A blast from the past: Fort Shirley in Dominica

What are the best seats you’ve ever had at a gig?

Box, front row, members stand; all offer a great view of the action on stage. Hold that view in your mind.

Now, imagine you’re on the Caribbean island of Dominica in 1782 and you’re sitting on the front porch of your friend’s house on a hill overlooking the ocean.

View of the bay from Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

The beautiful view of Prince Rupert Bay from Fort Shirley

Right before your eyes more than 50 war ships are engaged in a bloody sea battle. You can smell the smoke, the report of the cannons makes you wince, and the wind carries the screams of battle and death.

That put’s an ACDC concert into perspective.

The history of Fort Shirley

The engagement was called ‘The Battle of the Saintes’ and went for four days.

Huge crowds of people flocked to the hillsides of Dominica to watch the fighting between French and British ships and one of the best views was from a coffee plantation owned by a French family.

Plaque at Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

A plaque to remember one of the battles at Fort Shirley

The battle began when a French fleet was sent to Jamaica to capture it from the British who sent their own fleet to stop them. The British fleet won the battle at a cost of more than 2,000 men killed or wounded on both sides.

Fort Shirley is a huge garrison built by the British to protect Dominica from the French who held the neighbouring islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Bird at Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

A bird relaxes at Fort Shirley

Fort Shirley today

These days the Caribbean waters off Dominica are peaceful and filled with yachts and ferries and fishermen instead of gun-bloated ships of the line.

The Fort was abandoned long ago and reclaimed by the jungle but it’s been restored to its former glory thanks to a programme led by Dr Lennox Honychurch; a renowned local historian, artist and author who made it his personal mission to bring Fort Shirley back to life.

The barracks at Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

The barracks at Fort Shirley – one of the buildings to be restored by Dr Honeychurch

Visiting Fort Shirley

On arrival at the Fort you are on flat ground at the bottom of the steep hillside. The calm waters of Portmouth lap at the rocky shoreline and you can take your time reading up on the Battle of the Saintes in the museum section.

But to get to the Fort you need to walk up a steep, paved road that weaves through the jungle, and pass under a large stone gate built by hand, by British troops and slaves hundreds of years ago.

Gardens at Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

The view of the gardens at Fort Shirley

Impressions of Fort Shirley

When I turned the corner from the gate and into the Fort’s grounds, the first thing I saw was a cannon pointing straight at me from the fortified walls at the top of the hill.

Any enemy who tried to take Fort Shirley from the front could be blasted into smithereens by the garrison manning the guns.

Luckily, the place was deserted and we managed to get inside unmolested.

Cannons at Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

The canons overlooking the bay at Fort Shirley

Everything looks just like it was in the 1700s; the only thing missing is red coated soldiers running about and officers shouting orders at everyone.

The barracks room was being worked on the day we visited but we were able to go inside the officer’s quarters and see the ballroom (you can hire it for a wedding we were told).

Function room at Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

The restored function room at Fort Shirley

Standing guard over Portsmouth

The best thing about Fort Shirley is the view from the gun deck. On the very edge of the hillside there is a row of huge old cannons pointed out to sea just like they would have done when the Fort was an important military post.

From that vantage point you can see the deep blue waters of Prince Rupert Bay and the undulating, deep green mountains towering above. Turn to the right and you can see the flat, calm waters of the blue Caribbean where the Battle of the Saintes once raged.

There is so much history on Dominica; slavery, rebellion, plantations, colonies, war and violence. The jungle has reclaimed most of the remnants of the past but a visit to Fort Shirley fires your imagination and reminds you that though Dominica is paradise, its freedom came at a great cost.

View from Fort Shirley Double-Barrelled Travel

A cannon on the hill of Fort Shirley

What you need to know:

Cost – You need a site pass to enter. US$5 for one time or $12 for a weekly pass that allows you enter more attractions.

How to get there – Fort Shirley is a five minute drive from the centre of Portsmouth. You have to pay for parking and it’s US$5.

When to go – Any time is good but f a cruise ship is in town it will be busy.

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About the author

Dave is the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel and has been nomadic since May 2013. When he's not busily working on a novel, he can be found exploring a war museum, sailing a yacht (unfortunately not his own), or hiking up a mountain.

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