By Cameron Gill,
Rising formidably to almost 800 feet above sea level, the Brimstone Hill Fortress is an imposing sight. The apex of this massive fortress, most of whose structures date to the late 18th century, is the Fort George Citadel. From the Citadel’s Gundeck and Places-of-Arms one is afforded spectacular views of Mount Liamigua and the neighbouring islands of Saba, St. Eustatius (Statia), St. Bartholomew (St. Barths) and Nevis.
Figure 1. Mount Liamigua from the Eastern Place-of-Arms at the Fort George Citadel. Photo courtesy Cameron Gill.
Figure 2. The Fort George Citadel at the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. Photo courtesy Cameron Gill.
Several of the casemates (bomb-proof rooms) of the Fort George Citadel, have been converted into the exhibition rooms of the Fort George Museum. These rooms tell the story the geology of the island (including the formation of Brimstone Hill, an upthrust of igneous rock); the history of the island’s settlement by Europeans and the decimation of the indigenous people; and discuss the lives of those men, women and children, black and white, who lived on, defended, and died on Brimstone Hill.
Figure 3. Mannequin of a soldier of the 4th West India Regiment, Room 3 Fort George Museum. Photo courtesy Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park Society.
The vision of the new management team of the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park Society (BHFNPS) is to make the Fort George Museum into the best small military museum in the Eastern Caribbean. The main objective of the museum will continue to be to interpret the history of the Brimstone Hill Fortress, and its impact on Caribbean, American and world history. It has recently been seen as fitting however, for a museum based in the largest fortification ever built on St. Kitts, indeed the largest constructed in the Eastern Caribbean, to tell the wider story of the military history and heritage of St. Kitts-Nevis (and that of West Indians as a whole). This tiny twin island nation has one of the longest military histories of any sovereign state in the English speaking Americas.
In pre-colonial times St. Kitts was inhabited by the Kalinago (who called their island home Liamigua, which means fertile land), a hunter-gathering, farming and fishing people, who also possessed incredible military prowess. These valiant people were rendered extinct from Kittitian soil by the superior weapons of the Europeans, who arrived in the early seventeenth century. As the first Caribbean island to be settled by the English or the French, the militias on St. Kitts were the oldest. The tradition of being first continued well into the 20th century. When the Defence Force became a full-time unit in 1968 with 70 men, St. Kitts-Nevis became the first islands in the Eastern Caribbean with their own regular standing army.
The St. Kitts-Nevis Defence Force continues to provide yeoman service at home by assisting the police in maintaining law and order and fighting the traffic in illicit narcotics, they also provide disaster relief at home and abroad. A new exhibit in Room 17 at the Fort George Museum will tell the story of those men and women who wear and have worn the uniforms of the Defence Force. This exhibit will also examine the story of those men and women from our islands who put on the uniforms of British, Canadian and other allied militaries to serve in foreign campaigns.
Historical records show that from as early as the 18th century individual men from St. Kitts, black and white, migrated to England to join the British Army. During the two World Wars of the last century many men and women from St. Kitts and Nevis, along with scores of other West Indians, volunteered to fight the twin scourge of Nazism and Fascism. For many of them the experience was a bittersweet one. Schooled and socialized to see themselves as British subjects, and to view Britain as their “Mother Country”, they were often rewarded with racism and hostility, rather than gratitude for their service and sacrifice.
The involvement of West Indians in World Wars One and Two was a seminal moment for our societies. Veterans of the First World War became vocal and militant members of the rising and restless labour movement of the 1930’s. Several of those who served in the Second World War learned skills which gave them a new sense of pride and self-esteem. Some of them soared to new heights, figuratively and literally. A black or coloured West Indian who had broken stereotypes by piloting or navigating a Royal Air Force (RAF) or Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) bomber, and commanding white enlisted aircrew, was very unlikely afterward to settle for being a second class colonial subject.
When it is launched the new exhibit in Room 17 at the Fort George Museum will tell the story of these amazing individuals and shine the spotlight on an important and fascinating, but overlooked aspect of our history and heritage.
Figure 4. An RAF Avro Lancaster Bomber. One of the main heavy bombers of the RAF and RCAF, several West Indians served on this aircraft, in both services, during the Second World War. Some of these men held senior aircrew positions such as pilots and navigators. Photo courtesy Royal Air Force.
Cameron Gill is General Manager, Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park Society