Fort Shirley, Where A Mutiny Led to Emancipation of the British Slave Soldiers
Dominica is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Its beauty, however, belies a somewhat violent past when it was often a center of violent conflict. One of the best-known historic monuments on the island is the former military fortress, Fort Shirley. This extraordinary example of military architecture played a critical role in the history of the Caribbean.
The Short and Brutal History of Fort Shirley
The island was first inhabited by the Caribs, some of whose descendants still live in the east of the island.
Dominica was named by Christopher Columbus, who claimed it for the Spanish Crown, but it was not colonized by the Europeans until later when the island was settled by the French.
In 1761 the island was invaded by the British who started to build Fort Shirley in the 1770s. The island was later re-captured by the French, who added to it during the early 1780s. The design of the fort is based on the plans of the American military architect James Harrison.
The Battle of the Saintes (1782) is considered to be one of the most important battles in the history of the Caribbean. This naval battle was fought within sight of the guns of the fort. The British won this battle and they once more regained the island. The garrisoned fort played a significant role in deterring French invasions in 1795 and again in 1802.
The British army regularly purchased slaves to serve in the Caribbean since European soldiers could not tolerate the climate or the heat. Approximately 600 soldiers and support staff, including slaves were stationed at the fort. In 1802 a company of slaves, soldiers from the West Indian Regiment, mutinied because of their poor conditions. The mutiny at Fort Shirley ultimately led to the emancipation of all the slaves who served as soldiers in the British West Indies.
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Remnants of the 1802 slave mutiny, Fort Shirley (Kaspar C / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The fort was used to quarantine animals and humans when it was no longer of any strategic importance after the defeat of Napoleon and was eventually was abandoned in the 1850s.
The Restoration of Fort Shirley
The fort and its surrounding buildings fell into ruin and remained that way for 150 years. Finally, a local heritage company made efforts to restore the site. The restoration project was funded in part by the government of Dominica and the European Union.
Remarkably, the original plans of Fort Shirley were by chance found in the United Kingdom’s National Archives in London. The site was opened in the 2000s and has since become a very popular tourist destination.
What to see at Fort Shirley?
The fortress is located in an extinct volcano and Fort Shirley is an extensive complex of buildings and trails link all of the parts of the fortress.
Not all of the site has been redeveloped and some of the original buildings still lie in ruins. The core area of the fort is enclosed by a wall made from local stone.
There are three sets of batteries at the fort. These are platforms which still have their original guns, including cannon and mortars, including an impressive 32-pound cannon.
Cannons aimed at the waters from Fort Shirley (CC BY 2.0)
Some of the ramparts of the original fort have also been reconstructed. The heart of the site is Officer’s Quarters which is a classic Georgian building, built in red brick. This two-story building measures 65 feet by 25 feet (19 by 7 meters) and it more akin to a British country house than a military building.
The common soldiers’ barracks as well as some very fine guard houses can be seen. Some of the stores of the original fort have been rebuilt including the ordinance store and the magazine, which once held gunpowder.
How to visit Fort Shirley
The fort is situated in Cabrits National Park and it is not far from the town of Portsmouth. Dominica is very easy to get around and there is public transport to the site. The fort is on a hill and it can be a long walk to the location, but there is great scenery around the old British stronghold. Guided tours are available, and the Officer Quarters is often used for social events.
Several exhibitions relating to the history of Dominica are on view at Fort Shirley and there are some great hiking trails in the vicinity.
Top image: Fort Shirley Source: Gail Johnson/ Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Boromé, J. A. (1967). The French and Dominica, 1699-1763. Jamaican Historical Review, 7(1), 9
Crask, P. (2016). Dominica. Bradt Travel Guides
Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=BLDmDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=fort+shirley+dominica&ots=Q6yO-nbs0v&sig=Bjgic-kfoV_LAQEi0sylraPKV6M&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=fort%20shirley%20dominica&f=false
Weaver, D. B. (1991). Alternative to mass tourism in Dominica. Annals of Tourism Research, 18(3), 414-432