Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda

HMD Bermuda (Her/His Majesty's Dockyard, Bermuda) was the principal base of the Royal Navy in the Western Atlantic between American independence and the Cold War. Bermuda had occupied a useful position astride the homeward leg taken by many European vessels from the New World since before its settlement by England in 1609. French privateers may have used the Islands as a staging place for operations against Spanish galleons in the 16th Century. Bermudian privateers certainly played a role in many Imperial wars following settlement. Despite this, it wasn't until the loss of bases on most of the North American seaboard (following US independence) threatened Britain's supremacy in the Western Atlantic, however, that the Island assumed great importance as a naval base.

Post 1783

In the decades following American independence, Britain was faced with two threats to its maritime supremacy. The first was French, as Napoleon battled Britain for military, political, and economic supremacy in Europe, closing continental ports to British trade. He also unleashed a storm of privateers from the French West Indies in an attempt to cripple British trade in the New World. The Royal Navy was hard-pressed in Europe, and unable to release adequate forces to counter the menace of the privateers. In any case, multi-decked ships-of-the-line were designed to battle each other in slow moving, opposing lines. However many guns they might have to bring to bear, they were not able to run down, or out-manoeuvre the small privateers.

The second threat was American. The original, successful English colony in the modern USA, Jamestown, Virginia (which Bermuda was settled as an extension of), was intended to exploit the abundance of timber on that continent, at a time when Britain, and much of Europe had long been stripped almost clear of trees. American timber had been one of the enablers of Britain's ascendancy to maritime supremacy, and, by 1776, a significant part of Britain's merchant fleet was made up of American ships. Despite their own, brief, naval dispute with Napoleon, the Americans took full advantage of their neutral position in the wars between Britain and France, and the British Government was enraged by what it saw as America's failure to support it in combating a common threat. The British Admiralty was also enraged by the habit of American merchant and naval vessels to poach sailors from the Royal Navy at a time when its manpower was stretched to the limit. The US also had its own interest in Breaking Britain's supremacy on maritime trade, and from the first days of the Republic it has often claimed to champion free trade.

First Naval Establishment in East End

The Royal Navy sought to counter the threat of French privateers in the New World by commissioning its own light vessels, built along the lines of traditional Bermuda sloops. The first three vessels commissioned from Bermudian shipyards were 200 ton, 12-gun sloops-of-war, ordered in 1795, and commissioned as HMS Dasher, HMS Driver and HMS Bermuda. Over the next fifteen years, the Admiralty would commission a great many more vessels from Bermudian builders. Although the first were intended to counter the privateer menace, Bermudian sloops ultimately became 'advice' vessels, using their speed and handling to evade enemies, and carrying communications and vital freight around the globe. in addition to ships commissioned by the Admiralty, Bermudian merchant vessels were also bought-up and commissioned for this purpose. The most famous was undoubtedly HMS Pickle, which carried the news of British victory back from Trafalgar.

The Royal Navy began to invest into Bermudian real-estate in 1795. Very early, it began to buy islands at the West End of the chain, and in the Great Sound, with the view to building a naval base and dockyard. Unfortunately, at that time, there was no known channel wide and deep enough to allow large naval vessels to gain access to the Great Sound. A naval hydrographer, Thomas Hurd, spent a dozen years charting the waters around the Colony, and eventually found the Channel through the reefs, which is still used, today, by vessels travelling to The Great Sound and Hamilton Harbour.

Initially, the Royal Navy bought and developed property in and around the then capital of St. George's, at the East End. These included Convict Bay, which became a Royal Canadian Naval Base, HMCS Somers Isles, during the Second World War, and the brick building now housing the Carriage House Museum, and Restaurant. Once Hurd's Channel had been discovered, however, the Royal Navy soon relocated all of its facilities to the West End.

Relocation To West End

Numerous islands at the West End, and in the Great Sound were used for various purposes, but the core of the base, the Dockyard, began to take shape on Ireland Island, at the North West extremity of the archipelago. Initially, local labourers, free or enslaved, were sought to carry out the construction. Bermudian labour proved scarce, and Bermudian attitudes to manual labour were such that the Admiralty soon resorted to using convicts, shipped from Britain and Ireland, to carry out most of the original phase of building at the base. This phase had barely begun when the USA, using the pretext of the stopping of its naval and merchant vessels at sea by the Royal Navy, to search for deserters, declared war on Britain in 1812. The real reasons for the American declaration of war had more to do with a desire to seize Canada, where Britain had lately been attempting to develop the lumber and shipbuilding trades to counter the loss of, and subsequent competition from, the American colonies. Admiralty House in Bermuda, at that time, was still in the East End, at Mount Wyndham, above Bailey's Bay.

American War Of 1812

One of the first Naval actions of the War was the capture of the Bermuda sloop, HMS Whiting, in a US port. During the War, the British blockade of American ports was orchestrated from Bermuda. British forces occupied coastal islands on the Chesapeake, and raised Royal Marine units from Black slaves who had come over to the Crown. The families of these Marines, and other escaped slaves were taken to Bermuda where they were employed around the Dockyard. A further Marine guard was raised from among the freed slaves for the defence of the base. After the War, the remaining freed slaves were granted land in the West Indies on which to settle.

Bermudian privateers also played a notable part in the war, capturing 298 American vessels. But the most notable role the Colony would play in the war was as the launching point for an amphibious operation against the American seaboard, which succeeded in driving the US Government out of Washington DC and burning the city. The US Presidential Mansion was so badly charred by the flames that it has been necessary, since, to whitewash it. When forces returned to Bermuda from Washington, they brought with them portraits of King George III, and his wife, Queen Charlotte, taken from an American public building; these portraits have hung, ever since, in the House of Assembly of the Bermudian Parliament .


After the War, the Navy concentrated on the building of the Dockyard, while the Army began its own buildup of fortifications, coastal artillery, and infantry garrisons to defend the Naval Base, as the British Government began to view Bermuda.

By the time the first phase of development was complete, in the 1860s, the convict establishment was no longer seen as politically expedient. The last convicts were withdrawn in 1863, returned to Britain on the Bermudian merchant clipper, the Cedrine (which was wrecked on the Isle Of Wight, on its maiden voyage, costing Captain Thomas Melville Dill, his Master's certificate).

The primary limitation of Bermuda as a Dockyard was the porosity of its limestone sandstone, which prevented construction of a proper drydock. From 1869, this problem was remedied with a floating drydock. This, and its successors, was a large hull, with a U-shaped cross section. It could be partly-submerged by filling ballast tanks with water, so that a ship might be brought in and braced into position. The tanks were then emptied to lift the ship out of the water for repairs below its waterline.

When the second phase of development began at the end of the 19th Century, there was still a shortage of Bermudians willing to work as common labourers, and the Admiralty resorted to importing labour from British West Indian islands (which were suffering economic hardship due to the loss of the sugar industry, following American victory in the Spanish-American War). This began a century of sustained immigration into Bermuda from the West Indies which has had profound social and political effects.

The Dockyard served as the base for a succession of Royal Naval organisations, including the North America and West Indies Squadron. A fleet of C-Class cruisers and smaller vessels was based there in the 1930s. In both World Wars, Bermuda served as a staging area for trans-Atlantic convoys.

Closure Of The Dockyard

After the Second World War, with the primary former threat in the region, the USA, having been an ally in both World Wars, and a continuing ally under NATO, the naval base in Bermuda diminished rapidly in importance to the Admiralty. The US Coast Guard had operated anti-submarine vessels from a base on White's Island, in Hamilton Harbour, in the Great War. During the Second World War, it had built a US Naval Air Station and a US Army airfield in the Colony under 99-year leases. With little remaining interest in policing the World's waterways, and with the American bases to guard Bermuda in any potential war with the Warsaw Bloc, the Royal Navy closed most of the Dockyard facilities in 1958, selling the land to the local government.

HMS Malabar

After the closure of the dockyard, and the disposal of most Admiralty land holdings in Bermuda, a small part of the base, which included the wharf of the South Yard, was maintained as a supply base, named HMS Malabar, until it, too, closed in 1995, following the end of the Cold War. The closure of HMS Malabar marked the end of 200 years of permanent Royal Naval presence in Bermuda.

It should be noted that the name HMS Malabar causes considerable confusion in relation to the Bermuda naval base. At least one vessel attached to the HM Dockyard, and three separate shore establishments have used the name. The shore establishments included one at the Commissioner's House, at the north of the Keep, and, later, the Royal Naval Air Station on Boaz Island that operated during the Second World War. Both of these were establishments within the larger active naval base, and the name HMS Malabar never applied to the entirety of the HM Dockyard Bermuda.


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