GRENADA'S "BACK-TO-FRONT" FORTS
These ancient fortifications have been there for a long time. They crown the dominating hill-tops east of St George's and are important monuments to Grenada's colourful past. Strategically, they could not have been better placed to repel an attack on St George's, but something appears to be radically wrong about them.
By all appearances, the engineers who built these forts had lost their sense of direction. They made no provision for the guns of even one of the four forts to face the harbour, and one is left to wonder what their purpose was. Believe it or not, none of the canon could be aimed at attackers approaching the island from the western sea.
Check it out yourself. You'll find all the guns faced eastwards. That is, inland. Their muzzles stood ready to pour round shot and grape or whatever, not at attacking warships, but into the wooded hills of the interior. Yes, these forts have their backs to the city. Surprising as it seems, they appear to have been deliberately designed to attack no more than the peaceful plantations of the colonists.
To discover the facts behind this strange situation, one must go back a couple of centuries. Back to the days when Caribbean islands were very valuable possessions. When the islands' agricultural produce made millionaires out of traders in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid. This, certainly, was wealth worth fighting for. European nations were fully aware of this and the English, French, Dutch and Spanish struggled fiercely to possess them.
Much of the fighting took the form of naval battles. When territory was captured or new lands colonized, however, national territorial interests had to be safeguarded and forts were the obvious answer to this problem.
In Grenada, the first fort to be erected was prefabricated and brought in by Frenchmen who came from Martinique in 1650. These Frenchmen were the first successful colonists and they set up their town and fort on a narrow strip of land which then separated the inner harbour from what is now the yacht marina.
Compared with fortifications which were to be built in later years, including the strange "back-to-front" forts, that first fort was a primitive affair. It was just a large wooden building surrounded by a stockade and was armed with only two cannon. Nevertheless, it served its purpose and was to be the salvation of the colonists.
Trouble began when the deal the Frenchmen made with the original inhabitants, the Amerindians, turned sour. Grenada was ruled at that time by the Amerindian Chief, Kaieroune, and the Frenchmen "bought" the island from him for a few knives and hatchets. For good measure, they also gave the Amerindians a bucket or two of glass beads and, generously, threw in two bottles of brandy for the Chief himself.
But, it was not long before Kaieroune realised he had been short changed and, seeking to recover the island, he instituted guerilla tactics against the settlers. Any Frenchman found hunting in the hills was killed. The Amerindians were armed only with primitive weapons, but in their desire to drive the French into the sea, they became bolder and made daring attacks on the town.
The wooden fort then became a sanctuary. Nobody could wonder far from the town without risking death, and life became very difficult. It was almost impossible to work the sugar and indigo plantations they had established and it was not until the French launched an all-out, island-wide, slaughtering drive against the Amerindians that existence on the island became relatively safe.
Of course, while their wooden fort could keep Kaieroune and his Amerindians at bay, it was no protection against pirates. Nor could it withstand an attack by any Spanish, English or Dutch warship. Nevertheless, it survived for about 50 years and was not replaced by another fort until the settlers moved their town to the other side of the harbour where St.George's now stands.
A new and improved fort was built on the site of present day Fort George but, when the influential and knowledgeable French Roman Catholic priest, Pere Labat, visited the island in 1700 he was quite unimpressed with it.
Labat knew a lot about forts and, when he returned to his base in Guadeloupe, he wrote a detailed report of his Grenada visit. And, he pulled no punches. His comments were caustic and probably exerted a great deal of influence on the circumstances of those later forts which face the "wrong" way.
Said Labat, the new fort was in an excellent position to defend the harbour but he did not think much of its construction. That, however, was not his most important criticism. From a military point of view, he said, the fort had a serious strategic problem. Just to the north of it was much higher ground.
And then Labat made a statement which, in the light of future developments, was nothing short of prophetic. If that higher ground ever fell into the hands of an enemy, he said, the fort would not have a ghost of a chance of defending itself.
Whether or not it was Labat's report which influenced them, the French on Grenada, soon after his visit, decided to get themselves a proper fort. They commissioned the official public works man in Paris, Engineer-General of the American Islands and Terra Firma, Monsieur de Callus, to do the job and, using the same site on the western side of the harbour mouth, he designed a really good fort and completed its construction in 1706.
This fort, originally called Fort Royal by the French, still stands today as Fort George, the oldest structure in the island. It is superbly located to guard the entrance to the inner harbour but, no matter how good a job de Callus did, it still had the problem Labat saw. There was undefended high ground to the north from which an enemy could easily dominate it.
The settlers, too, recognised the problem. And, they did something about it. They fortified that higher ground. It is not certain when this was done, but they constructed what they thought was an adequate fort to protect the flank of the main defences at the harbour entrance.
Then they relaxed. Events were to prove, however, that these fortifications were less than adequate and their design and construction are the next step in the story of the forts which face the "wrong" way.
Perhaps the French in Grenada became too complacent but, their long, unbroken spell of colonisation came to an end in 1762 when, without a fight, they lost the island to the British. In the following year, Grenada was officially ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris, and the final chapter in the saga of the "back-to-front" forts had begun.
The peace did not last long. In 1778, as a result of the the American War of Independence which began in 1775, Britain became involved, once more, in a war with France. The French fleet in the Caribbean was then under the command of the Comte d'Estaing and, on July 2nd 1779, he arrived off the west coast of Grenada with 25 ships of the line, 10 frigates, and with 10,000 soldiers.
Once there, the wily d'Estaing executed a brilliant manoeuvre which completely outfoxed the British and had much to do with the "back-to-front" forts which were built later. d'Estaing did not attack St George's from the sea. Instead, he landed a strong force a few miles up the coast, marched inland and, making a turning movement, attacked from the east - from the interior.
When the French fortified the high ground to the north, the work had been done with the thought of repelling invaders from the sea. The fortifications had little or no defence against a force coming from the interior. d'Estaing exploited this fact and, when his soldiers attacked from that direction, they overran the high ground with comparative ease.
And it was then that Labat's fears of eight decades before were realised. The British, looking up to the attackers in possession of the high ground to the north, had no choice but to surrender and the French took over the island.
But they did not leave it there. They learned from the sharp lesson d'Estaing taught the British. It was not enough that the high ground to the north of the main fort had to be fortified. The town and its existing forts had to be protected against an attack from the interior. d'Estaing had proved that it was essential that other forts be built on the high ground east of St.George's.
That's when the "back-to-front" forts were constructed. Only, they were not really back-to-front. They were intentionally built to face inland and to provide a defence against anybody who tried to attack from that direction.
Four years later, in 1783, when Grenada was returned to the British under the Treaty of Versailles, the French had not yet completed the four forts they had started. But the British remembered d'Estaing's lesson. They realised the vital importance of these fortifications and finished the job.
Two of the forts were called Frederick and Adolphus, respectively after the second and tenth sons of George III, then Britain's monarch. One was named Matthew in honour of Edward Matthew, Grenada's Lieutenent-Governor at that time, and the fourth carried the name Lucas, after William Lucas, a prominent Grenadian from whom the French had acquired the lands on which these forts stand.
But, it was nearly all wasted effort. These forts never saw action. Not that the wars were over. For some 30 years after the Treaty of Versailles, Britain was at war with lots of European nations. In 1793 with France, in 1795 with Holland, in 1796 with Spain, and in 1801 with Sweden. Then, in 1812, with the United States of America.
Except for a bloody revolution in 1795 which did not involve the forts, however, all this passed Grenada by. There were no attacks on the island. The forts lay peacefully on guard and, when the fighting was all over, they gradually lost their importance as instruments of war.
Today, the "back-to-front" forts still straddle the hill-tops east of St George's, standing majestically as the centre-piece, the hub of a magnificent panorama. And their ramparts provide you with a convenient photo platform. Here, from this vantage point, you can capture the quaintness of St George's. Here, laid out before you is the uniqueness of the beautiful land-locked harbour and, in the distance, the tranquillity of the mountains.
Meanwhile, the empty gun ports still look expectantly eastward in the "wrong" direction. They face the island's picturesque interior and wait patiently for the attack which will never come.