Location: Royal Naval Dockyard, Sandys
When the American Revolution deprived Britain of access to the ports of its former colonies on the eastern seaboard of America, it soon became obvious that Bermuda was ideally located to connect the British possessions in Canada and the West Indies.
In 1795 a base was commissioned at St. George’s, and in 1809 the Royal Navy acquired Ireland Island in the west end for the creation of a dockyard which would become the main British naval base in the western North Atlantic. The function of naval dockyards such as those at Gibraltar and Malta was essentially a civilian one: to repair and re-arm ships, to supply them with food, gunpowder and everything else they required as they patrolled the seas to protect the growing British Empire.
Building such a complex in Bermuda became important for the local economy, and ore then 1,000 Bermudians were employed in these civilian capacities at the height of operations in the 19th century. Because these functions were critical to the fleet, they were surrounded by heavy fortifications. In Bermuda, the fortifications surrounded the Dockyard on the three sides, with the major fort of the Keep at the northern end.
The first building constructed in the Keep was the Commissioner’s House. Designed as a prototype for buildings which would withstand the inhospitable climates of naval stations around the globe, a cast iron structural frame was fabricated in England and shipped to Bermuda for assembly. This sturdy construction, combined with hard Walsingham limestone, made Commissioner’s House a building that could withstand virtually anything. This experimental building is believed to have been first use of prefabricated cast iron in domestic architecture.
Much of Dockyard was built with convict labour, and more than 9,000 convicts were brought to Bermuda and housed in ships’ hulks. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, over 2,000 of them died here and were buried on Watford Island. In 1863 the last of the convicts were sent home or to Australia. The Keep saw service through two world wars in the 20th century, and was decommissioned in 1951 when it was bought by the Government of Bermuda. For many years it was left to deteriorate, along with other buildings in Dockyard. In 1974 Dr. Jack Arnell and Mr. Andrew Trimingham, leading a committee of the National Trust, succeeded in their campaign to convert the Keep into a maritime museum. The Government leased the Keep to the National Trust for 99 years, and the Trust has leased it to the Bermuda National Museum.