Jane Austen- The Bermuda Connection

"What a great traveller you must have been, ma'am!" said Mrs. Musgrove to Mrs. Croft. "Pretty well, ma'am, in the fifteen years of my marriage; though many women have done more. I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies and back again, and only once; besides being in different places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never went beyond the Streights, and never was in the West Indies. We do not call Bermuda or Bahama, you know, the West Indies." Persuasion
Bermuda (officially, the Bermuda Islands or the Somers Isles) is the oldest and most populous remaining British overseas territory, settled by England a century before the Acts of Union created the Kingdom of Great Britain. Bermuda's first capital, St. George's, was settled in 1612 and is the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the Americas. Bermuda was discovered in 1503 by a Spanish explorer, Juan de Bermúdez. It is mentioned in Legatio Babylonica, published in 1511 by Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, and was also included on Spanish charts of that year. Both Spanish and Portuguese ships used the islands as a replenishment spot for fresh meat and water, but legends of spirits and devils, now thought to have stemmed only from the callings of raucous birds (most likely the Bermuda Petrel, or Cahow), and of perpetual, storm-wracked conditions (most early visitors arrived under such conditions) and a surrounding ring of treacherous reefs kept them from attempting any permanent settlement on the Isle of Devils. Bermúdez and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo ventured to Bermuda in 1515 with the intention of leaving a breeding stock of hogs on the island as a future stock of fresh meat for passing ships. However, the inclement weather prevented them from landing. Some years later, a Portuguese ship on the way home from Santo Domingo wedged itself between two rocks on the reef. The crew tried to salvage as much as they could and spent the next four months building a new hull from Bermuda cedar to return to their initial departure point. One of these stranded sailors is most likely the person who carved the initials "R"and "P," "1543" into Spanish Rock which still sits at "Spittal Pond." The initials probably stood for "Rex Portugaline" and later were incorrectly attributed to the Spanish, leading to the misnaming of this rocky outcrop of Bermuda. For the next century, the island is believed to have been visited frequently but not permanently settled. The first two English colonies in Virginia had failed, and a more determined effort was initiated by King James I of England, who granted a Royal Charter to The Virginia Company. In 1609, a flotilla of ships left England under the Company's Admiral, Sir George Somers, to relieve the colony of Jamestown, settled two years before. Somers had previous experience sailing with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. The flotilla was broken up by a storm, and the flagship, the Sea Venture, was wrecked off Bermuda (as depicted on the territory's coat of arms), leaving the survivors in possession of a new territory. (William Shakespeare's play The Tempest is thought to have been inspired by William Strachey's account of this shipwreck.) The island was claimed for the English Crown, and the charter of the Virginia Company was extended to include it. St. George's was settled in 1612 and made Bermuda's first capital. It is the oldest continually inhabited English town in the New World. In 1615, the colony was passed to a new company, the Somers Isles Company (The Somers Isles remains an official name for the colony), formed by the same shareholders. The close ties with Virginia were commemorated even after Bermuda's separation by reference to the archipelago in many Virginian place names, such as Bermuda City, and Bermuda Hundred. The first British coins in America were struck here. Most of the survivors of the Sea Venture had carried on to Jamestown in 1610 aboard two Bermuda-built ships. Among them was John Rolfe, who left a wife and child buried in Bermuda, but in Jamestown would marry Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan. Intentional settlement of Bermuda began with the arrival of the Plough, in 1612. In 1624, John Smith wrote one of the first Histories of Bermuda (in concert with Virginia and New England). Because of its limited land area, Bermuda has had difficulty with over-population. In the first two centuries of settlement it relied on steady human emigration to keep the population manageable. It is often claimed that, before the American Revolution more than ten thousand Bermudians (over half of the population) emigrated, primarily to the American South, where Great Britain was displacing Spain as the dominant European imperial power. A steady trickle of outward migration continued. With seafaring being the only real industry, by the end of the 18th century at least a third of the island's manpower was at sea at any one time. 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. In 1649, the English Civil War raged and King Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall, London. The execution resulted in the outbreak of a Bermudian civil war; it was ended by embodied militias. This created a strong sense of devotion to the crown for the majority of colonists and it forced those who would not swear allegiance, such as Puritans and independents, into exile in the Bahamas. In the 17th century the Somers Isles Company suppressed shipbuilding, as it needed Bermudians to farm in order to generate income from the land. Agricultural production met with only limited success, however. The Bermuda cedar boxes used to ship tobacco to England were reportedly worth more than their contents. The colony of Virginia far surpassed Bermuda in both quality and quantity of tobacco produced. Bermudians began to turn to maritime trades relatively early in the 17th century, but the Somers Isles Company used all its authority to suppress turning away from agriculture. This interference led to the islanders demanding, and receiving, the revocation of the Company's charter in 1684; the Company itself being dissolved. After the dissolution of the Somers Isle Company, Bermudians rapidly abandoned agriculture for shipbuilding, replanting farmland with the native juniper (Juniperus bermudiana, also called Bermuda cedar) trees that grew thickly over the whole island. Establishing effective control over the Turks Islands, Bermudians deforested their landscape to begin the salt trade that would become the world's largest, and remained the cornerstone of Bermuda's economy for the next century. Bermudian sailors would turn their hands to far more trades than supplying salt, however. Whaling, privateering, and the merchant trade were all pursued vigorously. Vessels would sail the normal shipping routes, but had to engage an enemy vessel no matter the size or strength, and as a result many ships were destroyed. The Bermuda sloop became highly regarded for its speed and manoeuvrability. In fact, it was the Bermuda sloop HMS Pickle, one of the fastest vessels in the Royal Navy, that brought the news of the victory at Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Nelson back to England. Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape to the world of Jane Austen.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published