Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Gibraltar of the West - Bermuda in the 1860s

After losing the southern American colonies in the American Revolution, Britain started developing Bermuda as a naval base.The other alternative was Halifax in Nova Scotia, which had an excellent harbour. - but one significant disadvantage, it could be reached overland from the United States. Nonetheless, until 1868 Bermuda was part of the Nova Scotia command, for much of that time more or less an outpost of Halifax. For the Navy this had the advantage that ships could be rotated between the two, Halifax being regarded as much healthier. In the same way, ships were often sent north to Bermuda from the Caribbean when there was sickness in the crew. Even then, disease was often a problem. In 1868 an outbreak of fever and diarrhoea struck the Bermuda garrison - out of 3,519 men 1,665 were admitted to hospital. The official report at the time stated...
"This outbreak of fever was attributed by the Principal Medical Officer "to the "effects of a sudden change from the cold bracing climate of New Brunswick "to the hot relaxing climate of Bermuda." The exemption of the Royal Artillery from fever is attributed to their having previously served at Gibraltar, and thus being more inured to the heat, and to their duties being lighter than those of the other troops."

The population of Bermuda was also unaffected. At least the scale of the outbreak led to many improvements in conditions at the barracks, as well as recommendations that troops arrive during the autumn so that they can acclimatise slowly.

Bermuda and the American Civil War

    Bermuda´s military value had been amply demonstrated during the war of 1812, when privateers from Bermuda captured 298 American ships, and Bermuda was a staging post for amphibious operations such as the capture of Washington. Very much the same considerations were voiced by Sir Alexander Milne, the commander of the North American and West Indian Squadron during the American Civil War,

 "If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation,the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune."

HMS Challenger in Bermuda 1865. Like many of the Victorian steam corvettes she had a story to tell. In 1862 she had been part of the force that occupied Vera Cruz in Mexico, whilst in 66 and 68 she was in action in Fiji. But her contribution to history is as the worlds first oceanographic ship on the Challenger Expedition. The Space Shuttle Challenger was named after her.

Thus Bermuda was essential during the War between the States as a projection of the British navy, but it was also greatly valued by the Confederates as a "neutral" port, where they could trade war supplies, or even just stock up on coal. The Globe Hotel was so established as a centre for Confederate agents there is a museum commemorating this there today. For example, in March 1862 the SS Bermuda passed through with a cargo of guns and ammunition, whilst on 3 April 1863 the steamer General Beauregard with a cargo of "Enfield rifles, 1 field battery of guns complete, 500 bags saltpetre, blankets etc was in the harbour. The prosperity generated made the Confederacy very popular amongst Bermudan traders, and there was a large community from the Southern States.

 The USS Sonoma & Tioga off Bermuda

Conversely, the United States were far from popular. Not least after the actions of Commander Charles Wilkes, who seems to have been almost determined to cause a war. In command of a small squadron, the Wachusett, Sonoma and Tioga , he sailed into St Georges harbour, and not only refused to leave for a week but ordrered the two gun boats in his squadron to blockade the harbour, even firing on a Royal Mail cutter, the Merlin. It was Wilkes who later cuased the "Trent Affair" by stopping and boarding the British mail packet Trent and seizing two Confederate commissioners aboard.

The Dockyard

 HMS Vixen, an armoured gunboat, in Bermuda dockyard.

    Bermudas´s location was militarily perfect, but there were  disadvantages. For a start, there were not many deep water channels suitable, although eventually a suitable site was found on Ireland Island, on the extreme western tip of Bermuda. Unfortunately, the main settlement was St. Georges, at the eastern end of the island, whilst the official capital, government buildings and garrison headquarters were at Hamilton, in the centre. Nonetheless by 1864 the Duke of Somerset could report that.....

    "During the last twenty years much has been done to render Bermuda an important naval Station, more especially while Rear-Admiral Hutton was Superintendent. The old floating depots for provisions, naval stores, &c. have been abandoned, and a fine dock and victualling yard have been built with a basin of more than sixteen acres, and a jetty for coaling ships, at a cost of about £112,000: the construction of a first-class dock would complete the establishment. Bermuda lies in a central position, which is the key to the North American United States in case of war: it is a convenient distance from Halifax to vessels which might be injured in the Gulf Stream, and it is convenient also with regard to the West India Islands. Engineers have, however, contended that there are natural difficulties which are insurmountable, "owing," as one of them says, "to the ground being so porous and uncertain. You may go through a solid piece of rock, five, six, or ten feet, and you may come into a cavern connected with the ocean sixty or seventy feet deep: the openings in the rock are something very extraordinary. In Bermuda there are caves which will astonish you: the connexion between the rock and the sea is surprising : you cannot go fifty feet without getting to something which would upset your arrangements."
    United Service magazine 1864

    This porous rock was a problem. Maintenance of a fleet "on station" required a dry dock, but the nature of the rock made this impossible. The ingenious, but hugely expensive, alternative, was to make a floating dock, in England, and float it down to Bermuda.

    By 1869 though it could be reported that
    "The floating dock at Bermuda which was launched last year, and is so far successful, is paid for, having cost altogether about .£300,000. It is a most ingenious construction, and 18 well worth the money spent upon it It will be most useful, as it is much better to repair ships at Bermuda, if possible, instead of sending them home."
    Colburns United Services Magazine 1869

 The floating dock arriving at Bermuda

    The dock was towed to Madeira, where HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince took over and continued the voyage to Bermuda, with the paddle frigate HMS Terrible lashed astern to act as a rudder, the voyage lasting 39 days. This was partly because of the sheer power needed to tow the dock, but it also sent a message that Britain had bigger and better ironclands than the United Staes, and was committed to defending her American and Atlantic territories.


    All of this made Bermuda an obvious target for attack, and from the 1850s to 1860s fortifications were substantially upgraded, and the garrison increased. Given that since the 1840s a string of American government spies had been making reports on the islands defences, and how they might be overcome, the concern was probably warrented. The main centres were;

a) St Georges garrison
The original, on the Eastern side of the island.

b) The dockyard garrison
Protecting the Naval dockyard, with ranges for training of marines.

 The barracks on Ireland Island, 1848

c) Prospect camp
By 1860 this was the site of the main garrison on the island, with barracks, training areas and a fort, Fort Prospect, manned by the Royal Garrison Artillery. As well as Fort Prospect there were two other forts, Fort Hamilton and Fort Langton, sited to give overlapping fire. Fort Hamilton, completed in the 1870s, was on a site of 10 acres and carried 18 guns and was surrounded by a moat.

In fact Bermuda was dotted with fortifications.

 In the East, at St Georges, there was Fort St Catherine, the largest on the island. like much of the defences, expanded and upgraded during the 1860s. Designed to cooperate with St Catherine were Fort Victoria, whose 18x 32 pound cannon commanded the approaches to the dockyard, and Fort Albert, built in 1840, a moated pentagon redoubt with 4 heavy guns, two eight inch howitzers and two ten inch mortars. In 1865 the heavy guns of Fort Albert were replaced with modern ten inch rifled muzzle loaders.

At the dockyard end of the island  there was Fort Scaur, sited to prevent attack on the docks from the landward side, with a dry moat and "disappearing carriages". These were pulled back out of sight of the enemy for reloading, and the whole fort was designed to present a miminal target to the enemy.

    There was a martello tower at Ferry Reach, with a garrison of 24 men and one officer and two ammunition stores, one on Ordinance Island (!), connected by a causeway to the main island, and one at East Broadway, near Hamilton.

During this period the number of troops had also been increased substantially, and by 1865 there were over 6,000 troops on the island. Regiments included, at various times,  the 2nd battalion of the 2nd Queens Regiment, and the 15th, 30th and 61st Regiments.

Bermuda continues to be a British Overseas Territory today, although, ironically, it was an important base for American units during WW2.

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