Sunday, June 3, 2012

Historic Heartbeats

A beautiful day for a boat tour. Today I had a longstanding booking to give a "400 years in a day" history talk aboard a ship transiting between Hamilton, St. George's, and Dockyards for the Bermuda Department of Community and Cultural Affairs' "Historic Heartbeats" lecture series, so left the day's dig in the capable hands of Mike Read, with cameo support from Zoe Brady, a Bermudian archaeologist and BNT ARC person. The 400 years I picked covered from 1491 to 1812, however, so it wasn't a full survey of all of Bermuda's history. Instead, it was the deeper historical context informing why and how Bermuda was colonized. I shared the podium with Clarence Maxwell - I was the 16th and 17th c. guy and he was 18th and 19th c. guy (to echo the VFH's wonderful Backstory radio program). The trip east was slower than I thought, so even though I sketched the state of the world in 1491 and noted how unlikely it would seem then that England would emerge as an expansionist power, I covered world history up through the Sea Venture - and found that we had only reached Flatts! (half-way, for those of you stateside not familiar with Bermudian geography) A long version of the story of the three sailors who lived on Smiths Island in 1611-12 and how they fought over the fortune in ambergris they found filled in the travel time until we got to the spot where the Sea Venture sank - looking down through the glass bottom of the boat, we could see the horseshoe-shaped reef on which the hull had lodged, and even the sandhole she settled into after she had been stripped of material - the grave of the Sea Venture, so to speak. Looking landward from that spot was eerie - the seminal 1609 gaze that Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates, and their shipmates beheld before they landed and began the process of exploring and colonizing this island.

From there, it was fitting to go through the very narrow channel between Paget Fort and Smiths Fort to Smiths Island. We could all appreciate how suicidal it would have been to attempt an invasion, trying to sail betwixt two batteries that could fire into one's hull at point-blank range (50 feet or so):


We were also sailing in the wake of the Plough, which landed the Virginia Company's first 50 deliberately sent settlers to Bermuda in July 1612, another historically appropriate touch. As we headed for Smiths Island's north dock to land the passengers, we passed the 1758 whalehouse from the water side and could make out the slips used to haul out flenced (butchered) whale carcasses and the four trypot furnace used  to turn blubber into oil.



We then disembarked and proceeded to the Oven Site to see what we had done so far. Mike and crew had just removed the last of the rubble material associated with the building's destruction, so on Monday we get to start digging the sealed layers that relate to when the house was actually occupied! Very exciting stuff:

Goodbye rubble layer!
We had a great group that asked really good questions - and the UR students stepped up to answer them, too. After reboarding, I brought our coverage of Bermuda history up through 1684 and the demise of the Bermuda Company as we motored past St. George's and I described how the town would have looked in the 1620s. I then passed the torch (microphone, really) to Clarence and enjoyed listening to him while I ate a well-deserved lunch. The high point of the western tour was when Clarence brought the group into a series of smuggling caves behind William Leacraft's house ruins near the old US NAS Annex base. We returned to Hamilton only a tiny bit late, feeling like we did our bit for community outreach and public history in Bermuda. I believe we also sold out all 20 of the brand-new paperback copies of my book, In The Eye Of All Trade, that we had on hand - I remember signing a bunch before we reached Hamilton.

The students were cut loose midday after our public visit to begin their weekend. Some may have gone to the various Diamond Jubilee commemoration events being held this weekend here in Bermuda - or just crashed at Convict Bay. I know I'm looking forward to my day off tomorrow - the first in a long while! We have to rest up for a very exciting week to come - excavating the occupation layers and hopefully finding the posts associated with the house's construction.

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