Over my birthday weekend 2014, I decided that it was high time I had a good look around the restored site of Dominica’s Fort Shirley in
the Cabrits National Park at Portsmouth. It would have been impossible to ignore it; the brightly coloured authentic red roofs of the Officers’ Quarters and the Troops’ Barracks stood out as important reminders when I glanced at The Cabrits across Prince Rupert Bay from either Picard Beach or The Champs Hotel.
Interestingly, this important historic site served as the base for one of my first forays with ‘Birdy’ (Bertrand Jno Baptiste), forestry officer, local bird authority and tour guide par excellence back in 1997! While a few structures of the old fort were standing, much of the place was in ruins back then, although some work had been ongoing since the 1980’s. Birdy showed me around, but his main focus was on the natural history, botany and biology of the flora and fauna in the area. I can still remember looking for snakes (there a five types on Dominica) and observing puffed up gecko lizards in action!
In fact, the natural history museum, which is found below the entrance to the fort provides a wonderful overview of this eco-site and its environs. I am proud to report that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) partnered with the Government of Dominica to open this Welcome Centre in 1996! Once again, I made a point of briefly studying the geological exhibits and admiring some of the archeological relics that had been found in the area.
I had returned to this lovely park off and on over the past 17 plus years, but it was only this time that I fully appreciated the significance of this important historic site, thanks to a careful and concise restoration of the property, commandeered by renowned local historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch, PhD.
This area, which was formed from an ancient volcanic crater has had residents since 3,000 BC and has continually attracted passersby, such as some of Christopher Columbus’s entourage on his second voyage in 1493! More dates and details that chronicle the history and development of Fort Shirley at The Cabrits on Prince Rupert Bay can be reviewed on Dr. Honychurch’s web site, by clicking here.
As I strode up the pathway, passing through the entrance in the high stone wall, I stopped to look at the interpretive signs en route to the fortification. I appreciated the directional signage as well as the descriptions of flora and fauna that are found in the area. While it might be unusual to sight a goat on these two large ‘mounds’ nowadays, there was a time when sailors would leave such animals in this locale to graze so that they would have some fresh sustenance upon their return to this spot. Hence the name “cabrits,” which means ‘goat’ in French, Spanish and Portuguese!
I was not alone on this Sunday morning. A church group lugged their picnic baskets and chairs up the taxing incline, and conducted a service in the covered lee side porch of the Officers’ Quarters while overlooking Prince Rupert Bay and mighty Morne Diablotin in the distance. To me, their peaceful and grateful celebration of life in such wondrous surroundings added to the serenity and solemnity of this intriguing site.
The day was heating up quickly so I did not take the hikes on the East or West Cabrits Trails. That would wait for the next time. However, I did stop to stare with awe at the carefully constructed stone walls and the tidy masonry, apparent on all the buildings. I could see that there was still some work to be done, but knowing Dr. Honychurch, this labour of love will continue as much as possible. There actually have been international supporters in this ambitious venture, such as the European Union (2006-07). The Government of Dominica also recognizes the tremendous importance of this place, as it is a proud symbol of the country’s heritage.
Interestingly, no battles ever took place at the Fort, which was named after Governor Thomas Shirley in the mid 18th century, when the major construction began. However, the famous” Battle of the Saints,” between the British and the French could be observed from this site on 12th April 1782. Later, in 1802 there was in fact a revolt at this location by the 8th West India Regiment, comprised of former slaves. It is explained by Dr. Honychurch in this notation right here.
I appreciated the fine work that has been and continues to be done at Fort Shirley. I could easily see that this restoration is of a very high standard (no surprise!). It reminded me of similar restored historic sites in eastern Canada that are known to me , such as the Halifax Citadel and Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia; Quebec City’s Citadelle; and Fort Henry in Kingston Ontario. They were all originally built and occupied for the same reason (territorial military defence!) during the 18th and 19th centuries.
While I followed and read the information on the abundant signage and referred to a helpful brochure, my only wish would have been a guided tour, with access to the interior of the buildings. However, it was a quiet Sunday morning in the off-season, and neither Dr. Honychurch nor other restoration team members were on the property at that time. No matter – I will return again and continue my explorations of fascinating Fort Shirley in The Cabrits National Park. Sincere thanks to Dr. Lennox Honychurch, for his exceptional efforts to preserve the essence of this exceptional landmark and historic site, for the benefit of all!