Bermuda - Encyclopedia Information
Bermuda is named after the Spanish naval captain Juan de Bermudez (d. 1570 C.E.), who sighted the uninhabited islands around 1503. The Spanish did not claim the islands, but they became an important navigational landmark for galleons crossing the Atlantic between Spain and the Western Hemisphere.
Since Bermuda is surrounded by dangerous coral reefs, nautical misadventures cast the Spanish ashore on several occasions and littered the seabed with huge amounts of treasure.
In 1609, the flagship Sea Venture, commanded by Admiral Sir George Somers (1554–1610) was blown off course and wrecked off the coast of Bermuda. The Catch, another vessel of the group of nine ships that sailed from Plymouth, England, was also wrecked. Both ships were headed for the British settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. Although the survivors of the wreck found the island quite pleasant, they fashioned replacement ships of fine Bermuda cedar and sailed off to Jamestown, arriving just in time to save the locals from starvation.
However they left behind a couple of men to establish a British claim to the islands. Admiral Somers returned to Bermuda later in the year, only to die shortly afterward. The British renamed Bermuda Somers Islands in honor of the admiral, but the name failed to stick.
The Virginia Company, excited by news of the islands’ habitability, sent 60 settlers to establish a colony three years after Somers’s misadventure. Unfortunately the shallow topsoil and the lack of water prevented commercial crops such as sugarcane from being introduced. The settlers soon became reliant on food imports from the British colonies on the North American mainland, which they paid for by supplying sea salt from the islands. For many years the Virginia Company—a company chartered for the purpose of settling Virginia, and then a subsidiary, the Bermuda Company, ran the islands like a fiefdom. Eventually, however, settlers managed to get the company’s charter rescinded, and in 1684 Bermuda became a British Crown Colony.
Slaves were first introduced to the islands in 1616; most were from Africa, though some were Amerindians. The slaves lived in deplorable conditions and were generally employed as domestic servants or tradesmen rather than agricultural laborers. The skills they learned stood them in good stead when slavery was abolished in 1834.
At the time of emancipation in 1834 more than half of the people residing in Bermuda were registered on the census as black or colored. The former slaves became sailors and shipbuilders. In the 1840s Portuguese immigrants came to Bermuda as agricultural workers. They were later followed by the West Indians. Despite Bermuda’s reliance on trade with the North American colonies, political bonds with Britain proved stronger. During the American War of Independence Bermuda remained loyal to the Crown. During the War of 1812 the British Navy used Bermuda as a base from which to ransack Washington, D.C. The Americans responded by confiscating the unprotected cargo of Bermuda’s merchant fleet, devastating the local economy.
In a bid to escape the long, harsh Canadian winter, Princess Louise, the daughter of Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and the wife of the governor general of Canada paid an extended visit to the islands in 1883.
Unwittingly she was instrumental in putting Bermuda on the world tourist map. By the turn of the century Bermuda had been transformed into a fashionable winter destination for people seeking a warm-weather respite, who flocked aboard steamers, which sailed regularly from New York and Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada.
In the wake of World War II, women were given the right to vote, and, gradually some restrictions on the rights of black voters were removed. In 1963 the Progressive Labour Party was introduced, in part to represent the interests of nonwhite Bermudians in a government composed entirely of white landowners.
Today Bermuda enjoys an affluent status as an offshore financial center, but the government has begun reforming this industry to clean up the territory’s reputation as a tax haven. More than 13,000 companies are registered here. The territory’s other mainstay is tourism; more than half a million people visit annually. Although a healthy majority of islanders voted against independence in 1995, in 2004 Premier Jennifer Smith (b. 1947) reignited the issue by calling for the resumption of a territorywide debate. In the early 21st century, the islands remain an overseas territory of Britain.
CLIMATE AND GEOGRAPHY
Bermuda consists of about 138 coral islands and islets with ample rainfall but no rivers or freshwater lakes. Since it is located in the subtropical region, it commonly experiences gales and strong winds in winter. Bermuda has a remarkably mild, humid climate that seldom sees extremes of hot or cold. Rainfall is spread fairly evenly throughout the year.
The mainstays of Bermuda’s economy are international financial services, especially insurance, and tourism. Fine beaches, an excellent climate, and picturesque sites have made Bermuda a fashionable and popular year-round resort. Semitropical produce, sales of fuel to aircraft and ships, and pharmaceuticals are among Bermuda’s exports, though all are relatively minor in the overall economic picture.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Bermudian culture is a melding of British and African heritages. The British influences are seen primarily in institutions, including the government, educational system, and legal framework. The judges still wear powdered wigs, and cricket is the most popular sport. English is spoken on Bermuda, and the majority of islanders identify themselves as Christian. The African influence is a bit subtler but can be seen in the island’s music, which features reggae and calypso. These two types of music are African in origin but came to Bermuda by way of the West Indies. The wonderful rhythms of gombey dancers are another African-inspired art form.
Bermuda does not have a distinctive cuisine, but it does have some local seafood dishes worth noting.
The island’s fish chowder is commonly made with rockfish or snapper and flavored with local black rum and sherry pepper sauce. Codfish cakes were once a staple food on the island and are still prepared on certain days of the year. Johnnycakes—cornmeal griddlecakes with peas and rice—are popular everyday fare. A typical well-known meal is the Sunday codfish breakfast, a huge affair consisting of codfish, eggs, boiled Irish potatoes, bananas, and avocado with a sauce made of onions and tomatoes.
Cassava pie is a traditional Christmas delicacy.
Cassava, or yucca, is a starchy vegetable, which has special significance for Bermudians, since it is credited with having helped early settlers survive during periods of famine. Black Seal rum is the locally brewed national beverage. Locals often combine it with ginger beer, while visitors prefer it as the main ingredient in their rum swizzles.