South of central Bridgetown is the Garrison Historic 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.
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.
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.
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 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.