Bermuda is an archipelago consisting of seven main islands and many smaller islands and islets lying about 1,050 kilometers (650 mi.) east of North Carolina. The main islands--with hilly terrain and subtropical climate--are clustered together and connected by bridges and are considered to be a geographic unit, referred to as the Island of Bermuda.
Bermuda was discovered in 1503 by a Spanish explorer, Juan de Bermudez, who made no attempt to land because of the treacherous reef surrounding the uninhabited islands.
In 1609, a group of British colonists led by Sir George Somers was shipwrecked and stranded on the islands for 10 months. Their reports aroused great interest about the islands in England, and in 1612 King James extended the Charter of the Virginia Company to include them. Later that year, about 60 British colonists arrived and founded the town of St. George, the oldest continuously inhabited
English-speaking settlement in the Western Hemisphere. When representative government was introduced to Bermuda in 1620, it became a self-governing colony.
Due to the islands' isolation, for many years Bermuda remained an outpost of 17th-century British civilization, with an economy based on the use of the islands' endemic cedar trees for shipbuilding and the salt trade. Hamilton, a centrally located port founded in 1790, became the seat of government in 1815.
Slaves from Africa were brought to Bermuda soon after the colony was established. The slave trade was outlawed in Bermuda in 1807, and all slaves were freed in 1834. Today, about 55% of Bermudians are of African descent.
The establishment of a formal constitution in 1968 bolstered internal self-government; debate about independence has ensued, although a 1995 independence referendum was defeated.
Bermuda's first political party, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), was formed in May 1963 with predominantly black adherents. In 1965, the two-party system was launched with the formation of the United Bermuda Party (UBP), which had the support of the majority of white voters and of some black voters. A third party, the Bermuda Democratic Party (BDP), was formed in the summer of 1967 with a
splinter group from the PLP as a nucleus; it disbanded in 1970. It was later replaced by the National Liberal Party (NLP), which currently holds no parliamentary seats.
Bermuda's first election held on the basis of universal adult suffrage and equal voting took place on May 22, 1968; previously, the franchise had been limited to property owners. In the 1968 election, the UBP won 30 House of Assembly seats, while the PLP won 10 seats and the BDP lost the 3 seats it had previously held. The UBP continued to maintain control of the government, although by
decreasing margins in the Assembly, until 1998 when the PLP won the general election for the first time.
Unsatisfied aspirations, particularly among young blacks, led to a brief civil disturbance in December 1977, following the execution of two men found guilty of the 1972-73 assassinations of Governor Sir Richard Sharples and four others. In the 1980s, the increasing prosperity of Bermudians, combined with limited land area, caused severe pressure in housing. Despite a general strike in 1981 and
poor economic conditions worldwide during 1981-83, Bermuda's social, political, and economic institutions showed resilience and stability.
Bermuda's positive experience with internal self-government has led to discussions of possible complete independence by both parties. However, an independence referendum called by a sharply divided UBP in the summer of 1995 was resoundingly defeated and resulted in the resignation of the premier and UBP leader, Sir John Swan. Just over 58% of the electorate voted in the independence
referendum, which had to be postponed one day due to disruptions caused by Hurricane Felix. Of those voting, over 73% voted against independence, while only 25% voted in favor. The vote may not have been a true test of support for independence, however, as the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) urged its membership to boycott the referendum.
That the PLP would boycott the independence referendum was out of character. Independence has been a plank in the platform of the PLP since the party's inception in 1963. Their 1968 platform promised, in fact, that, "No government can be either responsible or democratic while under the rule of another country. Colonialism is a cancer . . . therefore we shall return to London to examine with
the British Government what arrangements can be made for our independence." Successive PLP election platforms reflected a continuing commitment to review Bermuda’s constitutional framework preparatory to Bermuda’s “inevitable independence.”
It was ironic, therefore, that independence was absent from the PLP's 1998 general election platform, when the PLP first triumphed at the polls. In fact, then-Premier Jennifer Smith stated that while she would not pursue independence during her first term, she would systematically address the issues that are fundamental prerequisites for independence. The government very quickly enacted
legislation providing for voter registration every 5 years instead of annually. Then in 2001, the government began taking steps to amend Bermuda's constitution in order to abolish the island's system of parish-based, dual-seat constituencies that favored voters in parishes of small, predominantly white populations. The constitution was amended in 2003, redrawing constituency boundary lines and
providing for 36 single-seat constituencies.
The possibility of independence has relevance to U.K. legislation entitling citizens of Britain's overseas territories, including Bermuda, to British citizenship. The British Overseas Territories Bill, passed in February 2002, provides automatic acquisition of British citizenship, including automatic transmission of citizenship to their children; the right of abode, including the right to live
and work in the U.K. and the EU; the right not to exercise or to formally renounce British citizenship; and the right to use the fast track EU/EEA channel at the airport, free of U.K. immigration controls.
A March 2002 poll conducted by the Bermuda Sun, a local semiweekly newspaper, showed support for British citizenship. Of the 356 persons surveyed, 66.9% were interested in accepting British citizenship and only 18% said that they would refuse it. There are no conditions attached to the grant of British citizenship to the overseas territories, a fact of particular importance to Bermuda where
the issue of independence lies dormant. "The new grant of British citizenship will not be a barrier, therefore, to those Overseas Territories choosing to become independent of Britain. Our Overseas Territories are British for as long as they wish to remain British. Britain has willingly granted independence where it has been requested; and we will continue to do so where this is an
Bermuda's most recent general election was held in July 2003, when the PLP was re-elected to its second term. Jennifer Smith, however, did not survive a leadership challenge and was replaced as premier and party leader by the more moderate Alex Scott.