The last flowering of Bermuda shipbuilding

The latest entry on Dr Edward Harris’s always fascinating column on Bermuda’s history for The Royal Gazette. Follow the link below for more illustrations.

There was a day when the coves and bays of the North Shore reverberated from east to west with the sound of caulking irons.—Hereward Watlington, The Bermudian, March 1934.

In a most maritime of settings, with the waters of Hamilton Harbour lapping the front lawn and those of the lake at the rear piling up, Nicholas Bayard Dill, Jr, and I recently discussed the last and brilliant flowering of Bermuda’s shipbuilding industry, as a massive squall from the west blackened the sky and pelted his and his wife Bitten’s lovely home with other waters, also of sheer necessity to this place.

Before aeroplanes, Bermuda was utterly dependent upon water, the one to fill tanks and stomachs, the other to support the bellies of seagoing vessels, whose cargoes supplied other necessities of life. Bermuda was synonymous with shipping for over 300 years for, as Governor Butler once stated, “boats, next fortifications” were the most important feature of the island. After the demise of the Bermuda Company in 1684, shipbuilding involved the entire community and the “Bermuda Sloop” became the oceanic Porsche of the day, highly sought after by the good, the bad, and presumably some of the ugly as well, to import a phrase from Sergio Leone’s classic film.

That movie is noted for having “sweeping widescreen cinematography”, which perhaps might describe the world-wide scope of the Bermuda’s influence on sailing technology, for the Sloop of the 18th century would have been a turtle rather than a barracuda without our invention, before 1674, of the “Bermoodes Sail”. That fore-and-after rig swept other classes of sail before it, so that this icon of Bermuda heritage is seen today around the earth. If you wish “to be proud to be a Bermudian”, open your eyes in most harbours world-wide and let your chest fill with wind at the sight of your ‘Bermuda Rig’. It was the greatest invention in sailing technology after that of the European ‘Square Rig’; it is unlikely that it will ever be surpassed and we invented it in one of the smallest countries of the globe!

The fore-and-aft rig supplied a mobility and agility that gave the Bermuda sloop its speed and capacity to sail “close to the wind” and outrun and outmanoeuvre any other vessels afloat, especially in the 18th Ccentury. The sloop was highly sought after for privateering and the Royal Navy had some built as “advice” boats, for carrying messages and instructions to far-flung fleets with speed and efficiency.

For commercial purposes, the Sloop was at a disadvantage, as the nature of the Bermuda Rig was not conducive to the powering of large vessels, and so brigs and barques were also built on the island. Those ships could carry a substantial cargo, but had to be powered by the massive spread of square rigged sail. Then came “Steam”, which was destined to send such vessels to the deepest oceans of history.

As the late Hereward Watlington, Nick Dill’s uncle, historian, and doyen of the then Bermuda “art scene”, wrote: “The menace to sail arising with the introduction of steam-driven vessels supplied stimulus to shipbuilders all over the world in a valiant effort to retain the supremacy of sail. The spectacular result was the swift and beautiful clipper ship. Bermuda was inspired to build her five largest clippers within 11 years, launching the Sir George F. Seymour in 1853, the Koh-i-noor in 1855, the Pearl in 1855, the Cedrine in 1862 and the Lady Milne in 1864”.

The Cedrine was stranded on the Isle of Wight on her maiden voyage, while the Pearl vanished without trace in October, 1858 and the Koh-i-noor wrecked at Aruba in 1906. The Sir George F. Seymour may have outlasted them all, for in 1890 after 37 years afloat, the vessel was sold at London for £700, its fate unknown. In March 1858, Nick Dill’s great-great-grandfather, Captain Thomas Melville Dill, was in command of Sir George F. Seymour when it made a spectacular run of only 13 days from Bermuda to Ireland, a record never surpassed by the island’s barque-rigged clippers of the mid-Victorian era, the last collection of large ships built here.

Of those five vessels, in which the Dill and Watlington families had considerable interest (I thank descendant Henry Laing for some of the illustrations here), it is perhaps impossible for us to understand fully what wonderful ships those were. The Pearl, as befits the name, was considered to be one of the most beautiful vessels afloat and the use of Bermuda cedar (hence Cedrine) must have given the ships a wonderful aromatic atmosphere, especially below decks, similar to the burst of smell one encounters when opening a trunk made of our indigenous timber.

It is a national pity that all we have left of the final phase of of Bermuda ‘ship’ building are a few illustrations and some documents, including the manuscript log of the Sir George F. Seymour. However, we still have one piece of known cargo from the Sir George F. Seymour, for Hereward Watlington recorded that on a return voyage from England in 1875, on board was Major Wilkinson and ‘the statue of whose dog, a magnificent Great Dane, still stands in the grounds of the Inverurie Hotel’!

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to or 704-5480.

For the original report go to

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