Royal Naval Dockyard
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris established the thirteen North American colonies as an independent nation and Britain was left with Halifax, Nova Scotia as its only naval base in the Northwestern Atlantic.
In 1809 land was purchased on Bermuda's Ireland Island for the building of a Royal Naval Dockyard. The Dockyard was to become the largest British naval facility outside the United Kingdom—all forts built in Bermuda in the 1800s were built to protect this important naval installation.
After the American War of Independence and the loss of British ports in the colonies, the Royal Navy needed a winter anchorage and major dockyard, capable of repairing a Ship of the Line on this side of the Atlantic. The Royal Navy wanted to keep an eye on those upstart Americans! And with the French Revolutionary wars and the mounting threat of Napoleon, French privateers had grown bold, harassing British shipping from the West Indies.
After extensive surveys by Lt. Thomas Hurd in the 1790s and long Admiralty ruminations, the Royal Engineers began, in 1809, the massive task of designing and building the breakwaters, wharves, boatslip, workshops, victualling yard, barracks and fortified Keep of His Majesty's Dockyard, Ireland Island.
Initially slave labourers (emancipated in 1834), and then thousands of British convicts, toiled at the project for decades, often succumbing to yellow fever, on this then-remote island outpost.
During the War of 1812, a British fleet sailed from Dockyard to attack Washington, which was successfully sacked and burned. The great warships calling at H.M. Dockyard changed over the years from the tall masted man-of-war to the ironclad, to the steam-driven dreadnought, to the diesel-turbine frigate. Dockyard munitions changed from shot and cannon ball to torpedo and shell.
The monumental gates of H.M. Dockyard swung open to the public in 1951, ending some 150 years of service as the bastion of Royal Naval power in the Western Atlantic. As you visit Dockyard today, the sweep of history is all around you in the fine old stone buildings, wharves and fortifications. You step back in time to the era of the British Empire, when Britannia ruled the waves.
For suggestions on what to see and do at Royal Naval Dockyard, see Day Three of our "Ultimate Bermuda Culture Itinerary."