Bermuda - History and Heritage | Travel | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Bermuda - History and Heritage

Bermuda - History and Heritage

smithsonian.com

First discovered in the early 1500s by Spanish explorer Juan de Bermúdez, Bermuda was not settled until 1609, when the British ship the Sea Venture wrecked on the reef off Bermuda's shores on its way to Jamestown, Virginia. Although the majority of survivors managed to continue toward their destination, three survivors stayed on. Within three years, Bermuda became a British territory and it has remained one to this day. Bermuda's first capital, the Town of St. George, was settled in 1612 and is today the oldest continually inhabited English town in the Americas.

Bermuda has long figured large in Western culture and lore. It was originally known as the "Isle of Devils," thanks in part to its sometime stormy weather, its loud indigenous birds and its encircling treacherous ring of coral reef that bedeviled many an approaching ship. Even sailors who didn't run aground here told tales of the howling winds and birds. The Sea Venture's wreck is widely believed to have been Shakespeare's inspiration for The Tempest. And of course, Bermuda is the eastern point of the notorious Bermuda triangle (boarded on the east by the U.S. and the south by Puerto Rico).

Situated as it is between the U.S. and the U.K., Bermuda has played a prominent role in the two countries' political and military histories. It served as a principal launching point for British attacks on the United States, during both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. And it was also an important stop for Confederate blockade-runners during the American Civil War and turned a tidy profit running rum during the Prohibition years. Later in the 20th century, Bermuda hosted many diplomatic conferences between world leaders.

In 1952, British troops left Bermuda and in 1968 the terriory was given a new constitution that, while maintaining British rule, allowed self-government.

The Bermudian economy evolved over the years from agriculture to shipbuilding to salt trading until the 20th century, when Bermuda's tourism economy, along with its export of Bermuda onions and lilies, began to thrive. Today, tourism is Bermuda's second-largest industry (cruise ships dock here regularly), behind international business and financial services (primarily re-insurance).

Although Bermuda's first settlers were British, the island's population quickly became racially and culturally diverse due to the slave trade as well as an influx of immigrants from Portugal and the West Indies. Today, most of Bermuda's 61,000 residents proudly trace their roots to British, African and Caribbean bloodlines.

Portuguese is widely spoken here, but English is the main language. Still, the conversation of Bermudians—or Onions, as they are often called—is so rich with idioms that ordinary exchanges can puzzle outsiders. From a "regular Sally Bassett day" (a hot summer's day) to "Aunt Haggie's children" (slow or confounding people), Bermudian parlance—like its way of life—has a style all its own.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus