Portuguese Rock

Portuguese Rock
By Dr. Clarence V. H. Maxwell

Around 1543 Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, author of the multi-volume Historia General y Natural de las Indias, interviewed some Portuguese men in Puerto Rico. According to Professor David Quinn, who recalled the incident in his article for the Bermuda Journal of Archaeology and Maritime History in 1989, they were the crew of a vessel: “…a Portuguese slaver, returning in ballast to Europe in 1543 [which] crashed bow-on the reefs.”

“Its men, including the invaluable carpenter and his tools,” Quinn continued, “made their way to shore. They salvaged many materials and some food from their ship and commenced to build a pinnace subsisting partly on large turtles.” The only name given related to the event is that of Amador Gonzavez, the pilot who had warned about the dangers of the reef when they had reached Bermuda.

They had apparently stayed until the fall, returning to Puerto Rico on November 2, 1543. Later historical research by Professor Quinn and others would connect this story to an isolated piece of rock on a cliff at Spittal Pond, inscribed with letters thought at first to have been TF, and with numbers believed to be 1543.

Tradition had long developed granting it the name ‘Spanish Rock,’ , thus connecting it, not to the Portuguese, but to the Spanish. Several candidates for this Spanish attribution emerged to history. Most notable was Hernando Carmelo (incidentally a Portuguese) who, in 1527 was granted a commission by Holy Roman Emperor don Carlos V, to lead the Spanish settlement of the island. Nothing came of the venture. Another was Captain Bartolomé Carreño, who arrived in Bermuda in 1538 and spent 25 days there. Although he gave optimistic reports about the island’s value to Spain, nothing emerged beyond his survey.

Not surprisingly, increasing discomfort developed over this Spanish link, and even the meaning of the inscription itself. As early as 1855, unpublished parts of the records of travels in the Americas by Oviedo were finally printed and it is from that date that we have some evidence placing mariners in Bermuda in 1543. Historian Terry Tucker later and adroitly dismissed the connection of the rock to the hapless adventure of Hernando Carmelo and, in her article for the Bermuda Historical Quarterly, quoted Spaniard J. Vidago associating ‘Spanish Rock’ to the event described by Oviedo. She even cited Vidago’s reinterpretation of the inscription on the rock. It was not TF, but RP, meaning Rex Portugaliae, a Latin reference to the King of Portugal. Professor Quinn provided support for Terry Tucker, citing the encounter between Oviedo and the Portuguese sailors in Puerto Rico. So did Jonathan Bream, quoting Oviedo directly as stating that it “touched the reefs and shoals that are on the northern side of Bermuda” before becoming stranded. These incidents fitted well with the date of the rock and even the epigraphic association to the Portuguese monarch.

So Spanish Rock is indeed ‘Portuguese Rock’: the memorial of a bold Portuguese claim for the island. It connects Bermuda with the long tradition of Portuguese maritime and commercial activity that built the foundations of the modern Atlantic World decades before Cristóbal Colón’s arrival in the Americas. The 1849 arrival of the Golden Rule is just one date in a long chronology associating the Bermuda with the Portuguese. Renaming ‘Spanish Rock’ ‘Portuguese Rock,’ gives the respect and credit to those to whom it is due.

Edward C. Harris, “Heritage Matters,” Mid Ocean News, July 9, 2009.

Terry Tucker, “Portuguese Epigraphy in Bermuda, 1543 by J. Vidago,” Bermuda Historical Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 2 (Summer 1962), pp. 53-6.

David B. Quinn, “Bermuda in the Age of Exploration and Early Settlement”, Bermuda Journal of Archaeology and Maritime History, vol. 1 (1989).

Jonathan W. Bream, “The Spanish influence on Bermuda,” Bermuda Journal of Archaeology and Maritime History, vol. 2 (1990)

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia General y Natural de las Indias (1855)