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Things That Matter: The Great Guns of Barbados

8/21/2011

By Henry S. Fraser

Big gun = “big shot” or “big cheese” or “big Maguffy”; heavy artillery, cannon.

Last week I couldn’t help raving about one of my favourite museums, Cricket Legends at Herbert House in Fontabelle, and I listed all the other museums that came to mind. But I completely forgot one of my favourites – the splendid Concord Museum – and I used the casual name Cannon Museum for the extremely special National Armoury at the Garrison.

While I believe the Concord Museum is unique, the National Armoury is not only unique, but recognised as having the best collection of 17th Century guns anywhere in the world, and both the Armoury, under St. Ann’s Fort, and the Garrison display by the Main Guard are wonderful places – better than the best movie sets! Our cannon collection is one of our many “Only in Barbados” treasures, and like Cricket Legends, it’s one of our best kept secrets. Here’s the blurb on the BTA website:

“It is now home to the world’s finest collection of 17th century English cannons. Among them is the Commonwealth Cannon of 1652, one of only two known to still exist. A space worthy of being a movie set, the Armoury also houses a recreation of the Mermaid Tavern where the Charter of Barbados was signed, a bottle collection, plans of the fort, maps, and colorful depictions of soldiers in days gone by. The premises also have more recent relics from the High Altitude Research Project gun. The largest ever made, this gun could fire projectiles 99 miles high. Due to its location in a functioning military complex, this venue is not for walk-ins. Tours must be booked in advance and will receive a rare trip back in time that includes impressive fortifications, a dramatic, almost underground chamber filled with cannons and more, a glimpse of still-used 19th century barracks, and a visit to the Drill Hall, where illustrations and artefacts tell the surprising story of the West India Regiment.”

The history of guns and gunpowder goes back to the Chinese more than 500 years ago, and even if we’re passionate pacifists we can’t help being fascinated by these big guns – cannons – the great guns of Barbados – symbols of power and for some, perhaps, gigantic phallic symbols! (Ever notice how so many guys like to be photographed astride a great gun?) And Major Mike Hartland is passionate and almost omniscient about big guns, presented in glorious technicolour photos with meticulous text, in his beautiful book “The Great Guns of Barbados.” This is an amazing book, telling the amazing story of the impregnable fortified island, Barbados, and complementing Major Hartland’s earlier “tour de force”, A Concise & Illustrated Military History of Barbados – 1627 – 2007”. (This equally fascinating book includes the remarkable story of the West India regiment (1795 – 1927, 1958-1962), whose striking Zouave Uniform, introduced in 1856, survives as the uniform of the Zouave Band of today’s Barbados Defence Force.)

“The Great Guns” begins with a bit of history of our fortifications in the 17th century. In the 1780 survey, there were 40 forts and batterys along the West and South coasts, with a total of 364 serviceable guns. (A map on Page 15 shows the location of them all.) After Nelson’s defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805, the threat to Barbados and our neighbours was removed, and the forts were allowed to deteriorate and were finally abandoned or dismantled. Guns fell to the ground when wooden carriages rotted away. Many fell into the sea, as at Charles Fort, some were removed to private homes, and when Major Hartland set out to collect the salvageable ones he was able to gather together 130 for the National Collection, while some 58 are in private hands or public use as bollards or site markers!

Major Hartland then gives a description of the history of the great gun, its parts and method of operation, types of shot, and the labels and monograms that identify manufacturer and date. There are splendid photos by Felix Kerr of all the most important guns, and a meticulous catalogue of every detail of every gun shown. The contents of the dramatic Naval Magazine (the spacious, barrel-vaulted “dungeons” underneath St. Ann’s Fort) are shown and described in detail. There’s a picture of the splendid simulation of the Mermaid Tavern at Oistins, where the Charter of Barbados was signed in 1652, after the only “invasion” of Barbados – by English Cromwellian forces, kept at bay by those forty forts for some six months!

There are photos of the oldest guns – a 12 Pounder, eight feet long, cast between 1590 and 1595 and sold to the Dutch in 1600 – the only one of its type surviving in the world, and found outside of the rum shop of John Moore. And then there’s the Commonwealth gun, cast by 1652 – 54, during the Cromwell Commonwealth (1649 – 60), and bearing the Cross of St. George and the Irish Harp used by the Commonwealth. It’s one of only two guns known to do so.

This splendid book concludes with a vignette on the famous HARP gun. But to say any more would be telling. Go out and buy the book!

P.S. Tours at 10 a.m. Book with Major Harland, Tel 427-1436.

(Professor Fraser is Past President of the Barbados National Trust, and past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI.)

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