The construction of the Dockyard generated the largest military defence utilisation of money, manpower and materials in nineteenth century Bermuda. With bases already established at Antiqua (1743) and Halifax (1749), the building of the Yard provided a critical third prong to British naval power in the North Atlantic.
Following the 1809 purchase of 130 acres of the Ireland Island group which included Boaz and Watford Islands, thousands of men laboured to build one of the most significant fortifications in the New World.
The extensive erection of boat sheds, storehouses, power plants, repair slips, timber yards, foundries, cranes, fuel tanks, engineering shops, living quarters for men and officers, and later a school and hospital have formed a unique architectural legacy.
Early in the 1790’s, Lieutenant and later Captain, Thomas Hurd, led a survey examining the viability of a permanent naval base on Bermuda. Already utilized were anchorage facilities for warships at St. George’s and Castle Harbour, but these proved less than ideal; entrance channels were too shallow and narrow for large ships, and the anchorages themselves were vulnerable to attack from the open sea.
As a result of Hurd’s investigations, Rear Admiral, later Vice Admiral, Sir George Murray ordered Captain Charles Penrose of HMS Cleopatra to confirm Hurd’s findings of a two mile channel giving access to a deepwater anchorage just northwest of St. Catherine’s Point.
In October 1794 the Cleopatra successfully navigated ‘Hurd’s Deep’ (subsequently called ‘The Narrows’) to a spot Penrose christened ‘Murray’s Anchorage’. The establishment of the Dockyard followed fairly quickly.
The strategic value of the mid-Atlantic site was highlighted during the War of 1812-15 when Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn sailed from the fledgling base in the summer of 1813 to harass the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. The following year, Admiral Sir Alexander F. Cochrane set out with a task force to subdue Washington.
At war’s end the development was still relatively embryonic. Major construction, part of a long range plan to materially strengthen Britain’s military presence in the first half of the nineteenth century, was begun under Admirals David Milne and Edward Griffiths.
By 1810, the need for both skilled and unskilled workers saw craftsmen and artisans despatched from England. Local enslaved persons, paid quarterly, were hired out by owners who were required to sign for any wages received. Sheds were provided to black workers for housing, and blankets were issued under stipulation that if any be lost or stolen the value would be deducted from pay.
Between 1810 and 1816, enslaved persons received £9 (pounds) currency per quarter, but on 19 June 1816, after the arrival of English labourers, Commodore Evans ordered a reduction in pay to black labourers who could be discharged if their owners did not sign wage receipts.
However, not all of the blacks were slaves. Many were free men who signed for and collected their own wages.
Living conditions were not ideal, but for the time, adequate. All workers were required to live on or near the Dockyard, and were allowed to leave the site on Sundays to visit their families. Any overtime received a day’s pay plus extras.
Black workers fell into several groups — Enslaved persons from France and America, and American refugees, many from Florida.
Those enslaved by France were brought to Bermuda from Guadaloupe and Martinique, captured by Sir Alexander Cochrane in 1809-10. Issued clothing, they were hired as free men.
During the War of 1812, declared by the United States in response to Britain’s impressment of sailors from US ships and it blockade on US shipping during the Napoleonic Wars (the US was also incensed by British aid to Indians harassing Northwest settlements), large numbers of enslaved persons from America sought refuge under the British flag. Many were sent to Bermuda, arriving penniless and often in bad health due to dysentery.
First mentioned in a warrant on 1 July 1813 as free Negroes, they were prohibited by colonial regulations “from entering any parish…with a view to settlement, and (were) to be employed at the works on Ireland Island….”
There was an additional caution they would be deducted “a day’s pay for idleness and neglect of duty,” and for flagrant delinquency “were amenable to the Civil Power”.
Among these refugees were women and children who were ordered “to be employed picking Oakum, to be paid for at the contract price for the time being, deducting the value of their rations supplied – half rations excepting rum for which extra sugar, in lieu, to be issued.” (Oakum was a fibre sometimes treated with tar or creosote, and used chiefly for caulking seams in wooden ships).
In 1814 Captain Evans was ordered “to cause a Bounty to be paid to such of the American refugee Negroes willing to work on Ireland Island, in proportion to the periods they may be willing to engage themselves – 1 year, £10; 2 years, £15; 3 years, £20 and 5 years, £30.”
The war had a profound effect on the use of black labour at the Dockyard. When captured American merchant and warships were brought into Bermuda, many had both enslaved men and free black crewmen. These men, quartered at the Dockyard, voluntarily offered their services. Hired as labourers and craftsmen, they became known as the ‘King’s Blacks’.
Their housing, erected on Ireland Island’s hillsides, comprised wooden shanties that gained appellations such as ‘Main Top’ and ‘Negro Loft’.
An Act of Parliament, effective on 1 February 1814, offered these men entry into the army or navy upon each paying £40 sterling to their captors, a sum well beyond their reach. The Act also included a clothing allowance.
Blacks from Florida, at the time a Spanish possession, were brought to Bermuda in 1815 as refugees. Neither captured nor fleeing from conflict, it is uncertain why they were assisted by the British in escaping their owners. Employed at the Dockyard, all attempts to persuade them to return to Florida failed. They remained in Bermuda until 1822 when they were transported to Trinidad. Their wooden shanties were called ‘Florida Lofts’, but the bounty paid the genuine black American refugees was not provided.
Between 1816-18 Yellow Fever, believed to have been introduced by crewmen from two vessels arriving from Antigua, ravaged the Dockyard. Those who fell ill were taken to the Naval Hospital on Port’s Island.
Collector of Customs, Gilbert Salton, in a report to the Lords of Trade noted that, “Last summer (1818) the mainland of this colony and the Dockyard on Ireland Island were severely affected…numbers fell victims and from which few of us altogether escaped and early in the present month (August) the same species of fever broke out on the Island and in the Port of St. George’s where it now rages, but chiefly among Europeans and strangers.”
St. George’s received the brunt of the fever’s ravages with 213 of its citizens dying between 1818 and 1819.
The arrival in 1824 of the Antelope represented a marked escalation of labour requirements. On board were 300 convicts who were housed in three floating hulks off Ireland Island and a fourth in St. George’s. According to Roger Willock in Bullwark of Empire, “Perhaps the most pleasant thing that can be said of, or written about, the convict establishment at Bermuda was that it was brought to a close in 1863.”
However, while there is no question that the overwhelming number of convicts transported to Bermuda were white, several were black.
On 9 January 1834, six months before Emancipation, six black men were sent to Bermuda from Tobago on the Fairy Queen. Convicted of burglary and receiving terms ranging from seven to fourteen years, they were put to work as were other convicts.
Although the majority of blacks working at the Yard were unskilled labour, an 1823 Table of Wages of those employed shows that blacks were also engaged as shipwrights, caulkers, masons, blacksmiths, fitters, sawyers and sailmakers. And while somewhat peripheral to the Dockyard construction proper, there were black pilots whose expertise was unrivalled.
A letter written on 10 May 1843 to Pilot Commissioner Daniel Tucker, by Admiral and Commander-in-Chief, Sir Charles Adams, challenged the appointment of a white Warden of Pilots over Benjamin Smith, a black pilot living in Tucker’s Town. Smith’s ability was such that he was considered the only pilot skillful enough to bring the largest ships into Castle Harbour.
In his letter Sir Charles noted that Mr. Ballingall, the Naval Storekeeper at the Yard, had expressed preference for the white appointee because he believed the warden should not be a black man as had been Warden James Forbes, recently deceased. Ballingall’s opinion was that a competent white Warden would have more authority.
Sir Charles asserted that had he not been presented with a fait accompli he would have appointed Benjamin Smith, and stated that the white officer would be continued in the positon only “until the pleasure of the Lords of the Admiralty was made known” and until he learned how the probationary appointee carried out his duties.
What stands out during this era of development, is that the British Navy, in some regards, was remarkably open-minded when it came to securing the most competent personnel.
By 1834 warehouses and living quarters for officers and men had multiplied at a rapid rate and larger and more frequent ships arrived in Bermuda’s waters.
The employment of slaves at the Dockyard leading up to Emancipation was curtailed and eventually ceased. Following abolition only free men were permitted employment.
An advertisement placed in the January 1934 Royal Gazette stated: “Wanted: for the Service of the Dock Yard, carpenters, masons, labourers. None need apply but Persons who are free.”
After 1 August 1934 many of the formerly free or recently freed black workers continued to work in the Yard or were employed after responding to such advertisements. Seemingly, many were able to meet Ballingall’s requirements for those who were “first-rate Workmen” and who could produce “exceptional reference as to character”.
Two men known to be working at the Yard in 1828 were Richard Jobson of Sandys and John Carmichael of Paget, both carpenters.
Perhaps the most far-reaching aspect of employment at the Dockyard was the establishment of the Royal Dockyard school. On 1 February 1843 an Order in Council established what was to prove a viable training ground for all workers, regardless of race.
The school, opened in December 1844, was for the dual purpose of providing Admiralty employees a general education and apprentices a technical education. Attendance for apprentices was compulsory, and in 1857 an examination was required for passing.
The role of the black boatmen who ferried convicts to and from the hulks continued on a diminished scale after 1847 as the result of a directive from the Secretary of State: The Secretary of State having been pleased to direct that selected prisoners near the expiration of their sentences, or prisoners in the special pardon list may be employed in the Boats of the Hulks; the Deputy Superintendent will cause all the Colored Boatmen to be discharged from the close of the current week except two to act as Pilots in the sailing boats, and the Pilot for the Governor’s boat.
This directive did not affect those who ferried workers and residents to and from the mainland. One such boatman was Joseph Swan who operated a ‘Packet and Bumboat’ service to the Dockyard and vicinity.
However, of the many black workers on the Dockyard site itself between 1852 and 1857, were William Henry Trott of Sandys (moulder), Richard Joell (carpenter), Thomas Gilbert and Alex Ratteray, listed as labourers. Richard Joell and John T. Cann were listed as contributors to the ‘Patriotic Fund’ connected with the Crimean War (1853-56), a conflict between Russia on one side, and Britain, France and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire on the other.
Others listed in the Works Department were William Adams, William Basden, Samuel Joell, Stephen Swan, William Taylor, William Bell, Charles Carr, Chris Cox and fourteen others; the Yard establishment listed: William Bassett, Jacob Bean, Thomas Bean, Augustus Pearman, Francis Romeo, William Romeo and five others.
It has to be noted that one man who gained considerable respect was Benjamin Esten, a ‘dispensary man’ in the Yard whose obituary in 1862 referred to him as a person who was “as well known and as much respected as the Doctor himself”.
Naval Officer, Samuel Triscott, had already complimented black workmen in a May 1850 letter and spoke of his colleague’s dependence on “the Coloured population”.
The people of Ireland Island, ferried across the Sound, did most of their marketing in Hamilton or purchased clothing and various sundries from black women known as ‘Hucksters’. These women were bound by strict regulations. Permission from the Yard’s Storekeeper was required before they could land at the site. There was also a prohibition against selling liquor to the convicts.
But it was Mrs. William Romeo, a ‘huckster’, who provided a salacious scandal in 1857 when she fell in love with a convict named Lodge.
The Romeos were well off financially, owning at least three properties and a healthy bank account. But Mrs. Romeo, believing Lodge’s release imminent, planned to join him in England after he was freed. She journeyed to St. George’s with her son where she boarded a ship bound for Halifax, but her son, on realizing his mother’s intentions to leave the Island, grabbed one of the many boxes she had in her possession and fled to the Dockyard to inform his father William Romeo, rushing to St. George’s, was too late to stop his wife. She had departed with £800 sterling and the deeds to several houses.
A letter addressed to Mrs. Romeo from Lodge’s mother gave William Romeo a clue to his wife’s motivations. Lodge, the letter noted, had not yet been released. Lawyers were engaged by the distraught husband and Mrs. Romeo was located residing in a Yorkshire village. Persuaded to return to Bermuda, upon her arrival her husband wanted nothing more to do with her, confiscating what remained of the money along with title deeds. Mrs. Romeo returned to her mother’s residence in Spanish point with neither her husband nor beloved.
Convicts and black labourers continued to work with pick and shovel, wheelbarrow and crowbar, as they managed to build a Dockyard capable of serving a squadron of frigates.
Under the supervision of stone masons and other artisans brought from England, huge blocks of native limestone were quarried from Ireland Island and topped with copings of granite brought from Nova Scotia and from the British Isles. Much of the work included the construction of the great stone breakwater enclosing the north basin.
Work steadily progressed on the walls and battlements surrounding much of the Dockyard and on the Casemate Barracks and the Victualling Yard.
The construction, while occupying a vast army of men and materials (by 1863 the use of convict labour ceased. Their numbers had exceeded 9,000 over the forty years of their presence), expenditure was also outlayed in strengthening the various forts.
In 1887 For William was converted to serve as a magazine, at a cost of £5,000 sterling, to accommodate munitions hitherto kept at the Dockyard.
Earlier cutbacks had seen the garrison reduced by the withdrawal of one Infantry battalion, and the Home Office in 1881 limited the number of troops stationed overseas “in the interest of the economy”.
With the size of the garrison eventually slashed in half, remaining forces in Bermuda through the 1880’s were hard-pressed to provide maintenance. And with a decreasing international role, the Dockyard slumbered peacefully through the closing years of the nineteenth century.
As the twentieth century dawned, various projects were again undertaken. The moat at the gate to the Keep was filled in, and just inside the gate, a road was cut to the upper grounds. More buildings were added to the Keepyard and on the upper grounds for artillery stores.
A great many black workmen were employed on 10 March 1902 when a breach in the old breakwater at the south end was repaired using one-and-one-half ton blocks. At the same time various projects were underway including the erection of staging for piers for a bridge at Somerset Ferry.
By July 1902 a new approach road was being carved out and new steps and walls were erected near Cut Landing; tracks had been laid down for the moving of concrete blocks and other materials and by 3 February 1903 the blockmaking yard was filled with concrete blocks and granite coping stones. There was also the erection of a retaining and parapet wall to the new road, and breakwater near Magazine Island.
An undeniable and valuable legacy of the Dockyard project was its apprenticeship scheme. Scores of black artisans – carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians – learned their trade through the Dockyard school. When the Yard was turned over to the Bermuda Government in 1950, many of these skilled workers found jobs elsewhere.
The Dockyard, today refurbished with a new face and focus, was arguably the most costly, ambitious and momentous development in the history of Bermuda.
The contribution of black workers helped make it a reality.