Bermuda takes its name from the Spanish sea captain Juan de Bermúdez, who sighted the uninhabited islands either in 1503 or 1515. The Spanish did not claim the islands, but they soon became an important navigational landmark for galleons crossing the Atlantic between Spain and the New World. Since Bermuda is surrounded by dangerous reefs, nautical misadventures cast the Spanish ashore on several occasions and littered the sea bed with enough booty for some people to consider scuba diving in Bermuda more than a recreational sport.
In 1609 Admiral Sir George Somers was en route from England with supplies for the recent British settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, when his ship, Sea Venture, was wrecked off Bermuda. Finding it a rather pleasant place to be washed up, the admiral built replacement ships of fine Bermuda cedar, sailed off and left a couple of men behind to establish a British claim to the islands. The experience of these temporary British castaways is thought to have inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest. Somers returned to Bermuda later that same year but died soon after arrival. The British renamed Bermuda the Somers Islands in honor of the admiral, but the name failed to stick.
The Virginia Company took a keen interest in the islands after hearing of their suitability for colonisation, particularly in light of Jamestown's hostile relations with the local Indians. Only three years after Somers' misadventure, the company organized 60 settlers to establish a permanent colony on the islands. Unfortunately the islands were not as abundant as was first thought. The shallow topsoil limited agriculture and the lack of water prevented commercial crops like sugar cane from being introduced. The settlers soon became reliant on food imports from the American colonies, which they paid for by supplying sea salt secured from the Turks Islands.
For many years the Virginia Company, and then the Bermuda Company, ran the islands like a fiefdom. This wearied the settlers so much they sued to have the company's charter rescinded, and in 1684 Bermuda became a British crown colony. Slaves were first introduced in 1616, most of them brought forcibly from Africa though some were American Indians. They lived in degrading conditions but were generally employed as domestic servants or tradespeople rather than agricultural laborers. The skills they learnt were to stand them in good stead when slavery was abolished in 1834. At the time of emancipation 5000 of the 9000 people residing in Bermuda were registered on the census as black or 'coloured.'
Despite Bermuda's reliance on trade with the American colonies, political bonds with Britain proved stronger during the American War of Independence when Bermuda remained loyal to the crown. During the War of 1812, the British Navy used Bermuda as a base from which to ransack Washington, DC. The Americans responded by confiscating the unprotected cargo of Bermuda's merchant fleet, devastating the local economy. The US Civil War proved more lucrative for the island. When the north blockaded southern ports, cotton traders employed small, fast vessels to outrun northern naval gunboats. These vessels were not capable of an Atlantic crossing, and Bermuda blossomed as a trans-shipment center on the blockade runners' route to England. Good at picking losers, the island's shortlived prosperity collapsed with the defeat of the South.
Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, is credited with putting Bermuda on the tourist map after paying an extended visit to the islands in 1883. The princess was the wife of the Governor General of Canada and was keen to escape the long Canadian winter. By the turn of the century, Bermuda was well on the way to becoming a fashionable winter destination for 'snow birds,' who flocked aboard steamers crossing regularly from New York to Hamilton.
Bermuda's strategic location in the Atlantic secured it a role in Allied military and intelligence operations in WWII. However, its proximity to the US mainland made it inevitable that the US take primary responsibility for developing bases on the island. Much to the locals' consternation, the British subsequently signed a 99-year lease handing over substantial portions of Bermuda's territory to the US military. The US constructed an air base on St David's Island, where the international airport is now located.
In the wake of WWII, women were given the right to vote and, after boycotts, some of the franchise qualifications restricting the power of black voters were removed. In 1963 the Progressive Labour Party was introduced, in part to represent the interests of nonwhite Bermudians in the face of a government almost totally made up of white landowners. The rest of the parliamentarians united to form the United Bermuda Party. The two parties worked together to produce the 1968 constitution which provided for full internal self government, while leaving security, defense and diplomatic affairs to the crown.
Although Bermuda had long prided itself on the relative harmony of its race relations, riots and race antagonism in the 1970s resulted in the removal of all de facto discrimination and the beginning of talks on independence from Britain.
In the decades that have followed since, the independence movement became the dominant political issue, but a referendum in 1995 failed by a two-thirds majority as Bermudians became apprehensive about the political and economic cost of independence. Two weeks later they did, at least, regain control of 10% of the island's land mass when post-Cold War military cutbacks resulted in the closure of the US base on the island. In 1998 the PLP's Jennifer Smith was selected as premier, replacing the UBP's Pamela Gordon, who was Bermuda's first female premier and the youngest person ever to hold the office.