In 1775, the tension between the American colonies and Great Britain escalated into armed conflict at then-little-known places such as Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill. As a result, throughout the spring and into the summer American colonial legislatures and the military were scrambling to secure supplies of every kind.
Until that time much of the arms, clothing, lead, flints and gunpowder had come from abroad. Now, facing the might of the Royal Navy, the colonists would find it difficult to obtain supplies from overseas. It was essential that time not be lost in acquiring war materiel wherever it might be located.
George Washington, in command of the colonial forces laying siege to Boston, faced an extraordinary crisis. He had only 36 barrels of powder for the 14,000 men fit for duty in his army. That worked out to “not more than 9 cartridges a Man.”
Washington convened a council of war on August 3. The council agreed to send a detachment of 300 men to make an attempt to capture the British powder magazine at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In addition, Washington wrote letters to the governors of the colonies requesting immediate assistance. He begged Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut “in strict confidence” for “every ounce [of powder] in the Province.” Washington added that “the case calls loudly for the warmest and most strenuous exertions of every friend to his country, and does not admit of the least delay; no quantity however small is beneath notice.”
In his letter to Governor Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island Washington said his “…necessities in the articles of powder and lead are so great as to require an immediate supply….forward every pound of each in the colony which can possibly be spared….no quantity, however small, is beneath notice and should any arrive I beg it may be forwarded as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, Washington proposed a bold plan to Governor Cooke:
“I have resolved in my mind every other possible chance and listened to every proposition on the subject which could give the smallest Hope; Among others I have had one mentioned which has some Weight with me, as well as the General Officers to whom I have proposed it, one Harris is lately come from Bermuda, where there is a very considerable Magazine of Powder in a remote Part of the Island and the Inhabitants well disposed not only to our Cause in General, but to assist in this Enterprize in particular; we understand there are two armed Vessels in your Province commanded by Men of known Activity and Spirit; one of which it is proposed to dispatch on this Errand, with such other assistance as may be required; Harris is to go along as the Conductor of the Enterprize and to avail ourselves of his knowledge of the Island, but without any Command. I am very sensible that at first view the project may appear hazardous and its Success must depend on the Concurrence of many Circumstances; but we are in a Situation which requires us to run all Risques. No Danger is to be considered when put in Competition with the Magnitude of the Cause and the Absolute Necessity we are under of increasing our Stock. Enterprises which appear Chimerical, often prove successful from that very Circumstance, Common Sense & Prudence will Suggest Vigilance and care, when the Danger is Plain and obvious, but where little Danger is apprehended, the more the enemy is unprepared and consequently there is the fain’d Prospect of Success.”
George Washington and the American colonies were not the only ones with supply problems. The British colony of Bermuda, a small island in the Atlantic Ocean about 900 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina, was not concerned with war materiel but rather the food for its very survival. Bermuda, with a population of about 12,000, consisted of land only 14 miles long and 1 mile wide. The island’s residents could only grow enough food to support themselves for about two months of the year. Historically, Bermuda’s food supply depended upon trade with North America. This was a potential disaster for Bermuda.
The governor of Bermuda, George James Bruere, was a representative of the King and strove to support the British government’s positions. The Bermuda Assembly, including the powerful and influential Tucker family, had other ideas. Henry Tucker, the family patriarch, and the family openly condemned the British colonial policies, calling them “unconstitutional acts.” In 1774, he denounced the British parliament for “obstinacy” and wrote, “I think the collonies ought to hazzard every thing rather than to submit to slavery…for if the Parliament of great Britain have a right to dispose of the American’s property as they please, call it by what name you will there can be no greater marks of Slavery.” Very naturally, he was concerned for not only American property rights but also those of his own extended family.
Bermuda, and the Tuckers, were in a difficult situation. The Continental Congress, in response to the Coercive Acts, enacted a trade embargo to go into effect in 1775 which would prohibit exports to British territory including Bermuda. If Bermuda could not obtain foodstuffs from North America it would be in desperate circumstances. However, if Bermuda was perceived to be supporting, joining or even sympathetic to the American colonies it would face possible retaliation from the British. The tiny island was extremely vulnerable and could not be defended by the inhabitants nor the American colonies. The Royal Navy could control and threaten Bermuda’s existence simply by placing a ship or two at its harbor to interrupt shipping.
Henry Tucker, however, took action. He instructed his son St. George Tucker, an attorney in Virginia, to write Thomas Jefferson and other delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In a letter to Jefferson, St. George Tucker explained the dire need Bermuda had to continue its commerce with the American colonies. He also wrote that the Bermudians “consider the Americans as Brethren, and their Souls are animated with the same generous Ardor for Liberty that prevails on the Continent; they are most Zealous Friends to the Cause of America, and would readily join with it, in any Measures to secure those inestimable privileges now contending for; in short, they consider the Cause as their own, and with pleasure behold every step that has been taken in support of it.”
In addition, St. George Tucker also told Jefferson that Bermuda, being defenseless, could not declare their allegiance with the American colonies. However, he felt “authorised” by “some of the principle Gentlemen of the Island” to suggest that if the Continental Congress would allow commerce between the American colonies and Bermuda “no commodities shall be reshipped thence [from Bermuda] to any other place which the Congress may think proper to have no Commerce with.” In addition, it would be agreed that Bermuda would only import from Great Britain “the absolute necessaries of life.”
Jefferson replied that a “relaxation of our terms….might be mutually beneficial to us.” He then suggested that a visit from “…some body with some kind of public authority as well to give information of facts, as to satisfy the Congress that the inhabitants of Bermuda will enter into such engagements…” would be helpful. Henry Tucker and other prominent Bermudians personally went to Philadelphia to plead their case. There, members of the Continental Congress informally suggested that if ships laden with munitions were to come from Bermuda they would be permitted to return with food supplies.
Henry Tucker, and his extended family, looked at the Royal powder magazine on Bermuda as a source of war materiel that could be handed over to the Americans in exchange for food. The magazine was at a remote location and virtually unguarded making it an easy target.
On July 15, 1775 the Continental Congress passed a resolution stating that vessels importing munitions would be permitted to sail from the colonies carrying cargoes of foodstuffs. Discreetly, Bermuda was not specifically named.
Unbeknownst to George Washington, the wheels for an attempt to capture the powder had been set in motion. The details of the raid are lost as the Bermudians who assisted in the mission vanished into the night and kept their involvement to themselves. However, Governor Bruere described the raid on the powder magazine as follows:
“I had less suspicion than before, that such a daring and Violent attempt would be made on the Powder Magazine, which in the dead of night of the 14th of August was broke into on Top, just to let a man down, and the Doors most Audaciously and daringly forced open, at the great risk of their being blown up; they could not force the Powder Room Door, without getting into the inside on Top. They Stole and Carried off about one Hundred Barrels of Gun powder, and as they left about ten or twelve Barrels, it may be Supposed that those Barrels left, would not bare remooving. It must have taken a Considerable number of People; and we may Suppose some Negroes, to assist as well as White Persons of consequence…
The next morning the 15th instant (of August), one sloop Called the Lady Catharine, belonging by Her Register to Virginia, George Ord Master, bound to Philadelphia, was seen under Sail, but the Custom House Boat could not over take Her. And likewise a Schooner Called the Charles Town and Savannah Packet, belonging to South Carolina, from South Carolina Cleared out at Bermuda the 11th of August with 2,000 Sawed Stones for Barbadoes John Turner Master. And was seen under Sail the same day, at such a Distance off, that the Custom House Boat could not over take either of the Vessels. It may be supposed that neither of the vessels came near the Shore, to take in the Powder, if they did carry it away, but it is rather to be imagined that it must have been Carried out by Several Boats, as both these Vessels, Sailed from a Harbour at the West End, twenty Miles off, of the Magazine.”
The Bermuda legislature, of which Henry Tucker as well as other family members and prominent citizens were a part, offered a reward to anyone who gave evidence to convict those who aided the Americans in stealing the powder. Bruere offered a personal reward, and a pardon, hoping that an informer would come forward. The situation was fascinating as it was an open secret that many islanders, with the connivance of prominent citizens, aided in the powder raid by transporting over 100 barrels of powder to the shore and then ferrying them out to the Americans. Yet, to the frustration of Governor Bruere, he was unable to obtain sufficient evidence.
These clandestine maneuverings by the Bermudians and the Continental Congress were kept a very close secret as the British could easily have thwarted any attempt on the powder stored at Bermuda. Washington himself was not advised of the raid possibly because it had not occurred to anyone that their commander, at his headquarters in Cambridge, would be considering such a distant naval strike.
Nicholas Cooke, Governor of Rhode Island, wrote Washington on August 11, 1775, advising Washington he had learned that Bermudians had been in contact with delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia asking that food be allowed to be exported to Bermuda. These men had also mentioned the powder at Bermuda might be easily taken. Cooke wondered if Washington still wanted Rhode Island to mount the operation against the Bermuda powder magazine.
Washington, not knowing that the Continental Congress had sanctioned a raid on Bermuda, continued to pursue his own attempts to acquire the powder. On September 2 Nicholas Cooke wrote Washington with the welcome news that Rhode Island had resolved to send the armed sloop Katy, commanded by Captain Abraham Whipple, to Bermuda to seize the powder. Captain Whipple asked that Washington supply him with a letter for the people of Bermuda stating that if they assisted in obtaining powder Washington would recommend to the Continental Congress that Bermudians be permitted to obtain provisions. The letter was not to be disclosed unless Whipple could not acquire the powder without assistance of the local people.
Washington supplied a letter “to the “Inhabitants of the Island of Bermuda” to Cooke but cautioned that he “shall depend upon Capt. Whipple’s not making use of it, except in Case of real Necessity.” Washington, a military commander, did not want to involve himself in international politics; therefore, he included the clause about “real necessity.” However, Washington was determined to obtain the powder at whatever cost.
Captain Abraham Whipple sailed on Tuesday, September 12. He was ordered “if possible to take the powder into possession without any communication with the Inhabitants.” Cooke advised Washington, “I have given it to him strictly in Charge not to make Use of your Address [letter] unless in Case of absolute Necessity.”
Meanwhile, Captain Ord brought The Lady Catherine, with the load of gunpowder, into Philadelphia. The Captain of H.M.S Rose, James Wallace, wrote Vice Admiral Samuel Graves September 9th advising him of the arrival of a vessel “…from Bermuda belonging to Philadelphia which had broke open in the Night and taken out of the Magazine of that Island 126 barrels of gunpowder…”
On September 9, 1775 the Pennsylvania Evening Post newspaper carried a brief article, “New York, September 7. Extract from a letter from Bermuda, dated August 21. ‘Upwards of one hundred barrels of gun-powder have been taken out of our magazine; supposed by a sloop from Philadelphia, and a schooner from South Carolina. It was very easily accomplished, from the magazine being situated far distant from town, and no dwelling house near it.” Other newspapers reprinted the article immediately.
As the powder had already been seized efforts were made to recall Captain Whipple’s expedition to Bermuda, but the ship sent after him was unable to find the Katy at sea. When Whipple reached Bermuda he put in at the west end of the island. His arrival caused something of a panic among the Bermudians as his was thought to be a British warship. Women and children scattered inland. After showing his instructions and his commission, but not Washington’s letter, he was warmly greeted. Five members of the King’s Council boarded the Katy where Whipple was assured that the islanders were friends of the American cause. The islanders who took part in the powder raid, while unknown specifically, were suspected by Governor Bruere; this suspicion “made them obnoxious to the enemy [the British], reducing them to a disagreeable situation” according to Governor Cooke. Captain Whipple returned to Rhode Island on October 20th and returned Washington’s letter.
Although Captain Whipple came home empty handed George Washington’s powder crisis was relieved when supplies came in from a variety of sources including the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety. The Committee sent Washington 4012 pounds of powder on September 4th which may have included the powder from Bermuda.
Bermuda was on the brink of famine for the rest of the war. Some provisions came from the American colonies in exchange for items such as salt. The British also provided some supplies.
The Charles Town and Savannah Packet, commanded by Captain John Turner, despite Governor Bruere’s suspicions, was not involved in the Bermuda powder raid. All the Bermuda powder appears to have been taken to Philadelphia by Captain George Ord in The Lady Catherine. The confusion arises because at about the same time a load of powder was captured by the South Carolinian, Admiral Clement Lempriere. However, that powder came from a British ship seized near St. Augustine. The capture was unrelated to the Bermuda events. Contemporary and modern accounts of the Bermuda raid accepted Governor Bruere’s report naming the two ships he suspected.
/// Featured image at top: Decorative cartouche and map of Bermuda from Zatta’s Atlante Novissimo. The 1778 map, while issued separately as part of Zatta’s Atlante Novissimo, is actually one of 12 sections comprising the Italian edition of Mitchell’s map of North America. The Italian edition is richly illustrated with annotations not found on the English edition of the Mitchell, including most notably this sheet. Source: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc., raremaps.com
 Washington to President of Congress, August 4, 1775, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html (hereinafter cited as GWP).  Peter Force, American Archives, Series IV, Vol. 3, minutes of Council of War held at Cambridge, Headquarters, August 3, 1775, 36, http://dig.lib.niu.edu/amarch/.  Washington to Governor Jonathan Trumbull, August 4, 1775, GWP.  Washington to Governor Nicholas Cooke, August 4, 1775, GWP.  Washington to Governor Nicholas Cooke, August 4, 1775, GWP.  Phillip Hamilton, The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family, The Tuckers of Virginia, 1752-1830, (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2003),10.  Hamilton, Tuckers, Letter Henry Tucker to his son St. George Tucker, July 31, 1774, 30-31.  William Bell Clark, editor, Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 1., (Washington, DC, US Navy Department, 1964), Letter St. George Tucker to Thomas Jefferson, June 8, 1775, 635.  Clark, Naval Documents, vol. 1, Letter St. George Tucker to Thomas Jefferson, June 8, 1775, p. 635.  Thomas Jefferson to St. George Tucker, June 10, 1775, GWP.  Hamilton, Tuckers,31.  Clark, Naval Documents, vol. 1, Letter Governor Bruere to Lord Dartmouth, August 17, 1775, 1169; Clark, Naval Documents, vol. 2, Letter Governor Bruere to Lord Dartmouth, September 13, 1775, 91.  Governor Cooke to George Washington, August 11, 1775, GWP.  Governor Cooke to George Washington, September 2, 1775, GWP.  George Washington to Inhabitants of Bermuda, September 6, 1775, GWP.  Governor Cooke to George Washington, September 14, 1775, GWP.  Clark, Naval Documents, vol. 2, Captain Wallace, to Vice Admiral Graves, September 9, 1775, 59. Force, American Archives, Series IV, vol. 3, Pa. Committee of Safety, September 20, 1775 report of powder received from Captain Ord., 864.  Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 9, 1775.  Governor Cooke to George Washington, October 25, 1775, GWP.  Force, American Archives, Series IV, vol. 3, Pa. Committee of Safety, September 20, 1775 report of powder received from Captain Ord., 864.  For the unrelated seizure of the British ship near St. Augustine see: Clark, Naval Documents, vol. 1, Arthur Middleton to William Henry Drayton, August 11, 1775, 2211; Henry Laurens to the Committee of Beaufort, August 12, 1775, 1130. Clark, Naval Documents, vol. 2, Captain James Wallace to Vice Admiral Graves, September 9, 1775, 58; Vice Admiral Graves to Captain James Wallace, September 17, 1775, 129.