Back and fort

The Caribbean’s history of wars and colonisation has left an extraordinary legacy of military architecture, some of it nearly five centuries old. Recognised today as historic sites, these forts and naval bases are a reminder of the often bloody past that shaped our present

Brimstone Hill. Photograph by Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock.comCastillo San Felipe del Morro. Photograph by  Colin D. Young/Shutterstock.comChaguaramas Naval Base. Photograph by Niko Photo; www.nikophotography.comCitadelle Laferrière. Photograph by Daniel Alvarez/Shutterstock.comDiamond Rock. Photograph by T Photography/Shutterstock.comFort Nieuw Amsterdam. Photograph by Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock.com

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

San Juan, Puerto Rico; 16th century
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Dating back to 1539, El Morro is reputed to be the earliest surviving Spanish fortification in the Caribbean, designed to protect San Juan harbour from marauding fleets. As the original structure was augmented and expanded over the centuries, familiar features like the dome-covered sentry boxes or garitas were added.

 

Brimstone Hill

Western St Kitts; 17th century
UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1690 the British military managed to transport cannon up the precipitous slopes of Brimstone Hill, then spent a century constructing a fortress to guard the coast of St Kitts. The massive structure, known as “the Gibraltar of the West Indies,” was built by enslaved Africans. Abandoned in 1853, it was gradually restored in the following century.

 

Fort Nieuw Amsterdam

North of Paramaribo, Suriname; 18th century

The colony of Suriname was once considered valuable enough for the Dutch to give up Manhattan Island in its place. Following a French attack, in 1734 the Dutch authorities laid the foundation stone for a major new fort at the confluence of the Commewijne and Suriname Rivers, protecting both the capital Paramaribo and the colony’s richest estates. Pentagonal in layout, with five protruding bastions, the fort was built with bricks shipped from the Netherlands.

 

Diamond Rock

Off the south coast of Martinique; 19th century

Strategically commanding the sea passage between Martinique and St Lucia, this tiny 574-foot-high island with its vertiginous slopes played a unique role in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1803, Commodore Samuel Hood of the Royal Navy hoisted guns to its summit, appointed a garrison of 120 men, and commissioned the island as HMS Diamond Rock. For seventeen months the “vessel” harassed French shipping, until it was captured by a fleet of sixteen ships.

 

Citadelle Laferrière

South of Cap-Haïtien, Haiti; 19th century
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Commissioned by Henri Christophe, general of the Haitian army, and built between 1805 and 1820, the massive Citadel, with its 365 cannon atop a three-thousand–foot mountain, was intended to safeguard newly independent Haiti from a French invasion. It was designed to withstand a year’s siege, with provisions for five thousand defenders, but never faced an actual attack.

 

Chaguaramas Naval Base

North-western Trinidad; 20th century

In 1940, during the Second World War, the British government leased several naval bases to the US military, including the entire north-western peninsula of Trinidad, finally returned to newly independent Trinidad and Tobago in 1963. Today the area is a national park, dotted with bunkers, hangers, and other remnants — including an impressive though rusting missile tracking station, once part of the US Air Force’s Eastern Test Range.