Nassau, Bahamas; Kingston, Jamaica; Basseterre, St. Kitts
During the age of the great colonial empires, the European powers battled each other around the globe for political, military and commercial dominance. Nowhere were these wars more frequent or more brutal than in the waters and islands of the Caribbean Sea. The forces of Spain, France, England, Holland and other nations, not to mention innumerable pirates, fought endlessly for control of these rich and strategic territories. Because of this, the islands of the Caribbean sprouted more fortresses than virtually any other colonial region outside of Europe. Virtually every Caribbean island now boasts at least one major fort, in varying degrees of condition. England was the second greatest fortress builder in the Caribbean, their legacy including the Fort Charlotte in the Bahamas, Fort Charles in Jamaica, and the Brimstone Hill Fortress in St. Kitts.
Thanks to the exploits of Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers, Spain got a huge jump on the other European powers when it arrived in the New World in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. By 1600 almost all of the Caribbean was under the dominion of Spain. However, the vast wealth of the region attracted attention from Spain’s rivals, and by the mid-1500s Dutch, French and especially English ships were swarming to the Spanish Main in search of adventure and conquest.
By the mid-16th century, the Caribbean had descended into chaos, becoming a free-for-all among the various European powers and countless pirates. This was particularly true after the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the subsequent rise of English naval power. By 1700 the Dutch had acquired Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles; France had acquired Guadeloupe, Martinique and the western half of Hispaniola, or Haiti; Spain retained Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico; and England seized virtually everything else.
Throughout this period, all sides dug in and littered the islands with scores of fortifications, with varying degrees of success. Most were frequently sacked, rebuilt, and sacked again. By the early 1700s, most of the territorial possessions were established by treaties, and the chief threat came from pirates, rather than from each other. As the English Empire arose to ascendancy around the world, their colonial territories in the Americas were among the richest, becoming the focal point of trade, commerce and piratical activity.
Like the Spanish before them, the British were forced to build new fortresses and upgrade older ones on a regular basis in order to protect their valuable territory. This was especially true in Jamaica, which was the world’s chief producer of sugar and the primary destination of the Middle Passage of the slave trade. To guard it against rival Europeans, pirates and especially the young United States, the British built the great citadel of Fort Charles. Other major fortifications appeared in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and no a number of the smaller island holdings, notably the fabled Brimstone Hill Fortress in St. Kitts. However, by the mid-19th century, the American Monroe Doctrine helped to stabilize the region, and inter-island warfare and piracy were largely ended. Despite this, many of the British fortresses in the Caribbean remained in active use until after World War II.
Fort Charlotte in Nassau is something of a hybrid in terms of military construction. Built towards the end of the 1700s, it was one of the last truly colonial-era fortresses built in the Caribbean. It incorporates military engineering designed to defend against more powerful artillery that was becoming available to naval forces at the dawn of the 19th century. Its thick, earth-backed walls, relatively low profile and unusual round bastions were definitely a preview of what fortifications were to become during the 1800s. Thanks to the cruise industry and the phenomenal popularity of the port ar Nassau, Fort Charlotte may be among the most visited fortresses in the Caribbean.
Fort Charles is located on the westernmost promontory of what was once Port Royal and was the largest of several defensive points around the city. It was also one of the largest fortresses built by the English in the Caribbean, and managed to survive both major earthquakes fairly intact. It is a traditional colonial fort structure, with broad walls lined with buildings surrounding a large inner courtyard. Gun batteries line the fort’s perimeter. It now houses a museum with a large collection of artifacts of the sunken city of Port Royal.
Brimstone Hill Fortress is among the largest fortifications in the Caribbean, and thanks to its position at the top of a steep, heavily wooded hill it was long considered one of the most impregnable, earning it the nickname the Gibraltar of the West Indies. Its unconventional layout, taking advantage of the natural terrain, is stunning but confusing. Highlights include a series of outworks and bastions along with the mighty Fort George Citadel. Abandoned by the late-19th century, the fortress was eventually restored and designated a national park. The Brimstone Hill Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fort Charlotte overlooks the city of Nassau and is accessible on foot from both downtown and the cruise ship terminal. It is open daily from 8:00am to 3:00pm. There is no cost of admission. Fort Charles is located on a peninsula a few miles south of Kingston. The museum is open Mondays through Thursdays from 9:30am-4:30pm. Admission price was not available as of the time of this writing. The Brimstone Hill Fortress is open every day except for Christmas and Good Friday from 9:30am-5:30pm. The cost of admission is $8.00. Web: www.bahamas.com (official website of Fort Charlotte); www.jnht.com (official website of Fort Charles); www.brimstonehillfortress.org (official website).
Like the Spanish, the British were prolific fortress builders in the Caribbean. They were also prolific fortress acquirers. Besides the above, some of the best are Fort Montague in New Providence in the Bahamas; and Fort King George in Scarborough on the island of Tobago.