Saturday 18 May 2024

Cruising the Caribbean

 At the behest of my wife, I recently spent a couple of weeks in the Caribbean on a cruise ship. On the face of it, not really my scene - but we had a great time. The Britannia is a lovely ship, and waking up every morning docked on a different island presented some great opportunities - white sand beaches, swaying palm trees, exotic wildlife, rum punch and ... military history! Here are five sites that pricked my interest.

Firstly, the North Tanki Maraka Heritage Park on the island of Bonaire. When Holland fell to Nazi Germany in May 1940, the Dutch Antilles were effectively 'orphaned'. German ships were seized and the authorities on the Dutch Islands joined the Allied cause. The islands of the Curacao Colony became important - and a focus of German attention - as local oil production was geared up. Following Pearl Harbour the US Army established a presence on the islands - initially by expanding the airfields and then by establishing a major supply base on Bonaire. 

North Tanki Maraka US Base (1942-47)

The site of the Tanki Maraka base is on the circular route which skirts around the south of the island. We hired a golf buggy and spotted the entrance easily as there is a large interpretation panel next to the entry path. A circular walking route picks out the main points of interest and a series of panels explain the history. The building are long gone, but the concrete footings remain along with old oil drums, cables and long forgotten vehicles. As one strolls along the paths, it is easy to imagine what a hive of activity this place was from 1942 right through to 1947 when it was deciommissioned.

The nearby island of Curacao has a 'modern' history going back to the early 1500s when the native population was enslaved by Spanish colonists. It was fought over by the Dutch and Spanish during the 1600s, until the former gained control - periodically suppressing slave revolts and fighting off the British until oil was discovered in nearby Venezuela and the geo-political importance of the island was transformed.

The Rif Fort on Curacao (1829-1947)

The Rif (Reef) Fort in Willemstad is an easy stroll from the port, so no need to negotiate a taxi ride! Built in 1829, under the direction of King William I of the Netherlands, the fort consists of five foot thick walls made of coral stone built to a height of four stories. It was originally armed with 56 cannons - two of which are sited at the entrance to what is now the Renaissance Shopping Mall. These massive muzzle loaders date to the early 19th Century.

The third site I've chosen for this whistle stop tour is the truly spectacular Brimstone Fort on St Kitts, a sail day away from the Dutch Antilles and back in the British zone of interest. The Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is noted as an 'outstanding example of European military engineering dating from the 17th and 18th Century'. It can be reached by taxi from the port at St Christopher. 

Brimstone Fort, St Kitts (1690-1853)

Lower Bastion, Brimstone Fort

Eagle eyed readers will have noted the rather odd grey colouring of the cannons in the picture above. The reason for this was that at the time of our visit they had just been primed for a coat of black paint. During the American Revolutionary War- in Jan/ Fen 1782, a substantial French Force besieged and successfully stormed the fortress. It was restored to the British a month or two later under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

Next on my list is the stunningly beautiful and aptly named Nelson's Dockyard on the island of Antigua. Once described as a 'vile hole' by Horatio Nelson, it is now an achingly pretty collection of beautifully restored colonial buildings adjacent to a harbour that is still in use today. No more the preserve of Royal Navy ships, it now serves the super yachts of various non-doms! Abandoned by the British in 1889, the site was superbly restored in the 1950s. Take a taxi, not an organised trip, that way you will have more than 30 minutes to look around.

Royal Navy Offices, Nelson's Dockyard

Above the dockyard at Shirley Heights, one can find Fort Shirley - a British military base which was active from 1781 ton 1825. Aside from the stunning view of the English Harbour (and Eric Clapton's villa and Crossroads rehabilitation centre) one can explore a number of military structures including several blockhouses. Nearby is the military cemetery which includes a striking memorial to the 54th Regiment inscribed with the names of those who were killed during skirmishes with the French, and who died of disease.

Blockhouse on Shirley Heights

Memorial to the 54th Regiment, Shirley Heights

Finally, back on the island of Barbados, a trip to the Gun Hill Signal Station, St George is definitely worthwhile, and can be covered on one of P&Os day trips along with the stunning Sunbury Plantation House. The hill, which offers spectacular views, has military associations going back to 1697 and remained in use to the early part of the 20th Century. The signal station was one of six built in 1818 to warn of invasion or civil unrest. 

Gun Hill Signal Station, Barbados

Inside the main tower at the old station, there is a mini-military museum displaying information and images relating to the West India Regiment and the Barbados Regiment (the latter extant from 1948). Two soldiers from the former won the Victoria Cross and their stories are recounted on well-researched information panels. The case full of military badges and equipment give a flavour of the various units which were stationed at this remote outpost over the years. Near the steps to the tower there is one of two restored early 19th Century naval cannons. Rather mysteriously, one of the has a plaque affixed, commemorating Craftsman Llewelyn Kellond of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Kellond hailed from Hayes in Middlesex and lived in Sheffield, England. He died near Arnhem in 1944, and is commemorated on the Groesbeek Memorial in the Netherlands.

The Britannia from Fort Frederick, Grenada

So, that's it. Just a taster of some of the fascinating military history that one can explore whilst on a Caribbean Cruise. Time to venture beyond the beaches?