From as early as the 1700s the British King called Jamaica “the gem in my crown.”

The Guarded City – 1690

An illustration of pre-1692 Port Royal

IT HAS been said that geography is nine-tenths destiny and that is certainly the case in the Caribbean. Historically these islands were alternately pawns of war over territory and sugar producing components that oiled the wheels of English mercantilism. From as early as the 1700s the British King called Jamaica “the gem in my crown.” Jamaica’s forts, which began to be erected soon after the English conquest in 1655, were a direct result of the need to secure naval and commercial interests.

The English began their fortification at the ‘point’ as Port Royal was first known. Once the colony became better established and Kingston began to develop, however, there was a need to defend the entire Liguanea Plain in which Kingston was located.

The security of Kingston Harbour was dependent on forts as up until the mid-20th century, the prevailing mode of attack was by sea. The fear was that an attacker would attempt to land a force and occupy Liguanea Plain, thereby taking control of Kingston and the rest of the island. The entire purpose of a fort was to strategically place guns to unleash maximum force on one’s enemies.

Between mid-1600s and the late 1700s, at least eight forts were built, six before the 1692 earthquake. Contracts were given to local builders and slave labour was used. Many as five hundred slaves could be employed at a single site. Stone and brick were the main materials, most of the stone was dug from quarries at Port Henderson Hill.

Potential enemies approaching from the east (windward) side would have then had to pass the fire of Forts Rupert, Morgan and Charles while in a narrow sea-channel. If they managed to round the point (or Port Royal) they would have had come up against with Forts Walker and James, and if they managed to make it into the harbour itself they would have had to contend with Fort Carlisle.

In the late 17th century when the earthquake left the island particularly vulnerable to attack there was concern that the French could attack the Liguanea Plain from the east. The idea was that they could land troops in the thinly populated area to the east of a narrow pass where Long Mountain meets the harbour, and force it without ever having to contend with the guns of Port Royal which were slowly being rebuilt. In 1694, the French used this exact method to attack. The English, however, were forewarned by a Capt. Elliott who escaped by canoe from St. Domingue (what is now the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where he had been imprisoned by the French. The English braced themselves by refortifying Port Royal and a fort that stood where Rockfort now stands. Some three thousand French troops, led by Admiral Du Casse, anchored at Cow Bay, just north of the mouth of the Yallahs River and began to ravage the eastern parishes before regrouping and heading to Clarendon. A mere 250 Jamaican militia met them at Carlisle Bay and turned them back in an impressive display of bravery. The French, lost close to seven hundred men. Clarendon was saved from the fate of the eastern parishes which had suffered severe property damage, and many lives were spared because the Jamaican inhabitants had removed themselves from that area prior to the arrival of the French.

Although raids were not uncommon in Jamaica in the 17th century, this was the only invasion attempt made other than that by Cromwell’s troops in 1655. The militia was dutifully recognized for their heroism and accorded the use of the royal colour blue on the facings of their uniforms. The present day Rockfort was built in 1729 and designed to hold seventeen guns. Like its predecessor, it was intended to cover any eastern approach therefore the guns now seen along the harbour side were most likely never used to defend the fort. In the 1700s and for a long while after, water, too shallow for ships to sail in, would have come right up to the edge of the fort. The road ran through the fort itself, offering a defence in itself, supported by the eastern facing guns.

The earthquake of 1692 did more than cause certain forts to disappear and new ones to be built – it changed the landscape through submarine convulsions – one of which opened a new channel under Port Henderson Hill. This channel permitted ships to enter the harbour without having to come into contact with the guns of Port Royal. When relations between Britain and Spain began to deteriorate, that the need to protect this channel took precedence. In 1740 construction began at Mosquito Point. By the mid-1750s, the 80-gun Fort Augusta named after the mother of King George III, was completed, thanks to ­ £12,000 and a sixty gun booty captured from the French in 1745. Although Fort Augusta effectively blocked the narrow passes into the Kingston Harbour, to achieve added security, in the 1740s, a battery of twelve guns was placed along a small promonotory due west of Port Royal. They came to be known as the Twelve Apostles or the Apostles Battery.

Small artillery fortifications without flanking defenses, known as redoubts were built at Drummond’s Hill, south of Newstead, near the Mammee River, at Dallas Castle on the fording of the Cane River, and a battery placed at Thorn Hill Ridge. A well-known redoubt was called Fort Belle – located near what is now the site of today’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. It was built along with two others, on Stilwell Road and in Bridgemont Heights, to protect the Stony Hill Barracks. (Two guns from these redoubts can be seen in the present Manor Park Plaza near the site of the old Mill restaurant.)

Article by Rebecca Tortello.
Sources: Buisseret, D. (1971). The Fortifications of Kingston. 1655-1914. Kingston: Bolivar Press. Buisseret, D. (1983). The French Invasion of Jamaica – 1694. In The Jamaica Journal, (16), no. 3, pp. 31-33. Buisseret, D. (1990) Historic Jamaica from the Air. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Raising The Guns

  • 1655 -1667: Fort Charles, 26-gun stone fort called Fort James after King Charles’s brother
  • 1678: Fort Carlisle, 14-gun fort
  • 1678: Fort Rupert, 22-gun fort
  • 1678 -1680: Fort Morgan, 26-gun fort was constructed to cover a particularly vulnerable point, the sea-front between Fort Charles and Rupert Fort Walker, 18 gun

During the 18th Century

  • Fort Castile: guarded the crossing of the Hope River by the sea was strengthened by the addition of auxiliary batteries into Fort Nugent.
  • A watch tower was also erected to cover the hills surrounding Fort Nugent called the Martello Tower (pictured right). It still stands today.
  • A signal station, Rodney’s Lookout, named after the famed admiral, was also built on Port Henderson hill.
  • Two other forts were built at Port Henderson –Fort Johnston named after one Duncan Johnston, who owned the land, and Fort Small, erected by one David Small.
  • 1700: Fort William, named after King William
  • 1729: Rockfort, 17 guns
  • Mid-1750s: Fort Augusta, 80-gun named after the mother of King George III.
  • 1799: Fort Small became known as Fort Clarence, in honour of William, Duke of Clarence, King of England (1820-37), who served in the West Indies as a naval officer. In this period, batteries were also constructed at Ferry and Salt Island, although no remains exist today.

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