South of central Bridgetown is the Garrison area on the strategic southeast point of the island guarding the entrance to Carlisle Bay and the capital. During the 18th century the Caribbean was the scene of numerous military conflicts, primarily between Britain and France who fought for supremacy.
In the face of a possible French invasion in 1785, a permanent garrison was built and Barbados became the headquarters of the Windward and Leeward command of the British forces in the region. It was the largest of its kind in the British Colonies, and included hospitals, barracks and houses in the Georgian and Palladian style with grand staircases, arcades and pediments. But by the late 19th century the British decided to reduce their forces in the region, and by 1905 most of the last regiments had left the island.
In 2011, Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “an outstanding example of British colonial architecture” and today there are a number of historically significant buildings to visit.
The 61-ha (151-acre) Garrison Historic Area covers an area from the Bay Street Esplanade to Hastings on the south coast. The focal point is the 13-ha (30-acre) Garrison Savannah (or just the ‘Savannah’), once a swamp before it was drained by the Royal Engineers in the early 1800s to become a parade ground for soldiers and the place where they trained and drilled.
It was surrounded by a six-furlong racecourse in 1845, first used by regimental officers whose horses competed against those of wealthy plantation owners. Still a popular racecourse, it is now the home of the Barbados Turf Club, and is used at other times for exercising the horses, early morning or evening jogging, informal rugby and basketball games and there’s usually something going on on Sunday afternoons.
Along Garrison Road and the roads leading off are numerous 17th- to 19th-century military buildings constructed on traditional British colonial lines from brick brought as ballast on ships from England. Painted in bright colours, some now contain government offices, others are places of business or private homes.
There are several memorials around the oval racecourse. In the southwest corner is one commemorating the ‘awful’ hurricane which killed 14 men and one woman and caused the destruction of the barracks and hospital on 18 August 1831; outside the Barbados Museum in the northeast corner there’s another to the men of the Royal York Rangers who fell in action against the French in Martinique, Les Saintes and Guadeloupe in the 1809-1810 campaign.
On Garrison Road, the Main Guard overlooks the racecourse from the western side. Built in 1804, it is one of the most outstanding buildings in the Garrison Historic Area. It is of elegant Georgian style and the main house, with its Roman arched portico and pediment, has a George III Coat of Arms designed especially for the building, a handsome clock tower, a fine wide veranda (or gallery in Caribbean terms) with cast-iron trimmings, and there’s a guardhouse at the rear. It was used as the main guard command and central military police station during the 1800s until 1905 when the British forces withdrew.
Today the property is home to several organizations, including the Barbados Legion and Barbados Poppy League. Outside is an impressive array of 26 cannons mounted on metal garrison gun carriages (replaced with wooden ones during action as they were prone to shatter).
On the northeast corner of the Savannah, this museum is housed in the former British Military Prison; its upper section was built in 1817 and lower section in 1853. It became the Barbados Museum and headquarters of the Historical Society from 1930.
It is well set out through a series of 10 galleries, and exhibits include a fine map gallery with the earliest map of Barbados by Richard Ligon (1657), colonial furniture, military history (including a reconstruction of a prisoner’s cell), prints and paintings which depict social life in the West Indies, decorative and domestic arts (17th- to 19th-century glass, china and silver), and a gallery about slavery and African people in the Caribbean.
George Washington House
North of the Main Guard at the northwest corner of the Savannah, this beautifully restored 18th-century plantation house is where the future first president of the USA stayed in 1751 for a few months when, as a 19-year-old, he accompanied his sick brother Lawrence (who later died) to search for a cure for his TB. This was George Washington’s only excursion outside his homeland and Bridgetown was the largest town he had seen. At that time, health care was more advanced in Barbados than it was in the United States. While in Bridgetown, Washington was introduced to the delights of the theatre and banquets where he met the leading scientists, engineers and military strategists of the day. He contracted smallpox but the skill of a British doctor saved him. As a result, he acquired immunity to the virus which enabled him to survive an outbreak of the disease during the American War of Independence, which killed many of his men.
The house went on to become Bush Hill House, a residence for officers within the Garrison, including the Commander of the Royal Engineers. After the withdrawal of the British in 1905, it returned to private ownership until it was restored and opened to the public in 2007. The ground floor is furnished as it might have been in 1751 when Washington stayed, while the second floor displays items typical of life in the mid-18th century, from medical appliances to agricultural implements; there’s a section on the plantation economy and slavery and how it related to Washington, a slave owner himself.
Access to the Garrison Tunnels is from George Washington House. The tunnel below the house was re-discovered quite by accident in 2011 during preparation work for the relocation of the café. After exploration, this tunnel was found to extend far beyond the boundaries of the property and joins a 3-km network of at least nine other tunnels under the Savannah area, with others extending into the west of the Garrison’s 61ha (151 acres).
The restored section under George Washington House that is open to the public is about 60 m in length, 60 cm wide and 2.5-3.5 m high. It is believed that these mysterious arched-roof tunnels carved through limestone rock date from about 1820 and were used as a drainage course for the then swampy Savannah, and also to facilitate the secret movement of soldiers.
St Ann’s Fort
South of the Main Guard on the southwest side of the Savannah, St Ann’s Fort was built in 1705 and, during the 1800s, a lookout was added and it became the main command post and communication point for the six signal stations located around the island. The long, thin Drill Hall was built on to the walls of the fort in 1790 as barracks for the soldiers, and in 1881 the building became the headquarters for the Garrison until the British left in 1905. In 1979, it became the Officers’ Mess and Sergeants’ Mess of the Barbados Defence Force, and the fort remains their headquarters today. You cannot enter but look for the crenellated signal tower with its flagpole on top.
The Barbados National Armoury is in the old naval powder magazine of St Ann’s Fort. It displays the majority of the Barbados National Cannon Collection (also known as the National Ordnance Collection of Barbados) and, with more than 400 great guns, is considered the world’s rarest collection of 17th- and 18th-century English iron cannons. Some have royal seals from Charles II, Queen Anne, the King Georges and Queen Victoria. The most famous is the 1650 Commonwealth Gun, which bears the Coat of Arms of Oliver Cromwell; only one of two in the world (the other is in the Tower of London).
To the west of St Ann’s Fort, off Drill Hall Beach Road, and in the gardens of the Hilton Barbados Resort at Needhams Point, Charles Fort was built in 1650 and was the largest of the many forts which guarded the south and west coasts. Originally called Needhams Fort, the name was changed in 1660 when King Charles II regained the throne after Charles I was beheaded. In 1836 the fort was incorporated into the Garrison.
Today, only the ramparts remain but there are a number of 24-pounder cannons dating from 1824 pointing out to sea, and there is a good view across Carlisle Bay. Between the Hilton and St Ann’s Fort, the Military Cemetery dates back to 1780; the headstones make interesting reading – it appears, for instance, that disease claimed more lives than military action.