Falmouth Field Guide

Fort Balcarres

Signaling its anticipated significance as a port city, Falmouth had a fort almost immediately after its founding. Writing in 1774, Edward Long mentions “a small fort placed on Point Mangrove, which projects into the sea on the West side.” He continues by cautioning that the site will not likely be very healthy since it is “altogether swamp.”1 This site—likely the same site as the fort today—was quickly determined to be unsuitable because within just a few years, the fort was moved into the center of town, occupying the oddly shaped triangular spot resulting from the intersection of the town’s two different grid patterns. As described in its new location by 1787, “…the fort, which was situated so as to overlook the harbor, and prevent ships going to sea whose captains had omitted to pay the harbor dues.”2 The 1793 plan of Falmouth shows the fort situated in the midst of the city, a square block with two corner towers not unlike the plan of the near contemporary fortified house at Stewart’s Castle just east of town. This in-town fort was named for the Earl of Balcarres, Royal governor of Jamaica from 1795 to 1801 and the leader of British troops in the Second Maroon War.3

But by 1803, the Jamaican Assembly once again moved the fort, this time back to its original location. The Assembly gave two reasons for the move. First, they argued that the new location rendered the fort “almost useless, from its situation.” And, more importantly, “Falmouth is in danger of being set on fire whenever the guns of the said fort are fired, the same being nearly in the center of town.”4 As a result, an alternative site on Palmetto Point was selected “for erecting a fort, barracks, and other necessary buildings for the protection of the town.” The proximity of the fort and its guns to the town was even a cause for anxiety for those most closely connected to the fort. One Scottish visitor reported in 1787 that “Mr. Baillie [commander of the fort] caused preparations to be made to fire a salute on the arrival of his excellency [the royal governor] which occasioned much alarm to Miss Baillie [his sister] for the safety of the windows in her brother’s house, several of which were glazed—a very unusual comfort at that time in Jamaica, except in Kingston.”5

By 1804 the fort was well under construction on its new site as it shows up on a map of that year in its new location. An 1844 map of Falmouth represents the new site of the fort. Just as the All-Age School does today, the fort occupied all the point of land to the north of Charlotte Street. Defending the mouth of the harbor, a small fortification with two circular bastions stands at the very tip of the site. One of those bastions survives on the site today.6 Standing in the midst of the large, triangular tract is a long, rectangular building that served as the barracks building for the soldiers stationed at the fort. This is the large two-story historic masonry building, which was under construction in 1811 that dominates the site today. One report from 1824 identifies 700 men stationed on this site, most of whom would have resided in the two floors of this building.7 The 1844 map also shows one other larger building in the midst of the site, probably an officer’s quarters. The map also delineates a long string of buildings erected directly along Charlotte Street, at least some of which were certainly stores and shops. An 1816 newspaper announcement of work to be completed at the fort lists an Officers’ Quarters, Officers’ Kitchen, and Soldiers’ Barracks. Lastly, the map illustrates the four privies which were “removed back into the sea, twelve feet at low water mark, upon hardwood piles, with a gangway planked upon piles to the land.”8

The map also identifies the powder magazine, built by William Danny and built in 1803 for a sum of £1,500, and a remarkable survival. The magazine provided a storage space where powder and shot could be protected from fire, safe from detonation during earthquakes or hurricanes, a concern even a century after the devastating earthquake at Port Royal, in which explosions from unsecured munitions caused further damage.9 The magazine must be built strong enough to contain the force of explosions and thus minimize damage and casualties in the surrounding area.

To accomplish these functions, the magazine is built with inner and outer shells of squared stone. Its outer shell is 23’ 9” square, with outer walls that rise 13’ 10” to a corbelled cap course. Including both inner and outer shells, the walls are 4’ 6” thick. A south-facing doorway, bridged by a yellow pine lintel, and a pair of parallel, tall, and narrow vent slots, vertically aligned on the side (east and west) walls pierce the otherwise solid masonry. The vents allow limited study of the interior of the walls, which reveals that the magazine’s seemingly solid walls are actually built in three layers. The vault supports a low pyramidal roof, whose upper surface is covered with cobble-size stones stuccoed together to form a smooth surface.

The garrison at Fort Balcarres was intended to serve as a military defense of the port, a responsibility that came to the fore in the “French scare” of 1804, when Jamaicans feared a French naval attack. The garrison was also useful in helping the city to combat city fires, two of which burned large sections of the city in 1808 and 1809. But one of the other major fears that gripped city residents was the threat of slave insurrection. While white Jamaicans did not frequently express this anxiety in writing, we get a sense of this anxiety from this 1835 report from the second year of “Apprenticeship”:

“Riots in Jamaica—From a letter received in town yesterday, dated at Kingston, (Ja.) June 22d, we learn that the whole island has been kept in a state of alarm and feverish agitation in consequence of the insurrection of the manumitted slaves, (or apprentices, as they are now called.) Not a day passes but one or more of the murderers are brought up for trial. The Governor at present is very unpopular, in consequence of his taking part with the apprentices and favoring their cause. It is expected daily that a general insurrection will take place throughout the island. Who will be the conquerors, time only will disclose."10

But passing through Emancipation, the felt need for a military to defend the city began to wane. By the 1850s, the British government began to actively withdraw troops from their West Indies colonies and by 1864, Fort Balcarres is described as “in ruins.”11 By 1882, the site was taken over by the town constabulary and rehabilitated slightly.12 In 1902, the site took on a function, as the town’s free All-Age School. In that year, the town’s denominational schools--Church of England, Wesleyan and Baptist—were amalgamated and the Government school inaugurated in the Barracks and old Fort Balcarres.13 In 1986, the school was finally able to expand with the addition of the large concrete wing, more than doubling the size of the school.14 The school has now occupied this site for more than a century, much longer than its history as a military installation.

1 Edward Long, History of Jamaica, vol. II, (1770), 220-21.

2 Phillip Barrington Ainslie, Reminiscences of a Scottish Gentleman, (1787), 169

3 Ogilvie, Daniel L. History of the Parish of Trelawny (private publication: Falmouth, Jamaica: 1954) chapter 5. Accessed 13 October 2010 from Ogilvie, Daniel L. History of the Parish of Trelawny (private publication: Falmouth, Jamaica: 1954) chapter 5. Accessed 13 October 2010 from http://jamaicanfamilysearch.com/Samples/histre05.htm.

4 The Laws of Jamaica , 1799-1803 (A. Aikmann, 1812), 293.

5 Phillip Barrington Ainslie, Reminiscences of a Scottish Gentleman, (1787), 169

6 Ogilvie, History of Falmouth, ch. 2

7 The Laws of Jamaica: A table of the titles of the Public and Private Acts passed during that time (Jamaica: A. Aikman, 1824), 77.

8 Cornwall Chronicle, Jan 13, 1816, ‘Falmouth Barracks.” National Library of Jamaicia.

9 Robertson, James “Jamaican Architectures before Georgian” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 36, No. 2/3 (Summer - Autumn, 2001), pp. 73-95 The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1215304

10 Cornwall Chronicle, Sept 16, 1835. National Library of Jamaica.

11 Wilhelm, “Fort Balcarres,” 109, 112.

12 Wilhelm, “Fort Balcarres,” 110.

13 Wilhelm, 110.

14 Wilhelm, 8.