Bermuda - History and Government

On a balmy day in 1503, a Spanish explorer by the name of Juan de Bermudez became the first European to visit Bermuda, though not by choice, so the story goes. Today, having undergone a number of name changes, including “Isle of Devils” and the “Somers Isles,” the islands are named for the man who discovered them. Bermudez was shortly followed by several more Spanish explorers but, due to the
perceived unfriendly nature of the uninhabited islands, no one bothered to claim the islands for Spain.

Photogrpah of Sir George SommersIn 1609 an English flagship, SeaVenture, ran aground off what is now St. Catherine’s Point. The Sea Venture, commanded by Sir GeorgeSomers was bound for Jamestown in the American colonies. The vessel was carrying 150 people, including John Rolfe, who later married the Indian Princess, Pocahontas; Sir Thomas Gates, the Deputy Governor of Jamestown; and Christopher Newport, the leader of the first expedition to Jamestown. Fortunately, everyone made it safely ashore. Two ships were quickly built from the wreckage of the Sea Venture and they set sail once more for Jamestown. Sir George claimed the islands for England, and a charter was granted to the Virginia Company.

photograph of the DeliveranceAn interesting sidelight on the wreck of the Sea Venture is that Shakespeare drew heavily uponthe reports of its survivors for his work, The Tempest, writtenin 1611.

But the story didn’t end there. When the ships arrived in Jamestown, Somers found that most of the colonists had died of starvation. The winter of 1609-1610 became known as the “Starving Time.” Somers immediately returned to Bermuda in search of food for the starving colony. It was to be Sir George’s last voyage; he died in Bermuda. His heart was buried in the garden established by the survivors of the
wreck of the Sea Venture and his body was transported back to England. For quite a while after his death, the Bermudas were known as the Somers Isles and, even today, the name is not uncommon among islanders.

In 1612 the Virginia Company, impressed by Somers’ reports about Bermuda, petitioned King James for an extension to their charter, which was granted. Six months later, the company transferred its rights to the Bermuda Company. The same year, the first group of permanent settlers on the islands established the city of St. George’s near St. Catherine’s Point. Three years later, in 1615, a new charter
was granted under the name of “The Governor and Company of the City of London for the Plantation of the Somers Islands,” and a second group of settlers arrived from England. In 1620, the British Colonial Government was founded, a Royal Governor appointed, and a legislature was established in St. George. In 1684, however, the Bermuda Company’s charter was forfeited, and government transferred to the English Crown. A new parliament was established, and Bermuda has been a self-governing British colony ever since.

For more than 200 years, St. George was the capital of Bermuda. Then, in 1815, the capital was moved to Hamilton in nearby Pembroke Parish, where it has remained. From 1684 until 1775, Bermuda’s main source of income was from timber production, mainly cedar, used extensively in ship-building. During that same period, Bermudians colonized the Turk Islands and established the salt industry there. When wooden ships gave way to steel in the 1800s, the island turned to tourism.

Movements for independence have surfaced repeatedly over the years, but in 1968 Bermudians ratified a new constitution, under which the British monarch, represented by a Governor, is the head of state. The Governor controls defense, internal security, external affairs, and the police. The 12-member cabinet, headed by the Premier, and including at least six other members of the majority party in the legislature, advises the Governor on other matters. The 11 members of the Senate are appointed. The 40 members of the House of Assembly are elected, two from each of the islands’ constituencies. Bermuda’s oldest political party, the Progressive Labor Party, was founded in 1963; the United Bermuda Party was formed a year later. Racial and political tensions increased in 1973 when Bermuda’s Governor, Richard Sharples, was assassinated. Rioting in the late 1970s led to the Human Rights Act of 1981, which prohibits racial discrimination.

On Sept. 25, 1987, Bermuda was hit by theworst hurricane in many years. Hurricane Emilycaused an estimated$35 million in damage.

Independence continues to be a topic of debate. Members of the opposition recently proposed to take the decision to the people through a national referendum. Judging from the loyalist atmosphere on the island, however, Bermuda’s long history of adherence to tradition, and even stronger ties to the homeland, it seems doubtful that independence will ever become a reality.


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