Cameron Gill, General Manager, Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park Society
The twin island Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis is the world’s smallest sovereign state yet its impact on world history far outweighs its total area of 104 square miles. There is no more dramatic tangible representation of the role St. Kitts and Nevis has played on the world historical and political stage than the Brimstone Hill Fortress.
St. Kitts was first settled by the English (and their enslaved African labourers) in 1623. Two years later the settlement was joined by a group of desperate Frenchmen whose ship had barely survived an encounter with a Spanish galleon. In 1627 a formal treaty was drawn up in which the island was partitioned between the two groups of settlers. Expeditions to settle many of the other islands in what would become the British and French West Indies were launched from St. Kitts and Nevis. Today all of the Leeward and Windward Islands, and the French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, can trace their history back to these shores. Despite frequent, and often violent, quarrels, the English and French on St. Kitts were able to put their differences aside where the indigenous people were concerned.
The aboriginal Kalinago, who had initially extended a hospitable welcome to the newcomers from across the Atlantic, became increasingly alarmed by the growing number of these settlers and their insatiable appetite for land in what was already a very small space. The Europeans got wind of a plot by the indigenous community to launch a surprise attack against them and decided to take preemptive action. In 1626 the Kalinago were literally wiped off the face of Kittitian soil in a battle with the combined forces of the English and French settlers. The battle of Bloody Point, as it was to become known, is possibly the first act of genocide (but unfortunately not the last) to be committed by either the English or the French in the Americas.
Such unity among the English and French on the island was the exception rather than the norm however, and the repeated internecine conflicts finally reached to a head in 1690. In a war that had begun the previous year the English managed to rout the French from most of the island. The French forces finally found themselves besieged at Fort Charles, which they had captured from the British. Six (6) cannon were hauled by the British to the top of Brimstone Hill, an imposing 800 foot high peak of igneous rock overlooking Fort Charles, and used to bombard the French occupiers of the fort into surrender.
This was the first time Brimstone Hill was used as an artillery base and it proved to be extremely effective. A fact not lost on the British, who began installing permanent gun positions on the Hill, with the objective of making it both an offensive and defensive fortification. By 1699 there were eighteen (18) cannon on Brimstone Hill. Between 1690 and 1713 when St. Kitts was ceded to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht there were sporadic wars between Britain and France but after 1690 up to the signing of the treaty the French took great care to avoid the guns of Brimstone Hill.
In the late 1700’s when thirteen (13) North American colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard unilaterally declared their independence from British rule, Britain’s European rivals saw their opportunity to challenge her colonial power and military supremacy. The American Revolutionary War required a huge commitment in military resources. France, which along with Spain and Holland, aligned herself with the revolting American colonies, and and took advantage of the situation to capture several of Britain’s West Indian colonies.
The French then aimed their sights on St. Kitts, the most important sugar colony in the Leeward Islands, as well as its strategically and symbolically important Brimstone Hill Fortress. France attacked St. Kitts with 8,000 soldiers and over 30 men-of-war. The regular British forces garrisoned at Brimstone Hill, along with the militia of local white settlers, and embodied slave troops, gallantly defended the besieged Hill for a month.
Figure:1 1782 Seige of Brimstone Hill. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
This drama being played out on the lush hills and valleys of St. Kitts was matched by another shaping up off the island’s rugged coastline. From the 24 to 26 January 1782, in the waters off Frigate Bay and the town of Basseterre, Royal Navy Rear-Admiral Samuel Hood employed his tactical ingenuity and skills of deception to lure the French fleet, under the Comte de Grasse, out of the roadstead, which Hood’s ships then occupied. Despite at least three determined attacks, de Grasse’s fleet was unable to dislodge the British ships. However, Hood was unable to land any soldiers to assist the beleaguered forces at Brimstone Hill, because by this time he realized that the occupying French force on the island vastly outnumbered the troops on his ships. What his ruse off Frigate Bay and Basseterre Bay achieved however, was to keep de Grasse’s large naval force tied up off St. Kitts to prevent the British ships from breaking out and landing reinforcements at Sandy Point.
The concentration of French naval power off St. Kitts for such an extended period of time had ramifications whose shock waves were felt throughout the Atlantic World. The deployment of so many French troops and ships to St. Kitts from January to February 1782 prevented France and Spain from combining forces for a planned invasion of Jamaica. With so many other British islands already in French hands, the loss of Jamaica may have been a fatal blow which could have reduced Britain to a minor colonial and naval power in the Caribbean.
Figure 2. The Battle of Frigate Bay by Nicholas Pocock, 1784. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
On the day of Brimstone Hill’s surrender to the French on 12 February 1782, Hood’s fleet slipped away from St. Kitts. Hood later joined up with Admiral George Rodney’s fleet which in April of that year defeated a large French fleet off Les Saintes, a group of French islands between Guadeloupe and Dominica. The French fleet had departed Martinique en route to their much delayed rendezvous with a Spanish fleet for the invasion of Jamaica. The Battle of The Saints, as it became known, re-established the supremacy of the British Royal Navy, a supremacy which was maintained until the Second World War a century and a half later.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1782, St. Kitts was returned by France to Britain. The 1782 Siege of Brimstone Hill had far reaching consequences for world geo-politics. In fact the Battle of Frigate Bay (see Figure 1), one of the major battles of the 1782 Siege, is officially listed by historians as one of the most important naval battles of the American Revolutionary War. If it were not for the prolonged Siege of Brimstone Hill the Battle of the Saints would have never taken place.
Figure 3:Hood maintains his position against de Grasse by Nicholas Pocock. Courtesy National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.