The Founding and History of the Bermuda Islands

As Bermuda is a tiny archipelago in the mid-Atlantic, just how much history can it have? Upon further investigation it would seem there is much more to it than just the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. This is the history of the Bermuda Islands.

While the islands off the coast of the Atlantic (not the Caribbean Sea) typically fly under the radar, the history of Bermuda is quite different. Located in a strategic shipping lane during the Age of Exploration, it was only a matter of time before a country claimed the islands now known as Bermuda for their own.

Before we get too far ahead, let’s go back to the beginnings.

Spanish Exploration

Accounts of Bermuda date all the way back to the early 16th century when it was discovered by Spanish explorers. For once “discover” is the correct word to use during the Age of Exploration as the islands were previously uninhabited; no native populations lived there when the Europeans arrived. The name “Bermuda” is typically attributed to the explorer Juan de Bermudez, though there is some uncertainty around that fact.

There were several men with the last name Bermudez who may have sailed by the islands between 1492 and 1513. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés was the first to write an account of the islands in 1515, which attributed the islands being discovered by Juan de Bermudez some 10-12 years prior.

It is documented that Juan de Bermudez took nearly a dozen trips to the New World prior to the islands showing up on a map, so for lack of a more definitive answer, de Bermudez has been the presumed explorer.

Despite hundreds or thousands of Spanish and Portuguese explorers likely sailing near the islands on the return voyage to Europe, neither country attempted to colonize the islands. As the islands were near the Gulf Stream and en route to the westerlies, it would seem that the islands would be a perfect location to supply ships returning home.

One theory as to why there were no colonization efforts is due to the native Bermudian bird, the cahow. At the time the cahow were far more numerous than this day and emitted an eerie nocturnal cry that was said to have spooked Spanish sailors traveling nearby. They believed the island to be unlucky and stayed far away.

In addition, as French explorer Samual de Champlain noted of the Bermudian islands:

“A mountainous island difficult to approach on account of the dangers that surround it. It almost always rains there, and thunders so frequently, that it seems as if heaven and earth must come together.”

The Founding and History of the Bermuda Islands

While the Spanish were unwilling to colonize the islands, the English had no such reservations. This is partly due to the fact that the first noted English visitors weren’t meant to be there at all.

In 1609 the ship Sea Venture was part of a large fleet sent to the Jamestown colony to resupply and provide new settlers. Unfortunately, the fleet was caught in a particularly vicious hurricane (common in the late 16th and early 17th centuries) and ran aground just off the coast of the Bermudian islands.

The islands’ reputation preceded the English, as William Strachey notes:

”We found it to be the dangerous and dreaded iland, or rather, ilands of the Bermuda… For the ilands of Bermudas, as every man knoweth that hath heard or read of them… a most prodigious and inchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, stormes, and foule weather.”

A Cold Welcome

The marooned English found that the islands weren’t actually so bad after all. As no humans had occupied the islands before, the wildlife was not accustomed to apex predators (humans) and food was easy to come by. Native fish, turtles, birds and their eggs, and wild fruits and berries were all part of the English diets, as well as wild hogs that had likely made their way to the island via Spanish shipwrecks.

The weather turned out to be not nearly as bad as advertised either.

“…It is in truth the richest, health-fullest, and pleasing land… meerely naturall, as ever man set foote upon.” – Sylvester Jourdain

In fact, some of the castaways enjoyed it so much they wanted to remain on the islands instead of continuing on to Jamestown after two new ships were built. Numerous mutinies threatened the group, though the strong leadership of Thomas Gates and William Somers kept the group together. Another notable name among the survivors was John Rolfe, who later went on to marry the Powhatan, Pocahontas, and brought the first profitable cash crop of tobacco to the Americas.

Throughout this time the English constructed two ships to help them get off the island and onwards to Jamestown. After 9 months, all but two mutinous men left behind on the island sailed away on their new vessels, most to never return.

Bermuda as an English Colony

Despite the brief stay of the shipwrecked survivors, stories of the riches and bounty on the islands of Bermuda made their way back to England. The tales of the shipwrecked survivors are thought to be the inspiration behind William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written in 1611.

By 1612 a new royal charter was granted to the Virginia Company which now included the territory of Bermuda.

A new group of 60 settlers were sent to the islands and constructed the town of St George’s in 1612. The city now has the honor of being the oldest continually-inhabited English town in the New World.

Emphasis was placed on building fortifications and defenses as the Spanish posed a constant threat. The English made use of the copious Bermudian limestone and were constantly on guard for an attack.

As most colonies were private ventures funded by investors looking to turn a profit, Bermuda was no different. By 1615 control of the colony had transferred to The Somers Isles Company, who administered until 1684 when Bermuda became a royal colony.

While Bermuda’s main export was tobacco farming like Jamestown, it had a much more diversified agriculture scene. The discovery and sale of ambergris (a waxy substance from whales’ digestive systems used in luxury perfumes) was a profitable venture as well.

The colony had the dubious distinction of becoming the first English colony in the New World to use enslaved Africans, first of whom arrived in 1616. Slave labor gradually increased throughout the 17th century; at one point making up nearly 40% of the Bermudian population.

Total Emancipated Slave Population of Bermuda chart

Due to its strategic location, Bermuda was also an epicenter for privateering efforts by the English. This was especially the case in 1684 when the colony was transferred to crown rule, which shifted the focus of the economy away from tobacco and towards shipbuilding and trade.

Though the history of the Bermuda Islands isn’t as well-known as others, its place among England’s first successful colonies is unquestioned.

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