Taking The High Ground

submerged-cannonsHistoric Ft. St. George Cay is a rich slice of TCI History.

Story & Photos  By  Dr. Donald H. Keith, Trustee Turks & Caicos National Museum and President, Ships of Discovery

June 12, 1998.  “Some people say there’s five and some say six.” Jack McWilliams yells to Jon Moore and me as we drop over the side of his boat into the clear shallows off Ft. St. George Cay (also called Fort George Cay). He’s referring to the cannons below us, lying partially buried in sand on the seabed. The water is clear and only waist deep. There are three of them within a few feet of one another, all heavily camouflaged by marine growth, but readily identifiable. Jon and I are just over for the day from the Turks & Caicos National Museum, at Jack’s invitation. The informal head of an informal group of Pine Cay residents who have made it their mission to learn more about the cay and its history, Jack is looking for suggestions on how to proceed with documenting the Turks & Caicos Islands’ only British fort.

We set to work taking rough measurements, compass readings for orientation, and photographs. Two of the cannons are quite large-over 9 feet in length. The third one is much shorter, only about 6 feet long. They seem to be arranged in an arc, pointing out to sea and covering the horizon from west to north. Jack hops in and swims directly to another location about 50 feet farther to the south. When we join him he points out two more cannons, one pointing southwest and the other more to the south. The one pointing south seems to be out of place and almost completely buried in the sand, so we can’t be sure of its size. The other is only about 7 feet long, and is unlike any of the others.

We stand up in the shallow water for a conference. The main question is why are the cannons in the water in the first place? Jack tells us that Brooke Fox, a long-time Pine Cay resident who has been visiting Ft. St. George Cay for years, thinks that the cannons were originally mounted on land, but over the past 200 years creeping coastal erosion ate away the land beneath, eventually undermining them and toppling them into the sea. This hypothesis is bolstered by the way in which the five cannons still point out to sea covering almost the entire anchorage between Ft. St. George Cay and the outer reef.

Remembering first-hand accounts of visitors to the cay in the early years of the 19th century, one of which mentions seeing “two 24-pounders in a tolerable state and three smaller ones much honeycombed, with carriages quite decayed,” I wonder if these are the same five cannons. Then, because another report from about the same time period mentions “The fort has 11 guns, most of them dismounted,” it occurs to me that other cannons might lie buried in the sand, perhaps in the curious 50-foot gap between the two groups visible today. Jon, an archaeologist with Parks Canada and veteran of the Museum’s project to mold and cast replicas of the inscriptions on Sapodilla Hill, observes that at least two of them still have intact trunnions (the cylindrical lugs at the balance point on either side of the barrel that enable it to be elevated or depressed when aiming). This is an important clue, since it was normal practice to knock the trunnions off any cannons that were to be abandoned, rendering them unserviceable to the enemy. It implies that when the fort’s garrison was removed, the fort may not have been formally abandoned, but rather turned over to a Loyalist militia who would then have been responsible for their own defense. This hypothesis makes sense in light of the fact that many of the Caicos Loyalists had been officers or soldiers during the American War of Independence and had seen a lot of action. This, in turn, could mean that the fort was in service a good deal longer than military records would suggest.

As we wade ashore, Jack points out abundant evidence that the island’s high ground, the northwest point, is indeed losing its battle with the sea. We measure the distance from the shore to the submerged cannons and find that if Brooke’s hypothesis is correct, Ft. St. George Cay has already lost at least 150 feet of land on its seaward side. Strange features on the ironshore catch our eye:  curious parallel lines of holes oriented almost perfectly east-west emerge from the sand on the beach, march across the ironshore, and disappear into the sea. The lines are about 24 inches apart and the holes are about 4 inches in diameter. There is no question but they are man-made, but what was their purpose? Jack shows us another anomaly: a dense, peaty deposit of organic matter apparently wedged or trapped in a fissure in the rocks. It is utterly unlike anything else we have seen in the Islands. We have no idea what formed it or what it means, but an embedded wooden plank strongly suggests human involvement. A short distance away, well above the high tide line but still susceptible to storm wave action, five courses of carefully cut native stone, seemingly only recently exposed, are weathering out of the bluff. It is the corner of some kind of structure, but the rest of it is hidden in the dense undergrowth. Jon and I are itching to push into the bush, but now darkness is coming on and we still have the boat ride to Leeward Marina ahead of us. Little did I suspect, as we packed up and loaded our equipment into Jack’s boat, that 10 years would pass before I would set foot on Ft. St. George Cay again.

February 19, 2008.  “Over here!” a disembodied voice cries up ahead. Museum Director Neal Hitch and I follow the sound, weaving and bobbing to avoid the tangled branches and vines of Fort George’s dense undergrowth. Suddenly we come upon Walt Brewer and Jack McWilliams standing beside a massive, waist high stone ruin and grinning like Cheshire cats. “This is probably the shot furnace they talk about in the sailing directions,” Walt opines. “What, they made cannonballs here?” Jack-knowing what kind of heat it takes to melt iron-asks incredulously. “No . . . this is where they would heat up shot until they were red hot, so when they fired them at enemy ships it would set them ablaze,” Walt says with authority. He’s been doing his homework, honing up on the fine points of 18th century ordnance. Idly, Neal toes the leafy duff at his feet, exposing a potshard. He picks it up, rubs off the dirt, smiles. After spending 10 years with the Ohio Historical Society maintaining scores of historic sites Neal knows his ceramics. “Creamware,” he says. “We find this stuff all the time in Ohio.” Then he adds, “Late 18th century, mean date 1791, but in production for another 30 years,” and puts the artifact back where he found it.

Jack and Walt, both residents of Pine Cay, have been visiting Ft. St. George for years, trying to unravel its mysteries. Ten years ago they founded the Fort St. George Bicentennial Project, the purpose of which was summed up in a statement by Jack McWilliams, the group’s coordinator:

“It has come to the attention of a group of members on Pine Cay that the ruins of Ft. St. George are rapidly being washed into the sea. The front of the old fort is changing with trees and shrubs falling into the water after each high tide and storm. We feel there is little or nothing we can do to stop this natural process.  However, we do see a need for preservation.

For many years we have taken it for granted and have enjoyed walking the beaches and showing our friends the cannons with really little thought to the history. But now, with the fort in danger of fastly disappearing, we are hopeful we can do something to save it for its history.”

Neal and I came to Pine Cay to give a presentation on one of the Museum’s projects, but before we knew it Jack and Walt, anxious to show us what they found in the island’s interior, had us on Ft. St. George Cay, plunging into the bush, following the faint outline of a low stone wall or foundation that soon disappeared into the leafy compost and branches that litter the ground. The underbrush was thick and progress was slow and halting. In the airless gloom of the understory I was soon aware of a cloud of biting midges traveling in formation with us. For 100 yards we saw nothing but bush, punctuated occasionally by a building stone jutting out of the leafy litter, until we came upon the supposed shot furnace. We won’t know for sure if that’s actually what it is without proper excavation, but it’s a good possibility because the log of the survey vessel Blossom, which passed by the fort after it was abandoned, states:

“Ft. St. George was erected to protect the anchorage. Two 42 Pounders only are now fit for service. The furnace for heating shot is still standing, the chimney of which can be seen a few miles round, here are some pools of tolerable good water the most convenient for shipping in this neighbourhood . . . .”

The 1856 edition of the Columbian Navigator also references a furnace:

“. . . Fort Kay, a low sandy islet, covered, like the others, with bush, it is not more than a quarter of a mile across, and has three or four wells of indifferent water, which probably might be improved by cleaning out: there are the remains of a fort, a magazine, and a furnace for heating shot . . . .”

As the most salient features of Ft. St. George Cay, the cannons and shot furnace bear silent witness to the reason for its existence. Two centuries ago, in this very spot, British soldiers endured heat, privation, clouds of mosquitoes and disease against which they had no defense, laboring to build a military base and shore battery to defend the homes and fields of 40 or so plantation families thinly scattered throughout the Caicos Islands. North and Middle Caicos were the population centers in those days, having been settled only a decade or so earlier by Loyalists forced to leave their land when the American rebels succeeded in winning their independence. The plots of land that they occupied and millions of dollars in cash settlements that were given to them were a grateful government’s way of recognizing their loyalty to the Crown and re-compensating them for the sacrifices they made.

Why here?

ft-george-diagramBut how did they end up in the Caicos Islands, of all places? It all began in 1783 when Lt. John Wilson was ordered to proceed to the Bahamas, which belonged to the Crown, to make a general survey of the Islands in order to determine where land grants could be made to the Loyalists. Although he visited the Turks Islands he could not make a determination of the population because it varied according to season (like today!), but it seems to have been less than 100. Interestingly, his report does not even mention the Caicos Islands, and from this we may safely assume that they were essentially deserted.

The first Loyalists began to arrive in 1787. During the ensuing plantation period, hundreds of new immigrants cleared huge areas for agriculture and pasture, built imposing structures of stone and wood, planted cotton and sugar cane, and built a road connecting Middle and North Caicos. It is important to appreciate that the Crown had a considerable investment to protect once the Loyalists, their families, and dependants moved to the Islands. When, in the final years of the 18th century, the colonists became concerned that social upheavals in Haiti might result in an attempted invasion, they petitioned the Crown for military assistance. Ft. St. George was the physical manifestation of the Crown’s concern and its effort to reassure the colonists that they would be protected. That the Loyalists did indeed need that protection is substantiated by an incident reported in the Bahama Gazette, August 21, 1798. While attempting to return with cargo salvaged from a supply vessel wrecked near West Caicos, five boats sent by the Caicos Loyalists were attacked by a French privateer. A running gun-battle ensued, unfortunately resulting in the colonists losing not only the salvaged cargo, but also the five boats!

Just the facts

Most of what precious little we know about Ft. St. George comes from the writings of H.E. Sadler, a transplanted Jamaican and amateur historian who wrote copiously about the Turks & Caicos Islands. Unfortunately for us, he never realized the importance of including citations. He could have saved the rest of us an enormous amount of time (and vouchsafed his own conclusions) if only he had mentioned what sources he used. Until those sources can be re-located and verified, it would be wise to approach the “conventional wisdom” about Fort George, most of which comes from Sadler, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

So what do we think we know about Ft. St. George? What authority, other than Sadler, has ever mentioned it at all? How do we know it really existed? What original sources do we have to go on? Sadler gives us the following: Work on Ft. St. George was begun December 1798. In one year, the 200-man detachment of the 67th Royal Hampshire Regiment, first commanded by Ensign Neil Campbell and later by “Lieutenant Owen” suffered 15% fatalities, not to combat but to hardship and disease. Sadler says the fort was abandoned in 1799, but research in England uncovered reference to a “large detachment” being sent to the Caicos Islands in September 1797. At the end of 1798, the unit was transferred to Jamaica and in 1801 the 67th Royal Hampshire Regiment shipped back to England-but “some men were left in the Islands.” Yet another contradiction comes from a 1788 London Times article which seems to indicate that Ft. St. George existed 10 years earlier: “The loyalists are men of capital. They have a decent trade with England, receiving their supplies from that quarter and sending in return their sugar and cotton from Ft. St. George.”

Regardless of exactly when the fort came into being, why it was located on the tiny island that subsequently became known as Ft. St. George Cay is less of a mystery:  the cay is perfectly situated to guard the best anchorage for small vessels on the northern side of the Caicos Islands. A passage in the Columbian Navigator of 1856 describes in considerable detail how to find the cut in the reef and where to anchor inside.  It makes reference to “A set of chain-moorings [that] were laid down here by a Bahama merchant some years since” which would seem to indicate a relatively high volume of ship traffic. An additional attraction was the availability of fresh water on both Ft. St. George and Pine Cay. “The greatest advantage of Pine’s Kay is a great lagoon of fresh water, sufficient for fifty ships: it is very drinkable, and not far from the beach.”

Land grants made to the Loyalists Missick, Stubbs, Penn, Williamson, and Hyett on Parrot Cay and North Caicos were the closest to Ft. St. George; they and other Loyalist planters undoubtedly  depended on it to protect their commerce. The plantation period lasted only a few decades. When the land failed to be as productive as they had hoped, most of the planters departed for greener pastures. Now the only vestiges of their passing, other than their surnames, are the forlorn ruins of their once-imposing homes and buildings, the expertly dry-laid stone walls that surrounded their fields, and the fort that once protected them.

ft-george-coastRediscovering Ft. St. George Cay

Today, Ft. St. George Cay’s location is again attracting attention, but for entirely different reasons. TCI government officials announced plans to develop the cay with a Sea World-style aquarium, featuring among other attractions, captive dolphins. Development of tiny Ft. St. George Cay on such a grand scale would likely necessitate dredging to permit large vessels carrying scores of visitors to access the island, heaping the spoil on the land to increase elevation, and completely eradicating the old fort and any recognizable trace of the original island and its ecosystem.

Since 1992, Ft. St. George Cay has been listed as one of the seven historical locations recognized by the TCI government as deserving National Park status, and it was included in the 600 acres of National Heritage Sites placed under the protection of the Turks & Caicos National Trust. Oddly, title to the 600 acres was never actually transferred to the Trust, leaving Fort George, Cheshire Hall, Salt Cay, Boiling Hole, Wade’s Green, and all other Heritage Sites subject to sale and development.

We live in a day and age of unprecedented population pressure on cultural and natural resources. In developing countries the world over, it is the same story. Human population’s understanding of and appreciation for historical heritage boils down to a single conviction: “Old is bad, new is good.” When there is a choice between preserving remnants of the past or bulldozing them to make way for development, almost invariably development wins, and the building, wall, windmill, house, shipwreck, graveyard or fort disappears, usually without a trace.

A better and more appropriate alternative for Ft. St. George is to “take the high ground,” enhancing what is already there rather than replacing it with something completely different. The obvious first step with such an approach is for the TCI government to transfer title to the National Trust, legally establishing Ft. St. George Cay as an historic park. This simple action would save the cay and prove the government’s commitment to the protection and preservation of the Islands’ environmental and historical heritage. The second step is to conduct comprehensive archival, archaeological, and environmental surveys of the cay to learn what is actually there. Armed with this information, a long-term plan could be implemented to protect and preserve the resource in perpetuity. But what information do we need and what would it take to get it?

Building a base of knowledge

Everything we now know or will learn in the future about the history of Ft. St. George will come from the written word-“primary sources” in historian-speak: official records of exactly who and what was sent from Jamaica to the Caicos, their orders, where the ordnance came from and exactly what and how much of it there was; official and personal letters describing the place, the people and events; manuscript maps of the anchorage and plans of the fortifications. Because the regiment that occupied the fort came from Jamaica, and because H.E. Sadler purportedly drew much of his information from there, the Institute of Jamaica repository is a logical place to start. Another likely source is the Public Records Office in the UK, but there are many other possible places to look. In terms of finding out what happened at Ft. St. George 200 years ago, the importance of archival research cannot be overestimated.

The Ft. St. George anchorage and waters around it are ideal for conducting an underwater archaeology survey. That such a survey would be fruitful is verified by last year’s chance discovery of at least one shipwreck site in the anchorage between the cay and the reef. Undoubtedly there are others. A state-of-the-art instrument survey would include use of a marine magnetometer which can detect the presence of iron objects like cannons and anchors even when they are buried beneath sand or coral. Given that the sea has encroached on part of the fort, we may expect to find remnants of it in the shallow waters around the land.

The main effort would be a comprehensive archaeological survey of the terrestrial part of the cay to locate and map the extent of the remaining ruins with test excavations to determine each structure’s original use. The survey should also seek to locate sub-surface features such as trash pits, latrines, wells . . . and graves. Sadler reports that 30 British soldiers died in the first year of occupation at Fort George, a statement that seems to be verified by reports of human bones having been discovered eroding out of the soil on the cay. Military graves are a sensitive issue and must be cared for respectfully and properly. It must be remembered that the point of a survey is to get a better idea of what’s there, not to find and excavate everything or try to reconstruct the ruins. Those things could come later, but not until we know what we are dealing with.

It is highly likely that the main fortification on Ft. St. George Cay would have had outposts on the surrounding islands of Stubbs, Pine, and Dellis Cays. Pine Cay explorers have discovered foundations and clay pipe fragments on Stubbs Cay and historic potsherds have been found on Pine Cay itself, but neither of these areas have been examined by professional archaeologists. It is also possible that burials were made on nearby islands rather than on Ft. St. George Cay itself.

A basic first step in any environmental impact study is cataloguing the flora and fauna. This job would likely fall to biologists working for the Overseas Territories Environmental Programme, who would look for, among other things, the presence of endangered plant or animal species deserving special attention. A good example of the latter is the rock iguana, once widespread throughout the Caicos Islands, but now found only in protected areas.   Dr. Glenn Gerber of the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species has in the past expressed an interest in trying to re-establish iguanas on Ft. St. George and possibly Stubbs Cays, much as he has already done elsewhere in the Islands.

Coming up with a plan

Along with the authority to decide what is to be done on Ft. St. George Cay comes a great deal of responsibility for problem solving and decision making: Can anything be done to halt or slow down the rate at which Ft. St. George Cay is eroding into the sea? Already, artifacts such as cannonballs, grape shot, rifle shot, gun flints, ceramic and glass shards, iron fragments, copper nails, uniform buckles and buttons have been found on Ft. St. George Cay. Should we proceed with complete excavation and restoration of the fort? If sufficient evidence remains, should we try to re-create it? Excavations will undoubtedly produce artifacts, all of which will need proper conservation treatments. What will it cost? Where will the money come from? How long will it take? Who will be responsible for protecting and maintaining the park? How can the archaeological features, flora, and fauna be made accessible to the public and protected at the same time? Will it be necessary to limit the number of people allowed to visit the cay? Once results of the studies listed above are in hand we will be in a position to answer these questions and create a long-range plan based on knowledge rather than mere speculation.

Any such plan should take advantage of the fact that the fastest-growing segment of tourism globally is eco- and heritage-tourism. Ft. St. George Cay already receives significant tourist visitation from Provo even without any formal signage or enhancement of the experience. It is reasonable to expect that, after completing the necessary studies, finding, identifying, making accessible the most impressive structures and installing appropriate signage, day trips to Ft. St. George could be upgraded to a high-value experience, especially if such trips included snorkeling and diving on submerged parts of the site or shipwrecks in the anchorage.

The open book

Ft. St. George Cay is not just another uninhabited piece of Crown land. The cay and its fort are unique. It is a national park, a monument to the soldiers who died defending the Caicos Islands civilian population, a rich, unexplored archaeological site, and possibly a cemetery. It is an as- yet unopened book that we can take the trouble to read and understand, or simply toss aside without ever knowing what we missed. The National Trust and the National Museum want to read that book, share with everyone the story within it, and keep it safely on the shelf for the edification and enjoyment of future generations, but at this point its fate is far from certain.

If recent news reports are accurate, the TCI Government believes that it is in the best interest of the people to develop Ft. St. George Cay as a theme park. Unless the people feel that other options such as the ones listed above should be explored-and make those feelings known to government-Fort George’s final battle will be lost, the book will never be read, and yet another important part of the history and environment of the Turks & Caicos will be irretrievably lost.

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