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Brimstone Hill Fortress: Gibraltar of the Caribbean: This Bastion on St. Kitts and Nevis was created against a backdrop of empire-building, slavery, an immensely profitable sugarcane industry, and the American War of Independence.

As one stands on the bastion overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it's not difficult to imagine a fleet of French ships on the western horizon trying to stay out of range of the cannons of this "Gibraltar of the Caribbean." Yet, initially, the French and English had coexisted on the island. In 1626 they joined forces to massacre the native Carib/Arawak at their ceremonial meeting place along a ravine of the Pelham River now known as "Bloody River."

The following year, St. Kitts was divided between them: the English took the middle of the island; the French were given Capisterre and Basseterre; and the two countries shared the southeast peninsula with its salt ponds.

In 1629, a large Spanish fleet captured the island and deported both English and French settlers back to their respective countries. The settlers soon returned, however, and re-established their colonies. During the 1640s, the sugar industry was introduced to the island, and this development led to a rapid increase in the slave trade during the next decade. From then until the last quarter of the 19th century, the Caribbean islands received at least 5 million slaves from Africa. During the 18th century, more than 55,000 Africans were brought to the Americas every year.

Between 1666 and 1667, the English and French on the island fought over ownership of St. Kitts. Both governors and hundreds of their men (including buccaneers) were killed. But the 1667 Treaty of Breda established English ownership once again. The construction of Brimstone Hill Fortress began in 1690 with the skill, strength, and endurance of African slave labor.

Meanwhile, the French waited for an opportunity to re-take the island, and the American War of Independence provided them with their chance. The French, who along with the Spanish and Dutch had allied with the revolutionary government of America against Britain, had already captured four British Caribbean colonies (Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, and Tobago) when they attacked St. Kitts with 8,000 soldiers and 31 warships in early 1782.

Around 1,000 men--including the garrison, local militia, and African slaves--held out for four weeks against heavy artillery fire from 62 cannons, howitzers, and mortars deployed around Brimstone Hill.

During this time, British Admiral Rodney outmaneuvered the French fleet under Admiral De Grasse at Basseterre. This tactical victory combined with the prolonged resistance at Brimstone Hill prevented a French rendezvous with a Spanish fleet assembled in Cuba for a joint invasion of Jamaica. Had that attack taken place and been successful, it would have severely--perhaps conclusively--weakened British influence in the West Indies. It was a huge turning point. Though Brimstone Hill fell to the French, that victory was their final success.

On April 12, English and French fleets engaged near Les Iles des Saintes, a group of small islands near Guadeloupe. As the lead French ships approached the rearmost British ships, Admiral De Grasse signaled his fleet to reverse their course, but the command was not carried out by all of his ships' captains.

The disobeyed order to reverse course, together with a sudden change in the wind, caused gaps in the French battle line. Seizing this opportunity, Admiral Rodney turned his ships ninety degrees and sailed through the broken French line of battle, splitting it into four segments. In doing this, the guns on each side of the British ships could be brought to bear on the French with little risk of return fire. This maneuver, called "Crossing the T," became a classic tactic for engaging enemy vessels.

De Grasse could not reform his battle line and, as the day went on, six heavily damaged French ships hauled down their flags. Finally De Grasse's 130-gun flagship, Ville de Paris, struck her colors and De Grasse surrendered his ship and his sword to British Captain Lord Cranston. Of the Ville de Paris' crew, over 400 had been killed and more than 700 were wounded. The invasion fleet was decimated. The French ships were either sunk or captured, and more than 6,000 men perished.

St. Kitts, and Brimstone Hill Fortress, were restored to the English by the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which also confirmed the independence of the United States of America.

The reconstruction, extension, and strengthening of Brimstone Hill began immediately. The Citadel and vast Prince of Wales Bastion were completed at that time. The irony is that tensions between England and France eased after the fortress was completed largely because of the declining importance of sugarcane.

Nowadays visitors can discover for themselves how this "Gibraltar of the West Indies" received its name. Upon arrival, one first notices the officers' quarters pointing westwards, their outside facade a series of arches. The officers were sheltered from the prevailing winds, unlike the rank-and-file soldiers, whose barracks were located across the former parade ground and had views of the sugarcane plantations inland. A former soldier is said to haunt this area but sightings are rare.


The best views are from the Citadel. Brimstone Hill overlooks the western coast of St. Kitts so, as in years past, one can easily see St. Eustatius (Statia) and Saba to the north; Basseterre, the capital, to the south; and the island's highest point, Mount Liamuiga, to the east. The patterned stonework of the Citadel was meticulously planned and the cannons stand menacingly at their emplacements. The vast walls of the powder room give a feeling of security and provide shelter from the wind. Everywhere, steep sets of stone stairs connect the various levels of the Citadel, leading to unappreciated rooms and spectacular vistas. Looking upwards, one will invariably see a cannon's mouth leering between stone parapets, ready to spit a cannon ball at the enemy below.


In 1973, Britain's Prince Charles reopened some of the first areas to be restored. In 1985, Queen Elizabeth II attended a ceremony establishing Brimstone Hall as a National Park. One of the best preserved fortifications in the Americas, Brimstone Hill Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of historical, cultural, and architectural significance.

Julian Worker is a freelance writer and photographer who contributes to various travel publications and websites. ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Worker, Julian
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:5STKI
Date:May 1, 2012
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