On this day in 1775, more than 100 kegs of gunpowder are stolen for the Patriot cause. The incident came to be known as the Bermuda Gunpowder Plot.
Bermuda was in a bit of a difficult situation during the American Revolution. As a colony of Great Britain, it was caught in the middle between its parent country and America, its major trading partner. Early on, the Continental Congress decided to issue a non-exportation order against Bermuda. It was to be effective in September 1775.
This would cause a lot of pain for Bermudians, needless to say. At this point, some of them began making appeals to America.
On June 8, the son of a prominent Bermudian wrote to Thomas Jefferson, asking for help. The island of Bermuda is “incapable . . . of acting in Conjunction with America, on this Occasion,” he wrote. Because Bermuda is an island, a “single Ship of War might cut off all Communication whatsoever with the Continent, and reduce the Island to the most horrid state of Distress, if once obnoxious to Great Britain.” He asked Jefferson for help. If Congress would relent, Bermuda would “agree to import nothing from Great Britain except the absolute Necessaries of Life” and would provide America with salt.
Later, a few Bermudians went to Philadelphia to further plead their case. Apparently, a private bargain was made: A large magazine of gunpowder was located at St. George in Bermuda. Congress would lift the restrictions in return for the gunpowder and shipments of salt.
On July 15, Congress passed a resolution that “every vessel importing Gun powder, Salt petre, Sulphur . . . , brass field-pieces, or good muskets fitted with Bayonets, within nine Months from the date of this resolution, shall be permitted to load and export the produce of these colonies . . . the non-exportation agreement notwithstanding.”
Bermuda was not specifically named, but presumably the congressional delegates knew what they were doing.
At about this time, George Washington also learned of the gunpowder. He saw an opportunity and wrote the Governor of Rhode Island, asking for help obtaining the “very considerable Magazine of Powder” in Bermuda. Washington noted that “the Inhabitants [are] well disposed not only to our Cause in General, but to assist in this Enterprize.” He knew that Rhode Island possessed “two armed Vessels in your Province commanded by Men of known Activity & Spirit,” and he asked that they be sent on the mission.
Washington did not know that Congress had already made a deal. Ten days after Washington’s letter, the stash was stolen from its location in Bermuda and put aboard American ships that were waiting a safe distance offshore. Washington had no idea that the gunpowder was stolen until many weeks later. Indeed, as late as September 6, he wrote a letter to the Inhabitants of Bermuda about the “large Magazine in your Island under a very feeble Guard.”
When the Bermuda Governor discovered that the gunpowder had been stolen, he was furious. He ordered an investigation of this “most heinous and atrocious crime.” A large reward was offered. Nevertheless, no one came forward and the perpetrators were not captured.
Later that year, the Continental Congress kept its bargain, specifically allowing certain exports to Bermuda in exchange for an “annual allowance in salt . . . [or] arms, ammunition, salt petre, sulphur, and field pieces.”
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George Washington, Address to the Inhabitants of Bermuda (September 6, 1775)
Journals of the Continental Congress (July 15, 1775)
Letter from George Washington to Nicholas Cooke (August 4, 1775)
Letter from Nicholas Cooke to George Washington (August 11, 1775)
Letter from St. George Tucker to Thomas Jefferson (June 8, 1775)
Walter B. Hayward, Bermuda: Past & Present (1910)