Astrolabe

Deciphering “The Cannon Code”

Could this be the oldest dated object in the Turks & Caicos?
Story & Figures By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

In January 1986, I received a letter from Mr. Michael Boruch, who was president of Caicos Fisheries Inc. at Cockburn Harbour, South Caicos, from 1956 until 1971. It read:
“There was a small signaling cannon placed on the front lawn of the District Office at East Harbour (as Cockburn Harbour is locally called) and it seemed to date from the early 19th century and for all I know it was subject to the same affection from the first day until I got to know it.
Absolutely without fail, whenever we were visited by an Island Trader’s vessel, or a U.S. shrimper being ferried from Florida to Brazil or Surinam or some such thing, the crew would invariably try to steal that bitty cannon. Invariably. It got so that the local police would just automatically go to the landing on the sea wall or to the beach at Conch Grounds and just wait for it to come walking by and rescue it.”

Top of Bowen cannon

Top of Bowen cannon

Sixteen years later, in 2002, Dr. Randy Davis and I stumbled across the subject of Mr. Boruch’s letter while surveying South Caicos for sites of historical and archaeological interest. Despite his concerns that the cannon would one day be stolen, there it was, loosely chained to a flagpole in front of the District Commissioner’s office. It was small, even toylike, and covered by a heavy, dark patina. Now somewhat bedraggled and forlorn-looking, its replica “sea service” carriage of wood and iron clearly indicated that someone had once cared about it. Having been to South Caicos on many occasions over the previous 20 years, I was surprised that I had never even heard of the existence of this cannon. Evidently, it had been there for as long as anyone on South Caicos could remember, and no one (except the occasional visitor) paid it much attention anymore.
Bowen cannon in South Caicos

Bowen cannon in South Caicos

It just so happens that I like to “collect” cannons—not the way Mr. Boruch’s sailors did, but by making a detailed record of their dimensions, appearance, special features, and material of manufacture. I even have a cannon recording kit to make the job easier, but on this particular occasion all I had was my camera, notebook, and cheerful assistant. A tape measure borrowed from the Commissioner’s Office supplied the single most important item of equipment and with that we went to work.
In case this seems to you like much ado about nothing, consider that bronze cannons (sometimes called “brass” cannons) are rare the world over, much rarer than iron cannons. Despite many rumors of bronze cannons being found in the waters around the Islands, this example is only the second one known to exist in the Turks & Caicos, the other being the “Governor’s Cannon” on display in front of Waterloo, the Governor’s residence on Grand Turk. Embedded within the elaborate decoration often seen on bronze cannons is important information about ownership, date, origin, manufacturing, and use. They can be historical documents capable of speaking volumes—if you know how to decode them.
Plan and profile views of Bowen cannon

Plan and profile views of Bowen cannon

While the sun beat down on us unmercifully, we set to work like symbologist Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, deciphering the codes. Our first question was, “What type of cannon is it?” Measurements of its length and diameter of its bore together with the configuration of the trunnions (the cylindrical pivot points on either side of the gun) and the presence of lugs for the elevation screw under the “button” at the breech (the back end) told us immediately that it is a light 3-pounder field gun, not a “signaling cannon” as Mr. Boruch surmised. This designation refers to the weight of solid iron shot the gun was designed to fire, which would have been about the size of a child’s fist. Although the cannon sits on a replica marine carriage for use aboard ship, it was primarily designed as a field piece and would be more at home in a large-wheeled field carriage. The fact that it was made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, hinted that Mr. Boruch’s estimate of an early 19th century date for the piece was probably too late, because by that time iron had replaced bronze as the metal of choice for cannon manufacture.

2 – 3 – 0
Curious numbers and marks on the back of the cannon’s breech above the button comprise the code for the cannon’s weight—a very important piece of information to know for a variety of reasons. Guns were cast according to “patterns” specifying weight and dimensions. Gunfounders were paid according to the mass of metal contained in each finished gun, so in order to get paid the gunfounder marked the weight of each piece at the foundry. Additionally, knowing the exact weight of cannons destined for sea service was important in order to ballast and trim the vessels that carried them.
British cannons of this period were usually weighed and marked in “hundredweights”and fractions thereof. Counter-intuitively, a hundredweight equals 112 modern pounds, not 100 pounds. This cannon is no exception, and its weight is represented by three numbers, separated by dashes: 2-3-0. As it was necessary to give the cannon’s weight down to the nearest pound, the first digit tells the number of whole hundredweights (in this case 2 x 112 = 224 pounds), the second tells the number of quarter-hundredweights (3 x 28 = 84 pounds), and the third digit tells us that there were no individual pounds left over. Therefore the weight of the cannon is 224 + 84, or a mere 308 pounds. Code 1: broken!

G R
Clues to its origin—its time and place of manufacture—are scattered all over the gun’s surface. Bronze cannons were costly and symbols of the might of the nation, so those that were cast for military service were clearly marked. The largest decoration on top of the gun is a heraldic device indicating who the regent was when the gun was cast. The capital letters “G R,” intricately intertwined with many flourishes, and topped by the royal crown of England stand for “George” and “Rex” (King, in Latin). So the cannon originated in England, and was cast during the reign of King George II (did you notice the small numeral 2 wrapped up in the “G”?). As I am sure you remember from grade school, King George II of England reigned from 1727–1760, therefore the cannon was cast in England during that 33 year period. Code 2: broken!
The presence of ornate decoration and Latin phrases may seem at odds with the cannon’s purpose of bringing death and destruction to the enemy, but gunfounders were proud of their work and vied with each other to see who could produce the most impressive piece. In fact, from time to time their artistic urges became so exuberant that they had to be restrained by Royal decree.

M
Even more revealing is the next cryptic emblem, an “M” surrounded by a curious twisted band bearing the phrase “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE.” As I am sure no one remembers, this is the coat of arms of Charles Spencer, Third Duke of Marlborough. So why is he here? Thumbing through your handy-dandy copy of Burke’s Peerage & Gentry you will note that Charles held the office of Master General of the Ordnance from December 21, 1755 to October 20, 1758. It was customary for the coat of arms of whoever held this office to be cast into cannons made specifically for the military. This narrows the date of the cannon’s creation from more than three decades to a scant three-year period. Code 3: broken!
What about that peculiar French phrase surrounding the “M”? Variously translated as meaning “Evil be to he who does evil” or “Shame on he who thinks evil of it,” this phrase in Old French indicates that Charles was a member of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded in 1348 by King Edward III as a noble fraternity consisting of the King, the Prince of Wales (or heir-apparent to the throne) and 24 Knights Companion. It is to this day the highest of the English chivalry orders, with a membership of under 30 people. Not only was the Duke a member of the oldest and highest British order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, but also he was an ancestor of such notables as Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Diana!

) W. BOWEN FECIT 1756 (
The inscription on the cannon’s “base ring,” the band at the cannon’s widest diameter at its breech, clinches the identification: “W. BOWEN FECIT 1756”. William Bowen was the master founder who oversaw the cannon’s moulding and casting (more about him below). The Latin word “Fecit” in this case means “made by” and the last four digits are the year the cannon was cast. Code 4: broken!

???
The faint floral pattern etched on the top of the cannon’s muzzle is a surprise. Unlike the markings identifying the King, the Master General and the founder, this pattern is etched or chiseled into the bronze, and therefore could have been added any time during the 255 years since the cannon left Mr. Bowen’s foundry. The pattern is anomalous and may not represent a conventional symbol. Code 5: unbroken!

So the deciphered codes tell us that the cannon is a light 3-pounder bronze field gun cast in 1756 during the reign of George II when Charles Spencer was the Master-General of Ordnance and that it weighs precisely 308 modern pounds. For most of us that would be the end of the trail, but consultations with cannon symbologists Dr. Ruth Brown, Robert Smith, former Head of Conservation at the Royal Armouries in Leeds and Rudi Roth of the Swiss National Army Museum added a wealth of new information.

NO. 3
For experts like these, the “NO. 3” stamped into the end of a trunnion speaks volumes. Cannons were in high demand so there were many different foundries vying for government contracts. For uniformity’s sake, guns were cast according to “patterns” specified by the military branch by whom they were ordered, so each gun in a series cast by a particular foundry would be numbered individually. The NO. 3 on the gun’s right trunnion tells us that it was the third example of its pattern and batch cast by Bowen in 1756.
British ordnance records from this period are very good and a lot is known not only about Mr. Bowen and his foundry located at Bankside, Southwark London, but also about the batch of two dozen light 3-pounder cannons he cast for the Crown in 1756. This is due to a controversy with Andrew Schalch, the Master Founder of the Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich (his competitor) over the difficulty and cost of casting the new light gun pattern. Evidently Bowen won the contract after offering to cast, finish and engrave light guns for £35 per ton while the Royal Foundry could not cast for less than £50 per ton.
Exactly how the Bowen Cannon found its way to the Turks & Caicos Islands is a mystery, but we do know that 10 cannons from the first batch of light 3-pounders Bowen cast were sent in March of 1756 to the Americas at the outbreak of the Seven Years War, during which the British Empire fought many engagements with France and Spain in the Caribbean. We know that the Turks Islands were occupied at the time by a mixed population owing its primary allegiance to Great Britain, and that they were in need of defense, so it is tempting to conclude that the cannon has been in the Turks & Caicos for almost 250 years, but this is unlikely. In the first place the cannon is a field piece, not intended for naval service and not really large enough to be considered for coastal defense. There would have been little purpose in sending such a cannon to the Turks & Caicos where the islands are too small to require field artillery. Also, we know that when Grand Turk was invaded and “captured” by a French force from Haiti in 1763 there was little, if any, resistance from the predominantly British and Bermudan settlers on Grand Turk.
There is another mystery as well. One South Caicos resident who passed by while we were working on the cannon told us, “There used to be two of them, but the other one disappeared.” I was at first distressed to hear this, but on further reflection it occurred to me that the missing cannon might well be the one sitting in front of Waterloo. I documented this cannon many years ago and remembered that it is a similar light bronze field cannon, but slightly larger and heavier. It too bears the date of its manufacture: 1761—only five years after the Bowen Cannon.

The TCI’s two oldest dated artifacts

Governor's Cannon

Governor's Cannon

Although the dark verdigris on the cannon’s surface hides its potential, the “Bowen Cannon” is in better condition than the “Governor’s Cannon” at Waterloo House on Grand Turk, the latter having been assiduously scrubbed, polished and shined for decades until, sadly, virtually all detail has been obliterated. Being very close in age, the two guns serve as perfect examples of how not to treat a bronze cannon: benign neglect on the one hand, leaving it exposed to the elements for centuries, unguarded and unprotected, and being “overly-attentive” on the other, eradicating the carefully-crafted original details providing the clues to its identity.

I hope that . . .
Both the Bowen Cannon and the Governor’s Cannon have endured and survived much over the last 250 years. It is almost unbelievable that they have not yet been lost, stolen, destroyed or sold to treasure hunters. But time is not on their side. Both cannons ended up in their present locations before the creation of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. That inertia is keeping them where they are, but from every conceivable perspective both cannons would be infinitely better off in the National Museum than where they are now. Presently, they are insecure, seen by almost no one, underappreciated, and mistreated. Properly conserved, mounted in the proper period carriages, securely displayed, fully interpreted, and cared for in a museum exhibit, the cannons would be seen and appreciated by thousands of people for generations to come. Left where they are. it is only a matter of time before Mr. Boruch’s prediction comes true.



10 Comments

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Vince Bowen
Oct 20, 2013 17:49

A very similar looking cannon by W. Bowen sits on outside of Christopher Wren bldg at College of William @ Mary, right next to the back
doors

Willy Daro
Dec 16, 2013 7:23

I found a mortar made by W. Bowen in the Military Museum in Lisbon, Portugal.
I made some photos, if you’re interested.

Brett Friedman
Jun 10, 2016 19:49

There are two cannon (6-pounders, so bigger than the two above) cast by William Bowen in 1755 at the Guilford Courthouse National Battlefield Park in North Carolina. Both of them have the exact same floral patterns in the exact same locations as the two cannon above. I had never seen patterns like them before and my research about them brought me here. I suspect they are a trademark flourish of William Bowen himself.

CONOR SHEEHAN
Oct 1, 2016 10:26

A very interesting page and I have learned a lot from it . I am currently trying to obtain possession of a pair of cast cannon in order to refurbish them and also to build historically appropriate carriages for them . So far the only marking I can make out is a crown with the letter P incised under the crown . I am fairly sure that they are 17th century , but perhaps the crown and letter will clear that up .
While researching the appropriate gun carriage I fell in love with the one associated with HYMS Bounty , Captain Cook’s ship .
Fingers crossed .
Conor Sheehan

sharon smith
Jan 14, 2017 7:10

I inherited a Cannon… It has a crown symbol and the initials SJS .. I need it appraised. I cant find information on it.. I know it is a piece of history.. Quite frankly, I need a roof. Because I inherited the house
too.. I don’t want to be taken advantage of, I just need to find out how to get an honest appraisal?

SIMON WEST
Aug 3, 2017 1:59

Great article and I may be able to help you solve the Code 5 problem. Sharon – do get in touch. I am a serving Royal Artillery officer in UK. Simon@bronzecannons.com

Bart Reynolds
Mar 2, 2018 17:55

For many years the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had a pair of nearly identical 3-pounder bronze cannons which had been sleeved and mounted on “galloper” carriages. They were fired frequently during their “militia musters” and tactical demonstrations of the State Garrison Regiment. Those guns were taken out of active service in about 1977 and replaced with iron 3-pound guns (reproductions) on bracket trail carriages as seen on the cover of their most recent (2018) calendar. My recollection is that the date on the breech-ring was from the 1730s. If my recollection of the casting date is correct that would place them in a time frame when the 3rd Duke of Marlborough was colonel of a regiment of foot and might have originally been intended as the “battalion guns” of his regiment. It was the custom at the time to name regiments of foot after their colonel. His regiment being Spencer’s Regiment of Foot which later became the 38th Regiment of Foot.

They were purchased by Colonial Williamsburg from Blenheim Palace.

Nilkamal
Apr 25, 2018 8:15

A very interesting and informative article. Thank you. I was trying to trace the origin of a model bronze cannon bearing the Royal crown topping letter ‘R’ in a dotted ring between two olive branches below it on the first reinforce. Below it are embossed the words ‘MARINARIYAL DU GUERRA’ (some of the letters which I believe to be DU and GU are not very clear.
The chase carries an embossed anchor.
The second reinforce bears a design with five dots (in the pattern of a cross) enclosed within a diamond.
The base ring bears the Roman Numerals XVIII.
Any assistance in the search will be appreciated

vivienne moran
Apr 26, 2018 1:43

Does anyone have any idea what the initials E C might mean on a cannon, accompanied by a simple crown?
L

vivienne moran
Apr 26, 2018 1:45

The above comment has not formatted properly – the initials are ELC , with the L under the E and the C,

thanks

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