High on a hill in St Kitts near Sandy Point is a historic time capsule. Stone walls of volcanic rock were fashioned and laid by African slaves using limestone from the slopes as a mortar. This was for the Brimstone Hill Fortress designed by British engineers to protect their interest against the French who despite having signed a Treaty of Partition in 1627 dividing St Kitts, mounted guns against the British in July 1689 capturing not just Fort Charles which had been designated neutral territory but the entire island. Then after reinforcement troops arrived from Britain and St Kitts was once again regained from the French, construction of the fortress with 800ft walls started in 1690 and took over 100 years to complete. Brimstone Hill Fortress is now a national park, and one of the top tourist attraction on St Kitts.
Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park is one of the current 19 Caribbean UNESCO World Heritage sites due to the historical, architectural and cultural significance of the fortress. It is also one of the most extensive and well-preserved British polygonal style fortification in the Western Hemisphere. Plus from its lofty perch, you can see spectacular vistas of the Caribbean Sea, five neighboring Caribbean islands (St. Barts, St. Eustatius, Saba St Martin, Nevis ) and the lush rainforest of St Kitts.
The polygonal shape and thick walls got the fortress its nickname ‘Gibraltar of the Caribbean.’ Within the walls, the British were able to finally defend their colonial territories except on January 1782 when they were once again attacked by 8,000 French soldiers. With just 1,000 British troops and African slaves, they defended the fortress for about a month before surrendering on 12 February. The British regained the fort after the Treaty of Versailles was signed a year later, and fortification continued until 1794. Sadly, in 1852 Brimstone Hill Fortress was abandoned as British troops were reassigned and the fortress was left to crumble and be plundered for its stone.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Display of Solider Uniform.
Thankfully the Society for the Restoration of Brimstone Hill was found in 1965, and the first stage of the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park was opened by HRH Prince Charles in 1973 after a major restoration effort. This phase named the Prince of Wales Bastion houses the Brigade Office, the Main Guard Barracks, and a Powder Magazine. Now, it also contains a conference/banquet facilities which are used quite frequently for public functions including weddings.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Prince of Wales Bastion.
There is much more to see at Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park than the Prince of Wales Bastion. In fact, as you first turn on to Island Main Road leading to Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, look out for the Lime Kiln ruins. This was essential for the construction of the fortress as it was where the limestone was heated in the kiln to make the mortar.
Further along, inside the gate, take note of the Barrier Redan where four cannons were mounted to protect the road. Then through the first narrow archway and past the Magazine Bastion, you will see a massive wall which was breached by the French in 1782. From there a grass road leads to Orillion Bastion. Further along is the ruins of the Royal Engineers’ Quarters and Adjutant’s Quarters which leads to a second narrow archway. Passing through, you are on to the Visitor’s Centre which is one side of the Parade Ground and the Cul de Sac is below it.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Visitor Center.
To the right of the Visitors’ Center is the ruins of the Artillery Officers’ Barracks. With beautiful arches, this house which had two floors was where the Commanding Officer and his Second Lieutenant lived, and it was apparently the best residence within the fortress. To the rear are ruins of the cookhouse where the servants prepared the officer’s meals.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Artillery Officers’ Quarters.
Above the Artillery Officers’ Barracks at Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park is a grassy slope called Fort Charlotte — this was where the Governors House once stood. The Governors House was destroyed, and the slope now referred to as Monkey Hill provides spectacular views along the south coast of St Kitts and further afield to Nevis and Montserrat.
Sadly on my visit, there were no sightings of monkeys at the top of the hill — only at the bottom of Island Main Road as they dashed in the bushes. Some say these wild monkeys which are now all over St Kitts were brought from Africa by the French as pets. Others say the French brought the monkeys to frustrate the British (i.e. eat their crops). Whatever the case, they are very good at camouflage in the lush landscape, so a fun game as you drive around St Kitts is to “spot the monkey.” You never know where they’ll next turn up!
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – View of Monkey Hill from the Citadel.
The crowning glory of Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park is the Citadel which now houses the Fort George Museum. The Citadel is reached after climbing a ramp of steps from the Visitors Center. There you will also find the Western Place of Arms which has three sentinel 24-pounder cannons overlooking the Caribbean Sea. There are also more cannons around the fortress including at the Eastern Place of Arms where cannons point to the mountains.
A fun thing to do when you get to the top of Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park is to ring the Tower Bell. This is off to the left of the pole proudly flying the St Kitts & Nevis flag. Interestingly, upon inquiry to the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park Society, they indicate that there is no definitive historical record for the use of the Tower Bell and efforts are being made to confirm its original usage. However, current speculation is that the Tower Bell was used to announce the daily routines of the garrison, such as changing of guard duty, meal time, etc.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Bell Tower.
It should be noted that the terrain at Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park is not difficult but would recommend wearing comfortable shoes. As since the fort was built on a series of levels, steps are everywhere. Though they are wide and not very steep or too rugged, there are a lot of them. Plus if you want to explore the grassy areas including the cemetery and hospital ruins, it’s best to wear sensible shoes.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Steps leading up to Citadel.
Finally, the road up to Brimstone Hill Fortress is winding, steep in parts and really no more than a single-lane road. Plus there are two archways that are extremely narrow and challenging for cars and vans to navigate. Thus, if you are not comfortable driving on narrow roads, would recommend hiring a taxi instead of trying to make the drive yourself. This also frees up your hands to take photos or video of the picturesque scenery as you drive up and down from Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park.
St Kitts: Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park – Picnic Area.
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