Like most of the islands in the Lesser Antilles, St. Kitts has a very colorful colonial history. Even before the Europeans arrived, a number of native tribes came and went, often violently displacing one another.
A Brief History of St Kitts
The islands were originally explored by the Spanish in the late 15th century after Columbus sailed through the archipelago. The first non-Spanish settlement on the island was the town of Dieppe, on the north coast, founded in 1583 by French refugees of the Protestant-Catholic wars (the refugees were from Dieppe, in northern France). These refugees were quickly displaced by the Spanish.
The next settlement was English in 1623, at what is now Old Road – the first English colony in the Caribbean. This settlement was also near the Kalinago Carib settlement, and the English at first lived in peace with the Amerindians on the island.
The French arrived again in 1625, rebuilding old Dieppe town, and more or less living at peace with the English also on the island. Just one year later the English and French joined forces to eradicate the Kalinago people in the genocide at Bloody River.
The English and French both used St. Kitts as their bases to colonize other islands in the Antilles. But in the early 17th century, as England and France warred in Europe, the colonists mirrored this aggression and would fight for almost two centuries, with control of the small island going back and forth between the two countries for nearly two hundred years (the Spanish also stepped in there again in 1629 and completely decimated the colonies).
One early fortification was Charles Fort, constructed on the waterfront on the northwest side of the island near Sandy Point, at the time the most important anchorage in the Caribbean due to the trade passing through. The English started construction on this fort in 1670 and would continue work on it for over a decade. The French took control of the fort in 1690 and the English quickly retreated to a hill overlooking Charles Fort. With the help of slaves, the English carried cannons to the top of Brimstone Hill and were easily able to fire down on the French positions at Charles Fort, forcing the French to abandon the post.
It was the “ah-ha” moment for the English when they realized the strategic significance of this hill. They quickly started constructing fortifications on Brimstone Hill. The walls were fashioned from volcanic rock and the cement from limestone, both procured on-site. Slave labor was predominately used for construction, and many died during construction of the fort. Construction would continue more or less for the next one hundred years, through 1790.
Brimstone Hill was a significant player during the colonial period. It was known as “the Gibraltar of the West Indies” but its 1,000 defenders weren’t enough to ward off an attack of 8,000 French troops in 1782 (encouraged by the new United States). Brimstone Hill, and the rest of St. Kitts, was restored to the British in the 1783 Treaty of Paris (which also officially recognized the independent United States). It wouldn’t be the last time that the French attacked the British on the island.
Brimstone Hill and Charles Fort were abandoned in 1853 as island trade waned. Charles Fort was turned into a leper asylum in 1890 and up until the last leper perished in 1996. It has since fallen into disrepair.
Brimstone Hill was left to vegetation and vandals. A small crew of dedicated locals began cleaning the brush in the early 20th century and preventing further disrepair. Queen Elizabeth II declared Brimstone Hill a national park in 1985, and the site received status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It’s unique in that it’s one of the earliest, most well-preserved colonial fortifications in all of the New World.
Today most of the fortifications can be toured, and the views from the top are amazing.
I walked to Brimstone Hill from where I’m keeping my boat at St. Kitts Marine Works. The walk was about thirty minutes and I arrived right at opening at 0930. Admission for non-residents is $10 USD or $27 EC.
When you arrive at the first fortification, the Magazine Bastion, you’ll be presented with views of Sandy Point and St. Eustatius and Saba off in the distance. On a really clear day you can also see St. Martin and St. Barthelemy. But don’t take all of your pictures just yet because it keeps getting better.
Some of the buildings are locked up while others you can walk through; some may come off as a little rough with piles of construction materials and whatnot. I kind of prefer this to the “fake manicured look” though, so take is as you will.
There is a small kitchen, gift shop, and visitor’s center at the level of the parade grounds, with a lot of picnic tables.
From the parade grounds you can continue up the hill to Fort George. You can walk around the outside of Fort George on both the Eastern and Western Place of Arms and get great views all around.
The Citadel, the main structure on top of the hill at Fort George, contains the museum. The barracks rooms have been restored and contain exhibits that you would expect to see at a place like this – diagrams of the history, construction, life at the fort, and so on.
Overall I spent about two hours wandering around here, and that was ample time. The sun was out in full force and I was passing medium-well into the well-done range, so I hoofed it back to the boatyard.
If you’re getting here from Basseterre, most of the taxi drivers in the city center will take you on a tour of this impressive site. A much cheaper way is to take a bus from Basseterre to Sandy Point ($3.50EC) and get dropped off at the road leading to the fortress.