The First Colonists
“We found it to be the dangerous and dreaded islands of Bermuda…the Isle of Devils, and are feared and avoided of all sea travelers alive, above any place on earth,” commented Englishman William Strachey, secretary-elect of Virginia and a passenger aboard the ill-fated Sea Venture. The 300-ton, 108-foot vessel, flagship of the Third Supply relief fleet to Jamestown, became separated from the rest of the fleet after encountering a ferocious hurricane off Bermuda. Its crew and passengers battled the storm for several days until, eventually, it drove the ship onto rocks less than a mile off the island’s East End—at the point now called St. Catherine’s Beach. Admiral Sir George Somers and Sir Thomas Gates orchestrated the safe escape of all 150 survivors: men, women, and children who had left behind middle-class lives in southern England to live out New World dreams.
Like a real-life episode of Survivor, the castaways stripped the Sea Venture of rigging, weapons, food supplies, and timbers, something settlers would continue to do until the wreck sank from sight many years later. They fended for themselves over the next 10 months, building temporary shelters and constructing two new ships of Bermuda cedarwood to continue the voyage they had originally planned. “The Bermooda is the most plentiful place that I ever came to, for fishes, hogs and fowl,” Sir George Somers would write. After much bickering among the group, all but three left Bermuda in 1610 aboard the newly built Deliverance and Patience for Jamestown, where the supplies they’d gathered from the island proved salvation for the American colony’s starving residents. Sir George returned to Bermuda for more goods but died here later in 1610. His heart was buried in St. George’s.
It was not until 1612 that England’s first official settlers arrived aboard the Plough, after a decision by the Virginia Company to include Bermuda among its American enterprises. London-based investors, called “Adventurers,” realized that the new acquisition, with its safe harbors and lack of inhabitants, might prove advantageous for their New World exploits. Sixty people arrived at Bermuda, among them a carpenter named Richard Moore, selected by the Virginia Company to be Bermuda’s first governor. Bermuda was dubbed “Virginiola” and later, the “Somers Islands” or “Summer Islands,” after Sir George Somers as well as its balmy climate. The first settlement was initially called “New London” but its name was later changed to St. George’s. The fact that Jamestown fell into ruin and did not endure makes St. George’s the oldest surviving English town in the Americas.
The first settlers laid the foundations for a colony that would develop into one of England’s key possessions over the next 400 years. They fashioned palmetto huts and dug wells, creating a community around a market square at the East End, which, despite the subtropical setting, was as English as any in the motherland. The colony’s laws and government were English, along with its judicial system, Church of England religious beliefs, education methods, and loyalty to King James. Great pressure was laid on Moore and the settlers to produce riches like pearls, silk, tobacco, and ambergris (a highly prized substance derived from whales’ intestines and used in medicines and fragrances) to send back to the London investors, little of which ever materialized. Instead, the Virginia Company, and later the Crown, had to support the struggling colony with constant shiploads of food and supplies for most of the century.
Ironically, Bermuda’s inhabitants were restricted from becoming self-sufficient by a monopolistic regimen; they were forced to trade only with Virginia Company ships and were barred from whaling or shipbuilding. Forts and bridges were built, and the main island was divided into “tribes,” or privately owned parishes, creating Bermuda’s first infrastructure. But the colonists felt stifled by the oppressive rules laid down by the Company, and as a result, they rebelled. Finally, in 1684, trade restrictions were lifted when the company of investors was dissolved and Bermuda became a genuine Crown colony. Commercial independence was encouraged, and Bermudians looked to the sea to forge a lucrative livelihood that would endure for the next 200 years.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition