As a young, prosperous colony, Barbados was the most prized jewel in Britain’s crown. Her geographical location also made her the ideal location for the establishment of a defence system to protect not only Barbados, but Britain’s other interests in the West Indies.
And so, 1789 saw the establishment of the Garrison, a series of impressive buildings which sit on 151 acres of land on the outskirts of the capital, Bridgetown, and hold historical and architectural significance.
It also maintains its military heritage today, being the home of the Barbados Defence Force and the Cadet Corps. The Savannah, the former military parade ground and now the island’s only horse racing track, stands proudly in the middle of the entire Garrison area.
“We have all of this available here in Barbados because Barbados was important to the British. Barbados played an important role in the defences of the British West Indies, and it’s all connected to our history, obviously, and to international affairs as well,” president of the Barbados Garrison Historical Consortium James Blades told Barbados TODAY.
One major historical event linked to the Garrison was the six-week visit in the 1750s of George Washington, the future first President of the United States of America.
Washington came to the island in 1751, at 19 years old, to visit his sick older brother, Lawrence. According to Blades, the house where he stayed was one of the first properties to be purchased by the British in 1789 when they established the Garrison.
“It was Washington’s visit to Barbados that helped him later in his life be able to defeat the British in the American Revolution. He learned information here about how valuable this island was,” Blades said.
“He learned that the British would intervene and . . . protect their holdings in the West Indies if anyone was threatening . . . . Basically, it is one of the reasons why our history is so important, because it is connected to the creation of the United States of America.”
Today, George Washington House, like the rest of the area, is a major tourist attraction.
Other equally significant buildings in the area include Charles Fort, which was built in 1650.
“Twenty-three years after the British settled Barbados, they built this big fort out at Needham’s Point, right next door to the Hilton. The Hilton shares Needham’s Point with Charles Fort, the oldest fort on the island.
“It’s a sea fort. It played a very important role because it protected the harbour, and it also was able to see all the shipping traffic coming down from along the south coast . . . from the Atlantic, around Needham’s Point into the Harbour, which was Carlisle Bay,” Blades said.
The second major edifice is St Ann’s Fort, the headquarters of the Barbados Defence Force, which was built in the early 1700s.
“A six-sided fort in pretty good condition today, . . . it is also connected to the National Armoury, which is a room that was built to store gun powder, that today houses an important collection of cannons, including a gun called the Cromwell gun,” Blades explained.
However, vice president of the Consortium Peter Stevens told Barbados TODAY that the smaller, lesser known buildings in the area should not be discounted, as they are just as important.
“For example, one of the sites is the military cemetery. Not something that people here know is an old military cemetery that dates back . . . sometime before 1816, and that was the main sort of general graveyard for the Garrison.
“There were other religious centres later on, such as St Paul’s, St Patrick’s and St Matthias, that would have people buried from the Garrison . . . . But they actually had a cemetery here and it is still a current, functioning cemetery. So there are still, almost on a weekly basis, burials of retired members of the Defence Force,” Stevens said, adding that the earliest gravestone found there is dated 1820.
According to Stevens, one of the oldest wooden structures in the area is an old school and library dating back to the 1830s.
“Most people won’t even know what it’s for, but you can see it from the road if you know where to look,” he said.
The Consortium has introduced several activities to help Barbadians understand the historical significance of the Garrison, including the changing of the sentry at the Main Guard every Thursday, and “dinner with George Washington” every Monday during the winter months, when guests can hear about Washington’s life story over a five-course dinner.
Five years ago, a network of tunnels was discovered in the area, which sparked additional interest in the Garrison.
“There’s this network of over two miles of underground tunnels that sort of riddled the Garrison and we just happened to stumble onto it in 2011, and we brought it to light through the press, and people have been clamouring to get more information about these tunnels ever since,” Stevens said.
Blades and Stevens have been at the Consortium since 2005, working to preserve the historical heritage of the area. Their efforts paid off in 2011 when Bridgetown and its historic Garrison was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“We recognized the historic value of the Garrison and . . . one of the reasons why we went through all this trouble is to basically assist with the creation of a jewel that would help attract attention to this country,” Blades said.
On November 30, 1966, the Garrison was written into yet another chapter of Barbados’ history when the Broken Trident was raised for the first time at the Savannah, signifying the island’s new status as an independent nation. This month, as Barbados celebrates its 50th Anniversary of Independence, the Garrison Savannah will see the unveiling of a monument to commemorate the occasion.
Blades is hoping that Barbadians will gain a deeper appreciation for this gem, which has served Barbados over two centuries.