What remains of Fort George stands on the corner of Harbour Drive and Fort Street in George Town, Grand Cayman. Locals and cruise ship visitors will see its low stone walls tucked in on the waterfront and may wonder when it was built and why so little of it is left.
Let us examine the vibrant history of the fort.
The origins and early history of the fort are uncertain. It is known that in 1662, the new governor of Jamaica, Lord Windsor, received royal instructions to take charge of the “Caimanes Islands …. By planning and raising fortifications upon them.” Although there was some settlement, the task of fortifying the small outpost was not undertaken until sometime around 1790.
Fort George was built by Caymanians using local rock and limestone. Its design was based very much on the typical military battery being built by the English around that time. The oval base of the fort measured approximately 57 feet by 38 feet. There were eight embrasures for cannons around the sides and a mahogany gate on the landward side.
The walls ranged in thickness from 2 inches on the landward side to 5 feet on the seaward side, with coral rock facings surrounding a limestone rubble core. The walls were only abut 5 feet tall, perhaps implying that the defence requirements were not deemed to very great. Certainly in 1802, when Edward Corbet came to Grand Cayman to compile a report for the Governor of Jamaica, he found the fort “by no means well equipped” with only “three guns, four to six pounders,” rather than the eight required by the original scheme.
Purpose of the fort
The purpose of the fort was to defend Grand Cayman from attacks by Spanish marauders from Cuba. It was manned by local militia, Fort George commanded control of the principal harbour of the three islands. The heyday of piracy on the high seas was over by this time, but there was still plenty of lawless activity around. Fishing and turtling fleets were locked in fierce competition with each other. Caymanians were not very comfortable with the knowledge that they were so close to the Spanish colony of Cuba and the possibility of an attack.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the fort enclosure was sand-bottomed. Children from the adjacent school used to play in it, under the shade of a huge silk cotton tree which stood right beside it. Older Caymanians remember that two large cannons and a thick chain were there, too, but these were not the remains of the original cannon; they have disappeared.
World War II era
During World War II, six lookout posts were set up at strategic locations all over the island. They were at Palmetto Point in Barkers in West Bay, in North Side on the sea opposite Hutland Road, Northwest Point, Pedro Bluff, Gorling Bluff at East End and in George Town.
In the early days, the balcony of the old Courts Building (now the National Museum) served as a lookout for the George Town harbour area, and around 1943 a lookout hut was constructed in the branches of the large old silk cotton tree at the fort. Together, these six posts allowed continuous monitoring of almost the entire coastline of Grand Cayman and these lookout posts were manned 24 hours a day, with four men serving each location in varying capacities. A small hut equipped with a bunk, a pair of binoculars and a battery-operated crank-type field telephone was provided at each site.
The main barracks for the company was in a building called Dobson Hall, just north of the fort. This building had been named after a former English officer, Colonel Dobson, who had visited the island in earlier years and had fallen in love with it. A keen scout, he had purchased the building and donated it to the Cayman Islands Scout Association. When the war began, the building was turned over for use by the Home Guard. This was a regular army-type barracks with cots for men to sleep on. However, it did not include a mess hall, and the men were expected to arrange for their own meals out of their wages.
A company of the Jamaican Home Guard was established in Grand Cayman in June 1942, and functioned until the end of World War II in 1945. It consisted of 42 recruits and two officers. Joining the Home Guard provided a full time occupation for many patriotic Caymanian men who wished to do their part for the war effort.
The Home Guard was created for the island’s defence to maintain a 24 hour costal watch. During the war, there was real fear that the Cayman Islands would become a target due to its strategic location along the shipping lanes from Panama to Nova Scotia in which allied ships passed to and from the east coast of the United States.
The commanding officer was Capt. Joseph R. “Roddy” Watler who had formerly been the inspector of police. He was assisted by Captain Craig from the Jamaica Defence Force. The senior non-commissioned officer was Sgt. Carley Nixon. Over time, three lance corporals – Vassel Johnson, Clifton Bodden and Lindo DaCoosta – were promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Regular officers trained for eight hours each day, and at night they stood guard duty at the posts around the island. They drilled every day, excluding Saturdays, and weapons were cleaned each morning. A number of the officers went to Jamaica to the Up Park Camp or to Port Royal for additional artillery training.
August 1942 saw six strikes by German submarines in the waters of the Caribbean. This level of activity led to the set-up of a small US Navy base on Grand Cayman (in George Town, directly opposite the fort and behind the public library). This secret base, code-named Baldpate, was established to help closely monitor submarine activity in the area. Some 40 to 60 men lived there on regular basis, and the numbers increased when planes came in. The base consisted of a radio shack, supply office, barracks/tents and an officer’s club.
The naval presence seemed to have made a difference. By 1945, the submarine activity was significantly reduced, and the US Navy was replaced by the US Coast Guard. Their job was to set up and man a short wave relay radio station in Grand Cayman.
This weekly column was submitted by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.