- Fenianism’s Bermuda Footprint:Revolutionary Nationalism in the Victorian Empire*
Although such rumours are frequently groundless or are set afloat to cover other schemes, or so flatter the conceit of the plotters by exciting alarms, it would be well, considering the desperate wickedness of some of the Fenian outrages, that our people should be well on their guard, and that the proceedings of all unaccredited strangers arriving among us should be carefully watched lest our apparent security should encourage or beget the conception of such a design.Bermuda Royal Gazette, 14 February 1882
In 1882 the Bermuda Royal Gazette published an article under the headline “Fenian Plots” that identified continual threats posed by Irish American nationalists to the tiny mid-Atlantic islands of Bermuda. These threats included the “frequently groundless” plot of the Irish Republican Union (IRU) to rescue John Mitchel, the prominent Young Ireland revolutionary and political journalist, from the prison hulks off the Bermudian coast; the circulation of misinformation by the Fenian Brotherhood to “cover other schemes” such as the invasion of Canada in 1866; and the attempted “Fenian outrages” of the dynamiters that had become prevalent in Britain in the first half of the 1880s. Although none of these plots materialized, they nevertheless had a profound impact on the geostrategically significant island colony. By examining the cumulative impact of these schemes, this essay will demonstrate the previously unacknowledged significance of Bermuda to Irish American revolutionaries [End Page 141] throughout the Victorian period and contribute to the growing historiography suggesting that the strategic outlook of Fenianism was more geographically ambitious than traditional scholarship has recognized.1
While this scholarly approach has been successful in broadening the scope of inquiry and shifting the focus away from individuals and organizations and toward the impact of Fenianism on the broader Atlantic world,2 its concentration has largely been on mainland North America and the Canadian Maritimes.3 By widening this geographic range further to include other Atlantic spaces such as Bermuda, it is possible to examine traditional revolutionary attempts to attack the empire by members of the diaspora in parallel with implicit aspects of Irish imperial experience in the guise of those who defended it from within. Bermuda in this instance thus provides a point of intersection between the formal British empire and the “counter-empire” suggested by Máirtín Ó Catháin.4 In choosing Bermuda as the focal point, I aim to consider what Barry Crosbie has called the [End Page 142] “cross-cultural experiences, ideologies, institutions, and personnel” that were integral to Irish involvement in the British imperial project.5
This essay also argues that Irish physical-force nationalism had a broader political utility for Bermuda’s colonial administrators and their counterparts at Westminster that was centered on the appropriation of imperial resources. Fear of anticolonialism, invasion, and terrorism served a vital function for those administrators, allowing them to significantly upgrade Bermuda’s defensive infrastructure. Central to this discussion is the acknowledgment of the marked disparity between the rhetoric used to dismiss Fenianism and the actual measures taken to meet those potential threats. Any assessment of governmental reactions to Fenianism must consider both of these aspects—rhetoric and reaction. The precise nature of the actions described highlights not only the primacy of the naval responses to imperial threats but also the way in which Irish American revolutionaries viewed the empire in specifically naval and transnational terms.
Three interrelated lines of inquiry will be developed here. First, an exploration will be offered of the breadth of interactions between Ireland and Bermuda, particularly along institutional lines. This is designed to serve as a baseline against which the threats can be contextualized within both the imperial and the Atlantic world. The essay will then consider the precise nature of the various threats against Bermuda in order to establish the different ways in which revolutionary Irish nationalists sought to exploit the island. Finally, a consideration will be offered of the civil, military, naval, and diplomatic networks activated by the British authorities across the Atlantic world to counter real and perceived threats to Bermuda.
Bermuda, Ireland, and the British Atlantic
While the two islands are...