss of a single life.

They were stranded on the islands for 10 months while they built two new ships to replace their shipwreck. By 1610 Somers had managed to construct the Deliverance and the Patience, and set sail from Bermuda for Jamestown. On arrival Somers found the colony decimated by starvation, illness and attacks by Native Americans. Fortunately, the supplies he brought saved them from oblivion.

After they eventually reached Virginia (leaving behind three men who had elected to stay on Bermuda), their reports aroused great interest about the islands in England. Three years later, in 1612, the Virginia Company laid claim to the island, and sent a party of 60 settlers to Bermuda. Under the command of Sir Thomas Moore, the island's first governor, they founded and commenced construction of the town of St. George.

Initially the Charter of the Virginia Company was extended to include them, but in 1615 King James granted a charter to a new organization, known as the Bermuda Company, which ran the island until 1684. Representative government was introduced to Bermuda in 1620, and it became a self-governing colony.

Later development

Due to the islands' isolation, for many years Bermuda remained an outpost of 17th-century British civilization, with an economy based on the use of the islands' Bermuda juniper (Juniperus bermudiana) trees for shipbuilding, and the salt trade. Since the loss of Britain's ports in the former thirteen colonies, Bermuda was also used as a stopover point between Canada and Britain's Caribbean possessions. Hamilton, a centrally located port founded in 1790, became the seat of government in 1815.

Slaves from Africa were brought to Bermuda soon after the colony was established. The slave trade was outlawed in Bermuda in 1807, and all slaves were freed in 1834. (Today, about 60% of Bermudians are of African descent.)

Tourism to the island to escape North American winters first developed in Victorian times. In the early 20th century, as modern transportation and communication systems developed, Bermuda's tourism industry began to develop and thrive, and Bermuda became a popular destination for wealthy US, Canadian, and British tourists. In addition, the tariff enacted by the United States against its trading partners in 1930 cut off Bermuda's once-thriving agricultural export trade—primarily fresh vegetables to the US—spurring the island to develop its tourist industry,

Bermuda in World War II

During World War II, Bermuda became important as a military base because of its location in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1941, the United States signed a lend-lease agreement with the United Kingdom, giving the British surplus U.S. Navy destroyers in exchange for 99-year lease rights to establish naval and air bases in certain British territories. Bermuda was not included in this trade, but rather granted the US similar 99-year leases "freely and without consideration". (The commonly held belief that the Bermudian bases were part of the trade is not correct.)

The Bermuda bases consisted of 5.8 square kilometers (2.25 sq. mi.) of land, largely reclaimed from the sea. The USAAF airport, Kindley Field (later the Naval Air Station) was on St. David's Island, while the Naval Operations Base (later the Naval Air Station Annex) was at the western end of the island in the Great Sound.

Recent events

Bermuda has prospered economically since World War II, developing into a highly successful offshore financial center. Tourism remains important to Bermuda's economy; it is second behind international business in terms of economic importance to the island.

Internal self-government was bolstered by the establishment of a formal constitution in 1968; debate about independence has ensued, although a 1995 independence referendum was soundly defeated. For many, Bermudian independence would mean little other than the obligation to staff foreign missions and embassies around the world, which can be a strong obligation for Bermuda's small population.

Effective September 1, 1995, both US military bases were closed; British and Canadian bases on the island closed at about the same time. Unresolved issues concerning the 1995 withdrawal of US forces -- primarily related to environmental factors -- delayed the formal return of the base lands to the Government of Bermuda. The United States formally returned the base lands in 2002.

Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website.

Further reading

Basic history

  • Terry Tucker, Bermuda: Today and Yesterday 1503-1980s (Baxter's, Hamilton, 1983)
  • Wesley Frank Craven, An Introduction to the History of Bermuda (Bermuda Maritime Museum, Dockyard, 1990)
  • Jean de Chantal Kennedy, Isle of Devils: Bermuda under the Somers Island Company (Collins, London, 1971)
  • Henry C. Wilkinson, Bermuda from Sail to Steam: The History of the Island from 1784 to 1901: Volumes I and II (Oxford University, London, 1973)

Specific topics

  • Virginia Bernhard, Slaves and Slaveholders in Bermuda 1616-1782 (University of Missouri, Columbia, 1999)
  • Edward Cecil Harris, Bermuda Forts 1612-1957 (Bermuda Maritime Museum, Somerset, 1997)
  • Wilfred Brenton Kerr, Bermuda and the American Revolution: 1760 - 1783 (Bermuda Maritime Museum, Dockyard, 1995)
  • Nan Godet, Edward Harris, Pillars of the Bridge: The Establishment of the United States bases on Bermuda during the Second World War (Bermuda Maritime Museum, Dockyard, 1991)


  • John Smith, The General Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles (reprinted World, Cleveland, 1966)
  • Vernon A. Ives (editor), The Rich Papers: Letters from Bermuda 1615-1646 (Bermuda National Trust, Hamilton, 1984)
  • J. H. Lefroy (editor), Memorials of the Discovery and Early Settlement of the Bermudas or Somers Islands 1515-1685: Volumes I and II (reprinted Bermuda Historial Society and National Trust, Hamilton, 1981)

External links

  • Bermuda ( - Detailed Bermuda History
  • Bermuda 4U ( - Timeline showing Bermuda's history

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