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A Visit to Brimstone Hill Fortress, St. Kitts

On a steep and imposing chunk of rock with the mountains at her back, Brimstone Hill Fortress continues to watch over the Caribbean long after the strategic reasons for having a fort here at all have faded into history. Today St. Kitts and Nevis, and the other island nations nearby, are destinations for fun in the tropics, but three centuries ago these islands were strategically valuable producers of tobacco, cotton and especially sugar and its byproducts, molasses and rum. The conflicts between England and France were played out in the North American colonies and in small islands like St. Kitts. While most soldiers considered being stationed in the tropics a death sentence due to the high mortality rate (from disease, alcoholism, etc), it was nothing compared to that suffered by the original inhabitants and the slaves that built the fortress. Each were decimated as the history of this place evolved. Visiting the castle after playing tourist for a few days, the contrast between the joyful destination of today and its dark history was sobering.

They say that history is written by the victors. This is largely true, but with enough time and clues, you find enough evidence to piece together a more complete story. The English and French united to massacre thousands of Caribs (kalinagos) in 1626 at a place aptly called bloody point, not far from Brimstone Hill. Once they’d eliminated the native population, the English and French divided St. Kitts between them, with the English taking the middle of the island and the French the rest. This tenuous peace between colonists would last until 1713 (the end of Queen Anne’s War).

Brimstone Hill Fortress was built by slaves between 1690 and the 1790’s. The slaves were brought from Africa in a continuous loop that began the slave trade of tobacco, cotton and sugar for captured and enslaved people. This highly lucrative trade created generations of wealth and tragedy. The fortress is an early example of the polygonal system, which created fields of fire to ensure that all sides were covered from assault. The sheer height of the fort ensured it would be very difficult to attack from the ground, while offering the prominence of the high ground to fire canon balls up to a mile away. This was state-of-the-art technology for the time. The volcanic stone was mined and cut into a formidable fortress, using lime quarried from lower in the mountain.

During the American Revolutionary War, the French (allied with the American colonists) invaded St. Kitts and laid siege on the fortress from January and February of 1782. A siege is the kryptonite of a fortress, as the inhabitants face a dwindling supply of water, food and ammunition while the attackers wait them out. Eventually even the strongest fortresses capitulate, and the English surrendered and marched out with full honors. A year later the English were back again when the Treaty of Paris restored the islands to them.

Today the Brimstone Hill Fortress is a Unesco historic site and remarkably well preserved. Many of the original canon line the fort, awaiting an assault that will never come. Today’s assault is from tourists seeking out the spectacular views from the fortress, stirred with a sobering history lesson. It’s absolutely worth the trip up the narrow, winding road on a clear day. A walk out to the outer walls confirms exactly why they built the fortress here—you can see forever in all directions. Including the past.

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