On the heels of the United States’ successful revolution against Britain in 1783, Bermuda’s  role in the maritime geopolitics of the day suddenly gained new stature. With the loss of its chain of North American ports (other than Halifax), Britain urgently needed a winter anchorage and dockyard to supply and repair its fleet, in the event of war with the United States or France. It also needed to protect its political and trade interests in the Caribbean. Efforts were begun immediately to transform once-sleepy Bermuda into a “Gibraltar of the West,” transforming the island into a well-fortified Western Atlantic British naval base and dockyard.
Royal Engineers designed breakwaters, boat slips, barracks, wharves, a victualing yard, and a fortified Keep. Construction—including massive land reclamation—began in 1809 and continued through to the 20th century. Initially, this construction work was carried out by black slaves, but after Emancipation in 1834, Britain shipped over thousands of convict laborers from England and Ireland. Housed in converted warships called prison hulks off His Majesty’s Dockyard , convicts quarried the region’s hard limestone, and, block by hand-sawn block, built what eventually became a self-contained “Little England” of military barracks, a prison, a hospital, warehouses, and munitions storage buildings, encircled by massive bastions, gun placements, and ramparts.
The payoff was immediate for Britain. In the War of 1812 with the United States, Britain launched its attack on Washington from the Bermuda Dockyard, its Ships of the Line successfully sacking and burning the city. Over the next century and a half, Dockyard’s Grassy Bay anchorage and sheltered docks catered to Britain’s greatest warships, which evolved from tall-masted men-of-war and ironclads armed with cannons to steam-driven dreadnoughts and diesel-turbine frigates bearing World War II torpedoes. The area also supported thousands of naval personnel and civilian staff.
The British operated an apprentice scheme at Dockyard  in the 20th century, training a generation of Bermudians in the skilled trades of masonry, engineering, and electrics; some of these tradesmen are still alive today. The Royal Navy finally pulled up stakes in 1951, closing its operations at the Dockyard. The area became public land, but it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that a major renovation campaign transformed the Victorian military buildings into retail centers, restaurants, and artists’ studios. Responsibility for the area now lies with the semipublic West End Development Corporation (WedCo), which has restored some of Dockyard’s historic buildings, converting some for loft-living, and encouraging further revitalization of the peninsula.
The Bermuda Maritime Museum , located in the six-acre fortress Keep at Dockyard’s westernmost section, was opened in 1975. The museum’s Commissioner’s House, a landmark 1820s building made of limestone and prefabricated iron, was restored and opened in 2000 as a cultural heritage museum.