When you think of Bermuda, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
A tropical paradise? Absolutely. A haven of peace and tranquillity? Most definitely. A perfect place for a vacation? Sign me up.
But a critical stronghold packed with military history dating back over 400 years? Erm… that’s maybe not the first thing you think of.
The fact is, this is just as true about Bermuda as its reputation for being paradise. As a tiny string of islands located around 600 nautical miles off the east coast of the USA, Bermuda has long been an important strategic military outpost for both the Britain and American armed forces.
History buffs and military connoisseurs alike will find a lot to enjoy in visiting Bermuda’s extraordinarily well-preserved forts. At one time, there were over 90 of them dotted around the island, but today you can visit over 20. They’re popular tourist attractions and they provide a fascinating insight into Bermuda’s long military history.
Bermuda’s Military History
Bermuda has a rich and varied military history that started right at the beginning of its colonization in 1612 under the command of Governor Richard Moore. He oversaw the building of a number of small forts to defend the island against potential attacks from the Spanish, which only happened once in 1614 and has been the only attack in Bermuda’s history where the forts had to fire in anger.
The American War of Independence ushered in a new era for military activities in Bermuda. In 1783, Britain lost all their ports along the Atlantic coastline and so when looking for a new stronghold, Bermuda came into focus. As it was handily located in between Canadian waters and the West Indies, Bermuda became the new strategic point for British defense in the north-west Atlantic.
During the American Revolution and the war of 1812, the Confederate armed forces relied on Bermuda as a checkpoint for the British fleet. This outpost enabled British forces to bypass the Union blockades and deliver goods to the soldiers in the south. Bermuda remained the Royal Navy’s Western Atlantic headquarters for many years.
Over a hundred years later, many of the forts and dockyards that were built to service the island were used to help the Allied forces during the first and second World Wars. At this time, the US took over the responsibility of protecting Bermuda and stationed an army there.
The British and American naval forces had operations in Bermuda until as recently as 1995, although British troops had left the island nearly 40 years earlier.
Now, all that remains of the military stronghold known as the “Gibraltar of the West” is around around 90 forts dotted around Bermuda. The 24 forts still standing have become beloved tourist attractions that can give you a fascinating insight into the power and glory of the military defense operations that were once conducted on the island.
Five Historic Forts to Visit in Bermuda
Many of the forts in Bermuda are exceptionally well-preserved as they were built out of stone. Perhaps the islanders chose this material after their only wooden fort caught fire and burned down completely in 1620.
The island’s isolation worked in its favour too. Usually, the fortifications, carriages, guns and other materials were often melted down and re-used in other locations. Bermuda’s remote placement meant that these items were actually able to stay on the island and be preserved as historical artefacts. For example, you can see rifle muzzle-loaded guns still on their original carriages at some of the local forts.
Fort St. Catherine
Prepare to catch your breath when you catch sight of Fort St. Catherine, which is the biggest and most visually spectacular fort on the island. Part of the east end UNESCO World Heritage site of St George’s, this magnificent fort is a stunning tribute to Bermuda’s military past.
The site for Fort St. Catherine was specifically chosen for the line of sight it provides out into the ocean – it’s situated high above Bermuda’s famous pink sand beaches on the northern-most ground of St George, between St Catherine Beach and Achilles Bay. It sits on a slender finger of land that leads out into the sea.
The fort was built in 1614 after five years of planning and it has stood the test of time. Although it was initially constructed out of wood, it was significantly renovated and enlarged at least five different times. It has now become a stone relic of a bygone era.
Today, you can explore the fort’s massive ramparts, dive into the tunnels and chambers carved deep into the bedrock it sits on or marvel at the five 18-ton cannons still on display. It also has an excellent interior that serves as a mini museum. Here you can inspect antique weaponry as well as replicas of the British Crown jewels. Afterwards, make sure you watch the sunset over Achilles Bay.
Perhaps the most famous fort on Bermuda, the Duke of Wellington ordered the construction of Fort Hamilton in 1868. It was originally built to protect Hamilton Harbour from an American invasion but it was already considered obsolete before it was completed later in the 1870s. Fort technology moves so fast, right? It’s hard to keep up.
This spectacular fort was built with a large 30-foot wide moat, plenty of underground passageways and of course the necessary 18-ton guns. Visitors enter by crossing an atmospheric wooden bridge that leads into the fort, which is guarded by many cannons and ramparts.
These days, Fort Hamilton has been transformed into a park and gardens that are beautiful to stroll around or picnic in. If you visit in the summer months between you may hear the Bermuda Isles Pipes Band playing in the garden.
Scaur Hill Fort Park
Fort Scaur is located on a hilltop at Somerset in Sandys Parish. It was built in the 1800s to defend the Royal Naval Dockyard from potential American attacks, which would have come across the land from the southern shore. For this reason, the fort has a wide moat and lots of underground passages to serve in its defense. The fort used to have guns weighing 64 pounds each, mounted on mobile carriages but these have been removed.
Today, Fort Scaur is a lovely parkland of 22 acres. It has many walking trails within it and it is a popular spot with hikers, runners and afternoon-strollers alike.
Royal Naval Dockyard
These days the Royal Naval Dockyard has little capacity to inspired dread into the hearts of men, as it is now a centre for arts, crafts, dining and shopping.
Originally though, it was built by the Royal Engineers of the British Army in the 1820s to protect the island against the ongoing threat of American invasion – though it wasn’t completed until 1860. Made primarily out of limestone, the impressive Dockyard is now a magnet for tourists and residents alike, providing a humming centre of style and pleasure within Bermuda.
As you enter the Dockyard, imagine the British navy sailing off from here to launch their infamous raid on Washington DC. Visit the 6-acre keep, which is now the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Here, the lower level served as a bombproof storage room for over 6,500 barrels of gunpowder – just imagine that explosion if the dockyard had ever fallen into enemy hands! Boats also loaded ammunitions at the Keep Pond in the fort, which is now used to train dolphins and show off their performance skills.
You can also see the exquisitely restored Commissioner’s House that was the home for the civilian commissioner in charge of the Dockyard.
The Bermuda Craft Market provides lots of opportunities to find unique souvenirs of your trip to the island. From there, you can also enjoy the many restaurants, shops and cafes that are homed within this beautiful area. Make sure you pick something up from the Bermuda Rum Cake Bakery!
As the sun began to set on the great British Empire, the entire dockyard was closed down and was only recently reopened as an island attraction in 1975.
At Ferry Reach in St George’s Parish, you’ll find the unusually-shaped Martello Tower. It’s shaped like an egg – the only one in Bermuda like this, but it closely resembles designs that are often found along the coast of England.
Martello Tower was specifically designed to withstand potential cannon fire from American or French forces. Its walls are 11 feet thick in places, giving it a strength and structure that would have been difficult to penetrate.
Martello Tower was built in 1828 but like all the other forts, fell into disrepair. It was restored and reopened 80 years later, in 2008.
Armed with the history of Bermuda’s military forts and having a summary of the most popular locations, you can now visit each one with a broader perspective and maybe even help out the tour guide! Just kidding, the tour guides are top notch and will never leave you bored but you’ll be armed with information to start just in case they need you.