In 1776, the United States of America (US) declared its independence from Britain, and there was war. France joined the US in 1778 and attacked British interests in the Caribbean the following year. The French captured St Vincent and Grenada, and there was general panic in Barbados that we would be next.
On June 16, 1779, Spain joined France in the war, hoping to reclaim Gibraltar and the island of Minorca from the British. The Spanish quickly blockaded Gibraltar, hoping to starve the defenders.
Barbados was defended by about 22 coastal forts, which could easily be overpowered if Barbados was invaded. On July 26, 1779, Barbados’ legislature voted to construct a defendable fort. A hill called Mount Charity, in the parish of St George, was selected for the construction of Fort George.
On October 10, 1780, a Category 5 hurricane struck Barbados, with wind speeds estimated as high as 200 mph (by comparison, Hurricane Dorian was 185 mph). It destroyed all forts and every building in Barbados was damaged or destroyed. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4, 326 people in Barbados. It also caused about 9, 000 deaths in Martinique from the 25 ft storm surge (Dorian produced a 23 ft surge).
On June 1, 1781, the French captured Tobago. On August 14, 1781, the French navy informed George Washington that they were travelling from the West Indies to Virginia with a fleet of 29 warships and 3, 200 troops.
On September 28, 1781, the combined US and French forces had a major British force trapped at the coastal town of Yorktown, Virginia. After a few weeks of heavy bombardment, the British surrendered on October 17, 1781, which was a decisive defeat. Approximately 8, 000 British troops were captured, and the 29 French warships returned to the West Indies.
On August 19, 1781, a combined French and Spanish force invaded the island of Minorca. The island had a fort which had been massively strengthened to survive a siege for one year. The combined force started bombarding the fort on November 11 1781. The British lasted three months before surrendering on February 4, 1782.
In January 1782, twenty-nine French ships, with about 8, 000 landing troops, sailed to invade Barbados. They were to join 18 ships already anchored off Barbados. However, a strong wind blew them away from Barbados, so they captured St Kitts instead. By February 1782, the only Caribbean islands that remained in British possession were Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica.
On May 25, 1782, the British troops at Gibraltar started digging siege tunnels and underground galleries in the limestone rock. On September 18 1782, a grand assault of Gibraltar by French and Spanish forces (60,000 men and 49 ships) decisively failed to defeat the 5,000 British defenders.
On September 3, 1783, a final peace agreement was signed between Britain and the US, France, and Spain. The Barbados Assembly met that same day and decided to abandon further construction of Fort George, rather than raise new taxes to complete it. The main reason was that they “could not discover its utility”.
What Were They Building?
From 1741, the Royal Military Academy started teaching the scientific principles of gunnery and fortifications. Therefore, the final design of Fort George would likely have been informed by at least four events. The destruction of forts in Barbados by the Great Hurricane of 1780, the successful bombardment of Yorktown in 1781, the successful bombardment of Minorca fort in 1782, and the successful defence of Gibraltar in 1782.
Perhaps the reason why the Assembly could not discover the utility of Fort George was because its main asset was a military secret. We are still discovering secret military installations in Barbados. In 2011, the secret troop movement tunnels were discovered by accident at the Garrison. So far, approximately 10, 000 ft (3 km) of tunnels have been identified.
This year, the general public learned of a massive underground building at Fort George. It comprised a series of majestic arches and was large enough to house many people and supplies. The coral-stone masonry work was exquisite, and the arches were reinforced with two rows of brickwork. It appeared to be in very good condition.
The building seemed to be the British’s solution to a shelter that could survive a Category 5 hurricane and military bombardment and be finished for use by a Governor. Thus, Barbados seemed to have constructed the first, and only known masonry military bunker on this planet. No record of a military bunker was found in the historical record until approximately 150 years later, where it would be made of concrete.
Approximately one month ago, this priceless international treasure was destroyed. There is a heavy price to pay for rewarding political supporters with managing our public services. We are normally on the losing end of their skills. But sometimes, so is the entire world.
Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at [email protected]