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Cannons along the ramparts of Brimstone Hill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Tug-of-War for Brimstone Hill Fortress, The Fort with a View to Die For

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St Kitts and Nevis are renowned for being beautiful tropical islands, but in the past the islands were also strategically important. Several battles and sieges took place here to determine who not only controlled the islands, but the whole Caribbean. An important monument to these violent times is the Brimstone Hill Fortress. This consists of an 18 th century fortress, a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, as well as the National Park.

A Brief History of St Kitts And Nevis

The island was originally inhabited by Amerindians and was once part of the Spanish Empire . Later Spain ceded the islands to the English and the French who shared sovereignty of St Kitts and Nevis by unique arrangement, while African slaves worked the plantations.

St Kitts was where colonizers developed the plantation system that was exported all over the Caribbean. The islands were dominated by a small group of white colonials who benefitted from the brutal exploitation of African slaves .

Brimstone Hill Fortress – Caught Between Nations

Because the French and English fought over the islands several times during the late seventeenth century, the French placed cannons on Brimstone Hill, but in 1690 the English recaptured the island. After the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1715, the island became part of the British Empire.

French engraving of Battle of St Kitts, 1782 (Public Domain)

French engraving of Battle of St Kitts, 1782 ( Public Domain )

London recognized the importance of St Kitts and established a fort on the hill where several dozen 24-pounder cannons that were placed to fire on warships. The English rebuilt the original fort and greatly strengthened its defenses, despite the powder magazine exploding twice in the 1720s.

By the 1770s the English were calling St Kitts , the ‘Gibraltar of the Caribbean’ because of the Brimstone Fortress. In 1780, the French took the castle, but handed it back the following year. The British were determined to ensure they would not lose the strategic island again and invested heavily in the fortress.

Brimstone Hill Fortress ( Wirepec / Adobe Stock )

It was manned by a local militia, some of whom were freed slaves. Brimstone fortress was able to resist several raids by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and even a full-scale siege in 1806. The fortress was abandoned in 1856 as the risk of war receded.

The Remains of Brimstone Hill Fortress

The fortress, situated high on a hill that overlooks the Caribbean Sea, was reached by a winding path that would have left any attacker vulnerable to the defenders’ fire. It was built of dark volcanic rock which gives the stronghold its distinctive appearance.

Brimstone fortress has a gateway flanked by two turrets. The ramparts were designed in a polyangular shape, which is typical of eighteenth-century defenses in Europe. All along the ramparts are nineteenth century cannons which are all authentic.

The black volcanic rock of Brimstone Hill (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The black volcanic rock of Brimstone Hill ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The main barracks and the powder magazine, where ordinances were once stored, is in the Prince of Wales Bastion, the heart of the fortress. Four cannons of Barrier Redan which were trained on the road, can still be seen. Other important features of the fortress are Fort Charlotte and the citadel.

When the British abandoned the area, they only dismantled a small number of buildings. As a result, the fortress is still largely authentic, although a few buildings from the period, such as the artillery offices barracks, has been reconstructed. Many others are in ruins but have been stabilized.

The various structures and infrastructure including bastions, barracks, etc. occupy different levels and give modern visitors a great sense of what life was once like at the fortress.

The 15 hectares is surrounded by a 1.6 km (1 mile) buffer zone in a national park, where flora and fauna are protected by the local government.

What to do at Brimstone Hill

A carpark is situated near the top of Brimstone Hill and guided tours of the former stronghold are available. The visitors’ center is the place to learn about the history of the fort and the islands, and the museum holds many artifacts from the citadel. Accommodation to suit all budgets is available near the site.

Top image: Cannons along the ramparts of Brimstone Hill ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Ed Whelan

References

Smith, V. T. (1994). Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts, West Indies. Part one: history. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 28(1), 73-109
Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/pma.1994.003

Smith, V. T. (1995). Brimstone Hill Fortress, St Kitts, West Indies . Part two: description. Post-Medieval Archaeology, 29(1), 77-106
Available at:   https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/pma.1995.003?journalCode=ypma20

Palmié, S., & Scarano, F. A. (Eds.). (2013). The Caribbean: A history of the region and its peoples . University of Chicago Press
Available at: https://books.google.ie/books?hl=en&lr=&id=RvzLQX-M0dQC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=st+kitts+and+nevis+history&ots=9oWHz2CRcZ&sig=0KbDjV-yz8KHThZxdU-PgeMFqFg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=st%20kitts%20and%20nevis%20history&f=false

Schroedl, G. F. (2000). A Report on the 1999 Archaeological Investigations at the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, St. Kitts, West Indies (No. 17) . Brimstone Hill Archaeological Project Report
Available at: http://pidba.org/bsh/BSH%20Report%2012.pdf

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