St. George’s, Bermuda
The islands of Bermuda in the Central Atlantic were England’s gateway to the New World colonies for well over three centuries. A large share of all English shipping to and from the Americas passed through Bermuda. It became an important base for shelter and supply, both for trade and for the British navy. Not This isolated, rocky island cluster was well protected during the colonial era. Bermuda literally bristled with scores of defensive positions, from small gun batteries to massive fortifications. Over twenty, in various states of repair, are still standing. Among the best are King’s Castle, the oldest fortress in Bermuda; Fort St. Catherine, the largest, most beautiful and most visited fortification in the islands; and Fort Cunningham, which is part of the Historic Town of St. George UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bermuda was uninhabited when the Spanish arrived and claimed the islands in 1505. However, it remained unsettled for the next century, when the English seized it almost by accident. In 1609 an English ship, the Sea Venture, sailing with a fleet to the America’s, shipwrecked off the coast of Bermuda As there were no Spanish present to offer resistance, the English settled on Bermuda, establishing it as a permanent colony. It did not take long for the English to realize the islands’ strategic importance, and soon after a colonial government was set up.
By 1612, construction of fortifications on Bermuda was underway. The first to be completed was King’s Castle. It was defended with just two cannons salvaged from the Sea Venture. A few years later the Spanish belatedly realized that they had literally handed over a strategic prize to the English. In 1614 they made a half-hearted attempt to retake the islands. A single Spanish vessel exchanged a few rounds of cannon fire before withdrawing. Bermuda faced little threat from other European powers ever since.
The United States was another matter. Following the American Revolution and the loss of British bases in North America, Bermuda’s strategic importance increased dramatically. It became the main British naval base in the Atlantic, and it was from here that Britain launched its assaults on the East Coast of the United States during the War of 1812. Notably, it was the assembly point for those forces which burned down the capital. Concerned about American counterattacks, Britain began a massive refortification of Bermuda, repairing old forts and building new ones.
Although tensions between Great Britain and the United States subsided in the mid-19th century, Bermuda proved useful to the Confederacy as a base for blockade runners. It remained militarily important well into the 20th century. It became an important transit point for American and British shipping during both World Wars, and was absolutely essential as an air base from the 1930s onward. However, by this time the old fortifications were largely obsolete, and many were allowed to fall into ruin. A few are still in use by the military and government, and others have been repaired for hordes of camera toting tourists.
King’s Castle, or what’s left of it, is the oldest structure in Bermuda. It is also the oldest English-built stone fortification in the New World. Built on a high outcropping of rock on the tip of Castle Island, King’s Castle protected the southern approaches to Bermuda’s main harbor. It is well named as King’s Castle. More than just about any other fortification in the New World, it looks less like a colonial-era fort and more like a medieval castle. Its crumbling ramparts and isolated location away from St. George’s only adds to its mystique. It was used as a military garrison until after the end of World War II.
Fort Cunningham is located on the small island of Paget Island, which more than any other point guarded the main access to the island’s inner harbor. Its importance was such that during the 18th and 19th centuries its walls were encased in 15-inch thick iron plates, which made Fort Cunningham all-but impregnable to enemy cannon fire. Unfortunately today Fort Cunningham is in a bad state of disrepair. Some of the largest colonial-era cannons ever cast can be found here.
Fort St. Catherine is by far the largest, best preserved and most photogenic of Bermuda’s fortifications. It is also the most visited. Located on the northernmost tip of the islands, it was founded in the early 1600s. Most of the current white-stone behometh dates to the 19th century. Its outer walls stand on a rocky shoreline right up against the sea. The land-side consists of daunting ramparts overlooking a narrow strip of beach. The fort now houses a museum, with exhibits on the history of Bermuda, colonial-era weapons, and replicas of the crown jewels.
King’s Castle is the most isolated of all of Bermuda’s major fortresses. Located on the far side of the islands’ main harbor, it must be accessed by boat, a considerably long trip. It is otherwise an open site. Fort Cunningham’s position on Paget Island makes it difficult to reach. It is accessible only by boat. For those who make the intrepid effort to get there, the fort is otherwise an open site. Fort St. Catherine is a short uphill walk from St. George’s. It is open daily from 10:00am-4:00pm. The cost of admission is $4.00. Web: www.gotobermuda.com (official tourism website of Bermuda).
As noted above, Bermuda is literally packed with nearly two dozen forts in various stages of repair. Besides the main sites, others worth seeing are Fort George, one of the oldest forts on the island and which now serves as the island’s Maritime Operations Center; Martello Tower, a small 19th century gun battery; the Scaur Hill Fort; and Gates Fort, with a breathtaking ocean view.