It is easy to think of Jamaica’s history simply in terms of sugar and slavery and to forget its crucial role as a British military foothold in the Caribbean. Although tens of thousands of enslaved Africans worked to produce sugar, many were also made to work on military building projects in terrible conditions.
From the beginning, with the conquest of the island when it was seized from the Spanish in 1655, the island was home to a transient military population. For most of the eighteenth century Britain was at war with Spain or France or both, as all sought to establish empires, search for gold and other treasure, and plant colonists for permanent settlement.
In the case of Jamaica the port of Kingston, with its huge natural harbour, also became one of the largest in the world for the slave trade, receiving enslaved Africans from the notorious Middle Passage and selling many on to Britain’s American colonies in the Carolinas, Virginia and further north, and also selling on into Central and South America. This was a valuable trade that required protection at sea, but although Jamaica did have her own Militia it also created a situation that from time to time threatened to erupt into rebellion,calling for additional military support on land. Those soldiers were housed in a variety of barracks and forts, the remains of which form a very significant part of Jamaica’s eighteenth century historical legacy.
The strategic location of Jamaica and the safe harbours she provided gave the island added military importance throughout the eighteenth century and during the Napoleonic Wars. Funds for the building of forts were largely provided locally and voted by the Jamaican Assembly, and the labour was largely provided by slaves. Today this heritage is overseen by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
Eighteenth century Plan of Fort Augusta from Historic Jamaica from the Air p.79
One fort that has recently been in the news is Fort Augusta, which was built in swampland to protect the western end of Kingston harbour, facing across to the remains of Port Royal and which despite huge earthquake damage in 1692 still also housed a military presence.
Fort Augusta is notable both for the huge effort, and loss of life, that went into filling the swamp, and for its curtain wall of cut stone blocks. On three sides this is 1500 feet long, 42 feet thick and nearly 16 feet high. On the northern side a further 900 feet of wall six feet thick faces onto Hunts Bay. Once this eight acre fort would have housed large numbers of British soldiers and their supplies including gunpowder. In modern times it has housed a women’s prison.
In 1763 the Fort Augusta gunpowder magazine was hit by lightning, killing 300 people and breaking windows up to seventeen miles away. Benjamin Franklin had already been involved in developing lightning conductors to protect such military installations from similar disasters, and had developed his lightning rod in 1749, but there is no evidence it had been fitted anywhere in Jamaica.
Fort Augusta in 1967 from Historic Jamaica from the Air p.78
The reason Fort Augusta has been in the news recently is because of plans to expand Kingston’s ability to handle container shipping. The container port is on the opposite side of Hunts Bay (now enclosed by the Port Kingston Causeway) from Fort Augusta. There is a classic conflict of interest between the needs of economic development and the benefits of preserving a nation’s history, highlighted in a recent letter to the Jamaica Observer. Fortunately assurances have been received that there is no intention to demolish Fost Augusta.
Fort Augusta today showing the Port Kingston Causeway top left, which now encloses Hunts Bay (from Jamaica Observer online 6 August 2012)
Many places have found that by preserving their history alongside modern developments their cultural heritage is enriched and the economic benefits of the new development are enhanced. Let us hope this is possible in the case of Fort Augusta and that the development will bring a renewed interest in Jamaica’s history and appreciation of those who lost their lives creating it.
Historic Jamaica from the Air, by David Buisseret with photography by J. Tyndale-Biscoe and cartography by Tom Willcockson, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston Jamaica 1996.