Bermuda’s residents quickly forfeited lackluster farming efforts to undertake all things maritime instead. Shipbuilding, piloting, whaling, and trade with nations to the south and east allowed entrepreneurial talent to flourish in the 1700s, and the colony finally began to thrive. In an era of constant wars among European nations, Bermudian privateers had the approval of the island’s royal governors to prowl shipping lanes in search of enemy vessels to capture. Many of the island’s most prominent families—Frith, Trimingham, Cox, Durham, Joell—were engaged in privateering, though sometimes their attacks on foreign vessels were simply in defense of shipping interests.
Native cedar was used to innovatively craft speedy sloops that became the envy of larger maritime nations. The vessels were heavily used for sea-borne commerce; of Bermuda’s 8,000-strong population in the early 1700s, a third of local men were constantly at sea. Unlike refuges in the Caribbean and Far East, Bermuda never became a hotbed of pirates, though it’s easy to argue that Bermudians exhibited more than a modicum of buccaneering behavior in many of their pursuits. “Wrecking,” for example, was a nefarious pastime in which islanders would lure passing ships onto reefs with strategically placed fires aimed at disorienting them; salvagers would then row out to plunder the stricken vessels. The island also boasted a handful of homegrown bandits who became notorious for committing wicked deeds in other regions.
Most maritime ventures were above board, however. Salt-production and trade from the Turks and Caicos Islands became a major industry for Bermudians and their ships in the 1800s. Bermudian captains would journey south for summers in the Turks, then spend the winter trading their haul of salt for grain, tobacco, or meat in American ports. Whaling was a tough but profitable enterprise of the period, one that demanded talented seamanship. Humpback and sperm whales were hunted offshore for their “sea beef,” oil from blubber, and occasional ambergris.
Bermuda became a marine hub of utmost importance to the British after its defeat in the American Revolutionary War stripped the Crown of a string of ports between Halifax and the Caribbean. Britain decided Bermuda was a strategic location for a Royal Naval Dockyard—a fortified harbor where the royal fleet could anchor and reprovision. Work began on the facility at Bermuda’s West End in the early 1820s and continued for several years, using mostly convict labor shipped out from Ireland and England. Forts throughout the island were enhanced or added to over the century, and the fortified Dockyard, a penal station for 40 years, became a military gem nicknamed “Gibraltar of the West.” The Royal Navy remained there until 1951.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition