There are places whose incredible histories I have learnt only after arriving at the destination. Saint Kitts was just such a place. It was while taking in the sights of the island aboard the St. Kitts Scenic Railway that I first learnt the island was the largest producer of sugar in the world in the 18th century.
My visit to Brimstone Hill Fortress provided me yet another opportunity to delve deeper into the sometimes contentious history of this island. It was the first Caribbean island to be permanently settled by both the English (in 1623) and the French (1625), who shared it from 1627 to 1713, when it came under sole English control through the Treaty of Utrecht. Known as the ‘Mother Island’, St. Kitts provided the blueprint and springboard for English and French colonization in the Caribbean. African slaves were brought in from the earliest years of European settlement, and it was on Saint Kitts and the other early colonies that the plantation system, based on sugar production and slavery, had its genesis.
As history has shown, with great power and wealth from sugar production come great military threats. So the English identified Brimstone Hill – a twin-peaked upthrust of volcanic rock 230 m high, clad with limestone over much of its surface – as the ideal place to construct a fortress that would protect part of the coast of the island against attack from the sea, and provide a place of refuge in case of invasion. Construction of the fortress itself begun in the 1690s, but it was not until a century later that it finally took shape as a complete military structure.
Several turf wars between the British and the French were fought intermittently at Brimstone Hill Fortress from 1690 to 1783, when the Treaty of Versailles settled the ownership issue finally in favour of the British.
Today, the fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was inscribed into the prestigious list in 1999 as the earliest surviving British example of the polygonal system of fortification, and one of the finest, most well-preserved examples of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture in a Caribbean context.
Brimstone Hill Fortress – as solid a historic time-capsule as it is – also offers those who are not history buffs immediate sensory rewards. It is one of a few places on St. Kitts from whence one can enjoy panoramic vistas of forested mountains, cultivated fields, the historical township of Sandy Point, and the neighbouring islands of St. Barths, Saba and St. Eustatius.
• Taylors Range, Basseterre (+1869 465 2609, brimstonehillfortress.org). Open daily 9.30am-5.30pm