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The History of Bermuda’s Royal Naval Dockyard

Once known as the Gibraltar of the West, the Royal Naval Dockyard was a symbol of British military power for more than 150 years. Today, it’s one of Bermuda’s most popular spots for visitors, home to the island’s biggest cruise ship pier and many restaurants, shops and attractions. You could spend a whole day exploring it.

Credit: Fairmont Southampton

Even though the British Royal Navy sailed out in the 1950s, every inch of the Dockyard is still steeped in maritime history. Why did the Navy set up shop here in the first place? Location, location, location. Bermuda is between Europe and the New World, so it was the perfect spot for the Navy’s western hemisphere activities. Things had gotten complicated in the late 18th century, thanks to a new, independent country known as the United States of America. In order to solidify and maintain its presence in the Atlantic Ocean, the Royal Navy needed a proper headquarters. So, in the 1790s, work began on Ireland Island on Bermuda’s West End. The result was the Royal Naval Dockyard.

The War of 1812

The Dockyard played a pivotal role in the final war between the U.S. and Great Britain. In the summer of 1814, more than 5,000 troops and Royal Marines were deployed from Bermuda to lay siege to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. An interesting tidbit: Francis Scott Key was inspired to write America's national anthem, The Star Spangled Bannerduring the bombardment of Baltimore while being held captive in a ship that had sailed from the Dockyard.

Francis Scott Key was inspired to write The Star Spangled Banner while being held captive in a ship that had sailed from the Dockyard.

The Gibraltar of the West

For nearly a century and a half afterwards, the Royal Naval Dockyard stood proudly as a sign of the British Empire’s maritime might. It was an important strategic outpost during the first and second world wars, providing much-needed repairs for ships about to see battle. The Dockyard was a huge boon to the island’s economy, employing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Bermudians. But because of the mid-20th century’s changing global landscape, the Royal Navy left Bermuda in 1951. Gradually, the Dockyard became the vibrant cultural destination it is today.

The Dockyard Today: Things to See & Do

National Museum of Bermuda

Located in a former fortress known as The Keep, The National Museum of Bermuda is packed with impressive exhibitions detailing the island’s history. The facility incorporates the Bermuda Maritime Museum with its vast collection of seagoing artefacts, many from the Royal Navy’s time here. The Keep itself is incredible: it was built to guard the entire naval base against attack and features seven irregular bastions and ramparts. Its views of the island and the Atlantic are breathtaking. Don’t miss the Commissioner’s House, which was built for the civilian commissioner in charge of the Dockyard. The painstakingly restored building is the oldest cast iron frame residential building in the western hemisphere.

The Clocktower Shopping Mall

Clocktower Mall, Royal Naval Dockyard

With its two 100-foot towers, the formidable Clocktower Mall is one of Bermuda’s iconic sights. Built in the 19th century as administration offices for the British Royal Navy, it features beautifully restored cobblestone floors and handsome wrought iron pillars. It's now home to restaurants and shops. Check out the wall just south of the mall – it's emblazoned with dozens of crests from ships that have called here, including one painted by Britain's Prince Charles. 

Spirit of Bermuda

This beautiful, three-masted vessel, a replica of a Royal Navy sloop-of-war, calls the Dockyard home. The Spirit of Bermuda is open to the public (when she’s not out on the high seas). Tours are offered regularly as well. 

The Royal Naval Cemetery

Also known as the Glade, the Royal Naval Cemetery memorializes those who died while serving the British military in Bermuda. The gravestones here go into detail about the the lives and deaths of the occupants, many of whom died of yellow fever.

See more about exploring the Dockyard.