A thousand miles northeast of Cuba, and around nine hundred miles from the coast of North America, is the island of Bermuda in the north Atlantic Ocean. Like Cuba before it, Bermuda has given its name to a type of cigar, but also to the Bermuda rig (a method of arranging the masts and rigging of a sailing boat); species of cedar tree, lily and marine grass; and the characteristically long-legged Bermuda shorts, which originated among the British Army for use in hot climates, and eventually proved especially popular on the island.
Where is Hamilton, Bermuda? – Hamilton, Bermuda Map – Hamilton, Bermuda Map Download Free Photo Gallery
What brings us here now, however, is the story behind a considerably older term that first emerged in the street slang of London, some three and a half thousand miles away.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the name of the island of Bermuda came to be used in what at first glance might seem to be a quite unexpected way:
BERMUDAS A cant term for certain obscure and intricate alleys, in which persons lodged who had occasion to live cheap or concealed.
They are supposed to have been the narrow passages north of the Strand, near Covent-garden.
The Bermudas of the eighteenth century were places where known criminals could hide from, or be free from the threat of, arrest. Like the ancient Alsatia of London’s Whitefriars that we wandered into back in France, these Bermudas – or Bermoothes as they were also known – acted as asylums, and quickly became populated with all manner of rogues and villains. But why should such a shady word come to be associated with an island so far away?
A few decades after the island was first settled by the English in the early 1600s, criminals and debtors in London looking to escape their crimes or arrears reportedly began fleeing the country for Bermuda – an island at such a great distance from England that surely no criminal or financial troubles could follow them. This practice apparently became well enough known to find its way into Ben Jonson’s play The Devil Is an Ass (1616), in which one character complains that one of his debtors ‘is run away to the Bermudas’.
Whether or not this practice ever truly occurred on any great enough scale to warrant a place in the language is debatable. (It’s possible, alternatively, that as the name of some far-flung and exotic-sounding island, ‘fleeing to Bermuda’ was to many of these debtors and criminals little more than a figurative expression rather than a life choice.)
Nevertheless the term became attached to criminal hideouts and asylums in eighteenth-century London and remained in use in English right through to the early nineteenth century.
Developed in Bermuda in the seventeenth century, the Bermuda rig remains perhaps the commonest configuration of a sailing boat’s masts and rigging to this day. Because it requires a series of stabilising wires to support the mast and sails, this particular arrangement is also known as the Marconi rig in honour of Guglielmo Marconi, one of the inventors of radio transmission; the Bermuda rig’s wires were said to resemble the telegraph wires Marconi’s early telecommunications system used.
The English settlement of Bermuda began with the shipwreck of the Sea Venture, part of a fleet of ships run by the Virginia Company, in July 1609. On its way to America, the Sea Venture was separated from the rest of its fleet by a storm, and deliberately shipwrecked on the eastern reefs off Bermuda, saving the lives of all 150 people on board. The extraordinary story is thought to have partly inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest (I.iii), which Shakespeare made reference to ‘still-vex’d Bermoothes’ as early as c. 1611. Today, the central image on the coat of arms of Bermuda depicts the shipwreck that inadvertently led to the island’s colonisation.