Published by EH.Net (October 2023).
Michael J. Jarvis. Isle of Devils, Isle of Saints: An Atlantic History of Bermuda, 1609-1684. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022. xiii + 464 pp. $65 (hardback), ISBN 978-1421443607.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Virginia Bernhard, University of St. Thomas, Houston.
Bermuda is a mere dot in the Atlantic Ocean, and until the last few decades, historians headed for the mainland have bypassed it. So did most mariners until 1505, when a Spaniard named Juan de Bermúdez came upon it, and map makers began to give it various versions of his name. Fearful sailors, frightened by the eerie cries of Bermuda’s cahow birds, called it the “Isle of Devils.” No one lived there until a hurricane stranded an English vessel bound for Virginia on Bermuda’s shores in 1609. That date is when Michael Jarvis begins this book.
Bermuda is familiar territory to Jarvis, whose earlier book, In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), awakened scholars to the importance of Bermuda in Atlantic history. His new book is a richly detailed prequel, with a study of Bermuda from its founding to the 1684 dissolution of the Bermuda Company.
The second part of this book’s title, “Isle of Saints,” comes from Bermuda’s religious history, much of which was shaped by Puritans in the Bermuda Company and devout, churchgoing Bermudians. But it was the Atlantic world that colored the history of this little archipelago, whose main island is shaped like a fish-hook 14 miles long and one mile wide and whose total land area is less than 22 square miles. In this small space, English colonists, Africans from the Caribbean and Africa, and some Indians from North America lived nearly elbow to elbow. No wonder Bermuda was different from England’s other colonies.
Author Jarvis mines Bermuda’s history with meticulous interdisciplinary research, pointing out many “firsts” among England’s New World settlements. In 1612, eight years before the Mayflower Compact, Bermuda had a written constitution (p. 39). Not long after that, Bermuda’s governor Richard Moore held “perhaps the first jury trial in English America” (p. 40). The first tobacco shipped to England from an English colony was from Bermuda in 1612 (p. 43). Other “firsts” in Bermuda include what was probably the first whale hunt in an English colony (p. 51), the first beekeeping (p. 59), the first private libraries of religious and secular works (p. 63), and the first conservation law (to prevent the killing of young turtles, p.78). Even more important was another “first”: With the arrival of “one Indian and a negro” Bermuda was the first English colony to bring in Indians and Africans as “unfree labor” (p. 51). That was in 1616. Virginia’s first recorded “twenty Negars” did not arrive until 1619.
Bermudians were the first English colonists to codify “how one person might own another” and the “special obligations and restrictions to which black islanders were subjected” (p. 154). In 1623 the Bermuda Assembly passed the first “racially discriminatory law in English America” (p. 156). Designed to keep and preserve order, it aimed to prevent “black bondpersons” from stealing pigs, poultry, and other edibles, carrying weapons and tools, and bartering or selling goods without an owner’s permission. White Bermudians were legally responsible for acts committed by black men and women in their households. But as Jarvis points out, this law did not forbid black Bermudians from owning property or engaging in trade, and Bermudians of all colors lived under the same “color-blind English common law code” (p. 157). Bermuda slaveowners did not forbid their enslaved servants to read and write, and whole households attended church together. Enslaved men drilled in the militia and crewed sailing vessels. Everyday life for Bermuda’s enslaved people, as Jarvis and other scholars have pointed out, was unlike that of their counterparts in England’s North American and Caribbean colonies.
By the 1630s, less than two decades after the colony’s founding, Bermudians were well along in what Jarvis calls a “rapid ethnogenesis”: (p. 4). That is, they considered themselves as a distinctive people—as Bermudians. They were a multiracial mix of English, Africans, Afro-Americans, and Indians. They were devoutly religious and fervently Puritan. They were skilled in farming, tobacco-growing, fishing, and seafaring. They were also literate, in a time when many people could not decipher written words.
Bermuda remained under the control of its parent, the joint-stock Bermuda Company, for 72 years, from 1609 to 1684. The turbulent political and religious history of England during the English Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration deeply affected the makeup of the Bermuda Company and the history of Bermuda. Staunch Puritans like Robert Rich, the second Earl of Warwick, steered Bermuda and sometimes came close to running it aground. Jarvis charts the struggles between the Company, Bermuda’s religious “Independents” and their conservative opponents; the foundings of Eleuthera and Providence Island; the arrival of Quakers; and finally, the acrimonious parting of ways between the Bermuda Company and the colony.
Bermuda as a royal colony would soon become a vital hub of transatlantic trade, albeit one whose secluded coves and inlets encouraged privateers and smugglers. Bermuda’s geography, as well as its ethnicity, economy, and polity, set it apart. Michael Jarvis does a masterly job of examining this tiny colony’s history, creating a book that is a must-read for colonial and transatlantic historians.
One major difference goes almost unnoticed here: Bermuda had no indigenous peoples. Like Sherlock Holmes’s famous short story with a dog that did not bark, the absence of a native population in Bermuda is a fact to be reckoned with, a key to this colony’s history. This tiny archipelago had no native peoples who believed that they, not the foreigners, had rights to the land. In Bermuda there were no strangers who spoke in unknown tongues, no Indian wars, no constant dread of surprise attacks. Without “savages” (as the English called them), the Bermuda Company and Bermudians developed a colony different from all others. Their history, along with this book, is well worth the pondering.
Virginia Bernhard is Professor Emerita of History at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Her books may be found at http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001KCUZPC .
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