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 HISTORY and CULTURE
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History
 

Bermuda takes its name from the Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermúdez, who sighted the uninhabited islands around 1503. The Spanish did not claim the islands, but they soon became an important navigational landmark for galleons crossing the Atlantic between Spain and the New World. Since Bermuda is surrounded by dangerous reefs, nautical misadventures cast the Spanish ashore on several occasions and littered the sea bed with enough booty for some people to consider scuba diving more than a recreational sport.

In 1609 Admiral Sir George Somers was en route from England with supplies for the recent British settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, when his ship,

The Virginia Company took a keen interest in the islands after hearing of their suitability for colonisation, particularly in light of Jamestown's hostile relations with the local Indians. Only three years after Somers' misadventure, the company organized 60 settlers to establish a permanent colony on the islands. Unfortunately the islands were not as abundant as was first thought. The shallow topsoil limited agriculture and the lack of water prevented commercial crops like sugar cane from being introduced. The settlers soon became reliant on food imports from the American colonies, which they paid for by supplying sea salt secured from the Turks Islands.

For many years the Virginia Company, and then the Bermuda Company, ran the islands like a fiefdom. This wearied the settlers so much they sued to have the company's charter rescinded, and in 1684 Bermuda became a British crown colony. Slaves were first introduced in 1616, most of them brought forcibly from Africa though some were American Indians. They lived in degrading conditions but were generally employed as domestic servants or tradespeople rather than agricultural laborers. The skills they learnt were to stand them in good stead when slavery was abolished in 1834. At the time of emancipation 5000 of the 9000 people residing in Bermuda were registered on the census as black or 'coloured.'

Despite Bermuda's reliance on trade with the American colonies, political bonds with Britain proved stronger during the American War of Independence when Bermuda remained loyal to the crown. During the War of 1812, the British Navy used Bermuda as a base from which to ransack Washington, DC. The Americans responded by confiscating the unprotected cargo of Bermuda's merchant fleet, devastating the local economy. The US Civil War proved more lucrative for the island. When the north blockaded southern ports, cotton traders employed small, fast vessels to outrun northern naval gunboats. These vessels were not capable of an Atlantic crossing, and Bermuda blossomed as a trans-shipment center on the blockade runners' route to England. Good at picking losers, the island's shortlived prosperity collapsed with the defeat of the South.

Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, is credited with putting Bermuda on the tourist map after paying an extended visit to the islands in 1883. The princess was the wife of the Governor General of Canada and was keen to escape the long Canadian winter. By the turn of the century, Bermuda was well on the way to becoming a fashionable winter destination for 'snow birds,' who flocked aboard steamers crossing regularly from New York to Hamilton.

Bermuda's strategic location in the Atlantic secured it a role in Allied military and intelligence operations in WWII. However, its proximity to the US mainland made it inevitable that the US take primary responsibility for developing bases on the island. Much to the locals' consternation, the British subsequently signed a 99-year lease handing over substantial portions of Bermuda's territory to the US military. The US constructed an air base on St David's Island, where the international airport is now located.

In the wake of WWII, women were given the right to vote and, after boycotts, some of the franchise qualifications restricting the power of black voters were removed. In 1963 the Progressive Labour Party was introduced, in part to represent the interests of nonwhite Bermudians in the face of a government almost totally made up of white landowners. The rest of the parliamentarians united to form the United Bermuda Party. The two parties worked together to produce the 1968 constitution which provided for full internal self government, while leaving security, defense and diplomatic affairs to the crown.

Although Bermuda had long prided itself on the relative harmony of its race relations, riots and race antagonism in the 1970s resulted in the removal of all de facto discrimination and the beginning of talks on independence from Britain. In the decades that followed, the independence movement became the dominant political issue, but a referendum in 1995 failed by a two-thirds majority as Bermudians became apprehensive about the political and economic cost of independence. Two weeks later they did, at least, regain control of 10% of the island's land mass when post-Cold War military cutbacks resulted in the closure of the US base on the island. In 1998 the PLP's Jennifer Smith was selected as premier, replacing the UBP's Pamela Gordon, who was Bermuda's first female premier and the youngest person ever to hold the office.




Culture
 

Bermudian culture is a blend of British and African heritages. The British influences predominate in institutions, including the form of government, educational system and legal framework. Judges still wear powdered wigs, bobbies direct traffic, cricket is the most popular sport and a pint of ale at the local pub is a common way to cap off a day's work. English is spoken on Bermuda and the majority of islanders are Christian. The African influence is more subtle but can be found in island music and dance - particularly in music of African origin, which comes via the West Indies, such as reggae and calypso, and also in the rhythm of Gombey dancers.

Gombey dancing is the most interesting art form unique to Bermuda. While it has roots in West African tribal music, Gombey dancing also incorporates influences from Christian missionaries, the British military and, most visibly, American Indians, from whom the Gombey dancers have adapted their costumes. To the uninitiated, the Gombey dancers may just look like wildly costumed characters jumping up and down to loud music, but in fact the dancing is carefully choreographed to specific rhythms and often portrays biblical stories. The dancers traditionally take to the streets on Boxing Day and New Year's Day.

Although no local artists have shaken the world with their talent, Bermuda can claim ties to a number of significant writers and painters who either lived, worked or vacationed on the island. They include Eugene O'Neill, Noel Coward, James Thurber, Peter 'big tooth' Benchley, Georgia O'Keefe and Winslow Homer.

Bermuda does not have a distinctive cuisine but does have some local seafood dishes worthy of mention. The island's fish chowder is commonly made with rockfish or snapper and flavored with local black rum and sherry peppers sauce. Codfish cakes were once a staple food on the island and are still prepared on certain days of the year. Johnny-cakes - cornmeal griddle cakes with peas and rice - are popular everyday fare.

The most traditional meal is Sunday codfish breakfast, a huge affair consisting of codfish, eggs, boiled Irish potatoes, bananas, avocado, with a sauce of onions and tomatoes. Cassava pie is a Christmas tradition and signifies the special significance the vegetable has for Bermudians, since it is credited with having helped early settlers get through periods of famine. Black Seal Rum is the locally brewed national tipple. Locals tend to drink it with ginger beer; visitors prefer it as the main ingredient in their rum swizzle.


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