Today I can send a message by email to my friends in Australia, on the other side of the world, almost instantaneously. Two hundred years ago a man on a really strong horse at a canter would take more than an hour to ride from Bridgetown to Speightstown with a message. The signal station network across Barbados, built after the slave rebellion of 1816, was the nineteenth century internet solution to the problem.
And so the re-opening of Gun Hill Signal last Saturday signalled (pun intended) a dramatic recognition of both our history and our present condition. Communication 200 years ago was slow, and progress in human civilization was slow. The delay in the long promised emancipation triggered a violent revolution, and the chain of signal stations built and operating by 1816 created a nineteenth century “state of the art” internet! A type of semaphore with movable wooden arms visible for miles was the precursor of our keyboard. And while there was no need to signal rebellion again, it must have hugely improved commercial communication across the island; the arrival of an important ship in Carlisle Bay would be news in St. Philip and Speightstown in a few minutes.
Gun Hill was the key to the network. It’s located just about the geometric centre of the island, on the major central escarpment, at a height of about 700 feet. This gives it an extraordinary view through 360 degrees, which includes eight of our 11 parishes – only St. Lucy, St. Peter and St. Andrew are hidden by the “great mountain range” of St. Thomas, at 1115 feet! It was built to receive signals sent from the General’s residence (now the tragically dilapidated Queen’s Park House) via Highgate, and to send them on to Cotton Tower at the top of Bowling Alley Hill in St. Joseph, and on to Grenade Hall in St. Peter and thus down to Dover Fort above Speightstown; and East from Gun Hill to Moncrieffe in St. Philip.
The name Gun Hill probably goes back to 1697, when the Militia Act of that year named it, originally known as Briggs Hill, as one of four sites for guns to be placed in the event of an invasion. While it later acted as the communication centre point for the island, it also played the role of tropical hill station. By relocating soldiers from the swampy, mosquito infested area around the Garrison, it could have reduced exposure to mosquitoes and possibly reduced the yellow fever that was killing so many soldiers in the 1850s. But when the British Army left Barbados in 1905 all of the stations were abandoned. By 1980 Gun Hill signal tower and the associated buildings were all in ruin. In fact the tower was without a roof, and heavily overgrown with trees and bush.
The Barbados National Trust arranged a lease with the Government and carried out its restoration in 1981 / 82. Over the past thirty years it has been visited by well over a million people. The recent refurbishment has not only refreshed the exhibits in the museum but improved the deck and facilities for its use for entertainment, and most importantly, created a gently sloping path to the top for wheelchair access. And this refurbishment was enabled by a grant of more than $70,000 from the Tourism Development Corporation.
At the function to re-open the Signal Station last Saturday, the Minister of Tourism, the Honourable Richard Sealy, congratulated the National Trust on its work, for providing our increasingly important Heritage Tourism with a big boost, and for consistently providing “value for money” in its work. And he called for further efforts to expand and develop our “Heritage Product”.
Dr. Karl Watson, President of the Trust, highlighted the appeal of Gun Hill, the plans to create a path to the famous LION (featured as one of the Seven Wonders of Barbados in a recent stamp issue) and the popular Moonlight Night events at Gun Hill. He congratulated the National Trust team who did such great work, and announced plans for getting our famous Morgan Lewis Mill working again.
The great explorer, geographer and historian Sir Robert Schomburgk, in his great History of Barbados (1848), wrote that “No stranger who visits Barbados should omit to see this spot”. And I not only agree with him, because it comprises both a fascinating heritage and many stories, as well as magnificent views, splendid gardens and a charming cafeteria service, but I say “No Barbadian should fail to visit Gun Hill – repeatedly – both the Signal Station and the splendid lion”. Congratulations, National Trust.
Professor Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website: profhenryfraser.com