Last weekend we joined a Bermuda heritage lecture-on-a-boat as it drifted gently around the Great Sound islands. It was indeed a most pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon and unusually I stayed awake through the whole talk. The speaker was Andrew Bermingham, who has a particular interest in military history and the Boer war – yes Bermuda played a role in the Boer war, though separated by 7,188 miles of Atlantic Ocean.
The Boer war was a series of battles in Southern Africa from 1880 to 1902 between the British and the Boers, descendants of Dutch colonists. The British and Dutch had been fighting over the Cape Colony for nigh on 100 years. By 1900 the British were running out of space and supplies in the Cape Colony so they shipped several thousand prisoners of war overseas, some 1,100 to Bermuda. They were imprisoned on some of the islands in the Great Sound: Hawkin’s, Burt’s, Hinson’s, Long Island, Port’s, Morgan’s and Tucker’s.
This wasn’t the first time the islands had been used to contain people – since the 17th century they had proved useful for quarantine in outbreaks of smallpox and yellow fever.
As the afternoon wore on I began to lose track and could well have believed there were actually 365 separate islands as Anthony Trollope had claimed in 1858.
Some of the islands have interesting stories, though I am not sure they are all entirely true.
Burt’s Island aka Skeeter’s / Murderers’/ Moses Island : just over 7 acres and now used for government youth projects.
The eponymous Mrs Burt was in charge of the isolation cottages in the late 18th century. I assume she was off the scene before the next chapter of the island story – in 1879 Edward Skeeters was convicted of murdering his wife and sinking her body attached to an 80lb boulder. The trial was long, with a long adjournment when a juror fell ill and a doctor pronounced him to be “suffering from a disease for which he might at any moment need surgical assistance”. After numerous days where every neighbour and his dog was called upon to testify, the jury took just 20m minutes to reach a verdict of guilty. For the full version (sorry about the spoiler) read it online in the Royal Gazette of 15th April 1879 and the final instalment in the edition of 10th June 1879.
There might in fact be a connection between Burt and Skeeters since one Lydia Burt gave evidence at the trial and she stated she was Anna Skeeters’ daughter – this seems to have been by a previous relationship as Edward and Anna Skeeter’s children died in infancy. It is a sad tale with a somewhat vindictive end – Edward Skeeters was sentenced to the death penalty and he was buried on Burt’s Island with an 80lb boulder as his headstone – yes, the same one he had used to sink his wife’s body.
Burying him on this island seems to have set a precedent as several more murderers were interred there during the early twentieth century. Hence the common name “Murderers’ island”. I cannot find any reason for the alternative name “Moses Island” though Moses is not unusual as a surname or first name on Bermuda.
Yes, I know, it’s bank, not an island – but it was designated as an island for a short period of time during the 1960s. This seamount is some 30 miles SW of the main Bermuda island and in some narratives is called Plantagenet Bank. During the Cold War over $7 million was spent on projects by the US Navy to construct research and defensive laboratories in connection with Project Artemis. The result of Artemis was a marine sonar system to detect submarines at long range. The Argus Island Tower was 192 feet above the sea surface and designed to stand up too waves 70 foot high. However after 8 years the tower was condemned as unsafe and finally demolished in 1976 and Argus lost its Island status.
I am jumping about a bit geographically as this one is situated on the inside curve of the Great Sound on the left as you approach Hamilton. It was named after Sir Anthony Agar one of the investors in the Somers Isle Company of 1630.
This island has 3 separate claims to fame – first in the 1880s it was a huge powder magazine and then in 1908 12 large fish tanks were built into the stone moat and opened as the first aquarium on Bermuda. Then in 1914 the silent film “Neptune’s Daughter” was filmed from Agar’s Island – it featured Annette Kellerman and some scenes have her diving into a lagoon pool which actually looks a bit like the one at Blue Hole (warning – would be called skinny dipping these days and I am sure it is not permitted on Bermuda now).
Don’t panic, I am not going to comment on all the islands! That was covered in a small book by Terry Tucker, appropriately entitled “The Islands of Bermuda” first published in 1970 – there is a copy in the library. She concluded there were some 120 separate islands aside from the 8 principal ones that are today connected by bridges. I began with a boat trip round the Great Sound, but I have spent the best part of the afternoon captivated by one island in Harrington Sound – for that story you will have to wait, I haven’t got to the bottom of it yet and it goes pretty deep! Then for my relatives who accompanied me on the tour, I am still looking for the history of the single red-roofed building that stands on the skyline! If any reader can tell me why it is red and not white like every other building ….