Heavy Metal

Michael Whittaker finds the secrets of Barbados past lodged in centuries-old cannon

The Caribbean is full of mysteries. One recently revealed is that Barbados has the rarest collection of 17th-century English iron cannon in the world.

Some years ago it was decided to create a National Ordnance Collection of all the old guns on the island, part of a new thrust to highlight historical Barbados for the interested visitor. The driving force behind the gathering of this unique collection was Michael Hartland, a major in the Barbados Defence Force. To date, Hartland has unearthed more than 400 cannon, of which 200 form the basis of the collection.

“The island is littered with old cannon,” he told me as we sat in his roomy office inside the historic Main Guard House at the Garrison Savannah in Bridgetown. The elegant Georgian-style building (circa 1802) is now the headquarters of the Garrison Committee of which Major Hartland is secretary. “We have found them in gardens, cellars, on beaches, embedded in the sides of buildings and buried under old fortifications.” The reason for the large number of cannon, he explained, is that during the Napoleonic Wars, Barbados was an important military and naval centre protecting England’s interests in the southern Caribbean. At the time, it was guarded by a series of shore batteries set up along its south and west coasts. An enemy fleet attacking the island would have to run the gauntlet of continuous coastline gunfire for 25 miles. It was never captured.

When Hartland had gathered a nucleus of cannon, Charles Trollope — an English apple farmer who also happens to be a world authority on fortifications and ordnance — was invited to Barbados to catalogue the collection. He arrived armed with copies of the Royal Armoury archives which are stored in the Tower of London. (The English, like the Spaniards with their bullion, kept meticulous records of all guns shipped to and from the West Indies.)

For the catalogue, each cannon was photographed and its identification marks checked against the Tower of London records, revealing a treasure trove of old artillery. More than half the cannon were cast in the 17th century; Demi Calferons dated 1720 and 1730 appeared; 1780 cannon were revealed; massive 24-pounders ordered by William IV and George II came to light. The oldest cannon found was cast in 1620, seven years before the island was settled by the British. The most recent, dated 1870, is also one of the rarest: called the Victoria Gun, it is the first rifled muzzle loader made in England. It weighs over three tons, and clearly shows the marking “number one” on its barrel. Not all the cannon found were English: Dutch, French and Swedish guns were also discovered, the last with the distinctive raised triple iron bands on their gun barrels, coming from the famous Foinberg foundry.

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Many of the cannon had an effective range of up to two miles. They fired various types of shot. The traditional solid cannon ball was used to pulverise ships’ hulls, and hollow cannon balls filled with iron pellets were used to deal with infantry and cavalry. Grapeshot, which were small solid balls attached to chains, would spin rapidly and were very effective in disabling ships’ sails and rigging.

Cannon balls were occasionally used for more civilised purposes. Peter May’s cookbook The Accomplischt Cook, published at the Sign of the Angel, Cornhill, London, in 1660, gave the following advice for preparing mustard seeds: “. . . or grind in a custard quern, or in a bowl with cannon bullet.”

Trollope and Hartland found a unique specimen while rooting around the ruins of Fort Denmark, in Speightstown, an old seaport in the north-west of the island. They spotted the tip of a gun barrel sticking out of the seawall. They unearthed it and found a thick iron spike welded onto the cannon. It was a traversing Sun; the gunners would anchor it to another cannon and the spike enabled them to quickly swing the one-ton Sun from side to side to aim at moving targets. No other is known to exist.

On the broad veranda which surrounds the Main Guard House, Hartland showed me the gem of the collection. There, covered with a green tarpaulin, was the rarest gun of its kind, the Commonwealth Cannon. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England after King Charles I was beheaded. During his 11-year rule, he had many pieces of ordnance made for his army. The custom in those days was for the ruler’s coat of arms to be embellished on each gun. Following Cromwell’s death, Charles II took the throne and decreed that all official traces of Cromwell’s rule should be destroyed. Cromwell’s coat of arms was struck off all guns with what was thought previously to be only one exception, a cannon which can be seen today in the Tower of London. However, during cleaning in Barbados, one was found with Cromwell’s coat of arms intact, making this a weapon of extreme historical importance.

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Putting a value on the collection is hard to do. Some old cannon have been auctioned off at Sotheby’s for US$20,000 or more; using this as a yardstick, the Barbados collection could be worth millions. One can also argue that it is priceless, so many visual reminders of the turbulent history of the Caribbean gathered together in one place.

Twenty-six of the most important pieces in the collection are mounted in front of the Main Guard House. They overlook the modern race track recently rebuilt by the Barbados Turf Club, standing directly behind the final bend. On race days, colourful crowds of Barbadians swirl in and around the guns, which make convenient perches for fans to urge on their favourite horses. Even the cannon themselves seem to come alive to the thunder of the horses’ hooves charging towards them at the final turn. Perhaps Major or Hartland planned it that way. ν