The Age of Discovery
Bermuda’s early reputation was that of a fearsome devils’ haunt, likely owing to tropical storms, animal shrieks, and the necklace of treacherous reefs. Yet those who did manage to make it safely ashore were uniformly surprised by what they found: a peaceful paradise with a rich supply of seabirds, turtles, fish, fruit, and wild hogs—believed to have been set ashore by passing mariners as food for castaways. “All the island and keys are covered with cedar forests and tufted palmetto palms,” noted Spain’s Diego Ramirez in 1603 after his galleon ran aground. “There are great droves of hogs in the island which have over-run it and trodden wide paths like well-travelled roads to the watering places.”
After Italian pioneer Christopher Columbus forged the way to the New World in 1492, numerous mariners began traveling back and forth between Europe and the Americas on state-funded voyages. It was one such captain, Spaniard Juan de Bermúdez, who happened upon Bermuda by accident in 1505 and gave his name to the island. Although Bermúdez is not known to have actually landed, several subsequent trans-Atlantic captains and crews did, by accident or necessity. During the 1500s, mariners usually made every effort to avoid Bermuda, the “Isle of Devils.” England’s maritime hero Sir Walter Raleigh noted his Spanish counterparts feared fictitious spirits and “durst not adventure [there] but called it Demoniorum Insulam.”
“It almost always rains there, and thunder is so frequent, that it seems as if heaven and earth must come together…the waves as high as mountains,” wrote French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1600. Gradually, after Ramirez’s account filtered back to Spain, the archipelago became better known as a useful stop-over for provisions by anyone who dared land there. Bermuda was also used as a navigational landmark for ships homeward-bound to Europe; vessels would venture north from the Americas and the Caribbean until they spotted the island, then veer east, carried home by prevailing winds.
Ramirez’s false assumption that Bermuda’s waters were rich in pearls raised the island’s allure. Yet its lack of natural resources such as freshwater or gold made Bermuda far less attractive to conquistadors of the time than the wealth-laden territories farther west. As a result, Bermuda sat virtually untouched until 1609, when the first English colonists arrived—and then only by profound accident.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition