Fort Fincastle, The Small But Mighty Flatiron Protector of The Bahamas
The Bahamas is comprised of 700 islands as well as thousands of rocks and cays (low banks of coral reefs) spread out over 100,000 square miles of ocean. It’s an ecological paradise with some of the clearest waters on Earth, but there is more to explore than just beautiful beaches. It is also a nation with a turbulent history and fascinating historic sites, one being Fort Fincastle.
The fort is a remarkable example of early modern military engineering and architecture, one of the most important examples of a military fortress in all of the Caribbean.
A Brief History of the Bahamas
In 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail to discover new wealth and lands, he disembarked on one of the Bahamian islands. The islands had been inhabited by Amerindian tribes until the coming of the Spanish.
After the collapse of the native population because of exploitation and disease, the Spanish neglected the islands. They were later used by English pirates who turned the islands into a ‘pirate republic’. The English crown extended their control over the islands in the 18 th century when Nassau was built and developed.
New Providence Raid, March 1776 by V. Zveg, 1973, depicting Continental Sailors and Marines landing on New Providence Island, Bahamas (Public Domain)
The Bahamas became a significant sugar cane producer, essentially based on slave labor. During the American War of Independence, Nassau was attacked twice by revolutionary forces. The Spanish briefly re-occupied the islands in early 1780s until the English regained control and strengthened their hold over the Bahamas by building a number of fortresses such as Fort Fincastle.
The Building of Fort Fincastle
The castle was built in 1793 on Bennet’s Hill in the city of Nassau, New Providence Island. It overlooks Nassau and the bay and was designed to prevent a naval attack and to provide safety for those resisting invaders, especially from the newly independent Americans.
Cannon at Fort Fincastle (Krinstinenoel / Adobe Stock)
Its construction was overseen by the governor of the islands Lord Dunmore, who was an important figure in their history, although not at all well regarded by the inhabitants. He named the fort for one of his many titles as he was Viscount of Fincastle in his native Scotland.
Sir Joshua Reynolds - John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (Public Domain)
Fort Fincastle was garrisoned by regular English troops as well as local militia. Although the Bahamas were not attacked during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19 th century, the fort was used as a lighthouse until one was built in the 1820s. After this, the fort was used as a signal station, especially after it ceased to be a military base and fortress.
The Unusual Design and the Famous Queen’s Staircase
The fort is located in a park that is surrounded by road. It is built in a most unusual shape, consisting of a triangular and a semi-circular section. The shape of the fort has often been compared to a paddlewheel of a steamship. This design was popular in Europe, but rare in the Americas and is what makes Fort Fincastle such as important site.
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The unusual triangular and semi-circular shape of Fort Fincastle (CC BY NC-2.0)
The fort was constructed using large blocks of local limestone which also protected against cannon balls. Although relatively small, it was built to compliment the larger Fort Charlotte.
A flight of stone stairs known as the ‘Queen’s staircase’ is used to access the fort. This consist of 66 steps which were hewn out of limestone rock by 600 slaves and allowed the local garrison to quickly access the fort. It was finished long after the fort was built and named after Queen Victoria.
A view the bottom of Queen’s Staircase (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Inside the fort are a number of artillery platforms with three rooms below which were used by the garrison. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the fort is the cannons that date from the 18 th and 19 th century. Originally there were five cannons and one howitzer stationed at the fort. These, along with two 24 pounders, two 32 pounders and two 12 pounder cannons mounted on the fortress, can still be seen. Smaller cannon which have been brought to the site from elsewhere in recent years are situated in the grounds.
Exploring Fort Fincastle and the Surrounding Area
The fort is easy to find as it is near the center of Nassau. A reasonable admission fee is charged and local guides, who are all local volunteers, are available. The fortress is compact yet fascinating and can be seen in less than an hour. Local groups dressed in 19 th century uniforms hold regular re-enactments of life in the fort which is well worth seeing.
Top image: Fort Fincastle Source: CC BY 2.0
By Ed Whelan
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Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41715240