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Forts and Batteries

Defensive military installations

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Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Winston Churchill

St Helena was always defended, ever since the Dutch invaded the island in the 17th century

This page is in indexes: Island Structures, Island History, Island Place, Island Detail

Buttermilk Point Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Buttermilk Point Battery

Below: HistoryGalleryBanks Battery collapse, 2010Read MoreRead More

St Helena was always defended, ever since the Dutch invaded the island in the 17th century. But when it was decided to exile Napoleon Bonaparte here in 1815 the island’s defences were strengthened in case the French came to rescue him, with a garrison of 820 men stationed here. Most of the island’s historic forts however date from an earlier era.

Other military installations are reported on our Other Military Sites page.

History

When the East India Company settled the island in 1659 the tiny James Fort (before 1684, York Fort, now The Castle) was thought sufficient to defend St Helena. The island’s best defences were seen as the coast itself with its high cliffs and lack of safe landing places. But after the Dutch invasion of 1673, opinion changed. It was decided to build batteries all around the island. An East India Company memo from 1701 reads:

We are very desirous that St Helena may be made as strong as possible to be defended against an Enemy. Take the advice and assistance of all the commanders, whether men of warr or Merchant Shipps, for fortifying the island. We would have you, if you find it practicable, to roll some of the Rocks with which you are stored into the Sea along the Beach to prevent boats landing.

Forts were built mostly using labour provided by convicts and Slaves. Materials were primarily local stone, but Portland and Purbeck stone brought out from England as ballast in sailing ships was often used in selective positions.

Most of batteries now seen were built during the 18th Century and improved in the 19th. Few of them were actually built in Napoleon’s time. Cockburn’s battery on Egg Island was one such, and is also the only one built on an offshore island.

More interesting batteries lie between Banks Valley and the Sugar Loaf. Known as the ‘Banks Lines’ they were built here because the South-Easterly trade winds forced sailing ships to come close inshore as they rounded the Sugar Loaf and headed towards the anchorage in James Bay. This brought them in easy range of the 44-gun Banks Lines.

Mundens battery first existed as two guns in 1673, but was greatly expanded by Governor Roberts in 1708, works being completed on 19th December 1710. Lemon Valley was an obvious landing place, so was initially fortified in the 1670s and heavily fortified by the 1750s, supported by Half Moon Battery{2}, 48m above sea level on a projecting ledge along the western side of Lemon Valley Bay in the early 1800s.

Walled-up Old Woman’s Valley [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Walled-up Old Woman’s Valley

In addition to forts and batteries, four valleys were walled-up to prevent landing, though no defensive fort was built. These are Breakneck Valley; Friar’s Valley; Old Woman’s Valley; and Thompson’s Valley.

Powell’s Valley wasn’t fortified until the early 1800s. One day while out riding, Napoleon escaped from his escort and headed off in the direction of Powell’s Valley. Governor Lowe realised that the valley was unguarded and might provide an avenue for a rescue attempt, so it was promptly fortified.

Ladder Hill Fort is located where, for 100 years, the East India Company used to hang criminals, so the executions could be clearly seen from Jamestown. Governor Robert Brooke built the first fortification here in 1790, extending it in 1797. The strategic value of Ladder Hill Fort for commanding the approaches to Jamestown Harbour had become recognised by the time Napoleon arrived on St Helena and additional guns were sited there during the period of his captivity. It was further extended in the 19th Century and was described in 1883 by Benjamin Grant as the “principal Fort on the island”. Most of the buildings are now used as Government housing. In 2013 a South African hotel chain expressed interest in converting the fort into a hotel but negotiations broke down, largely due to the cost of re-locating the residents.

High Knoll Fort [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
High Knoll Fort{a}

High Knoll Fort was designed as a redoubt fort, originally built in 1799 as a circular tower. The tower was incorporated into the present structure when it was expanded by the Royal Engineers in 1874. For more detail see our High Knoll Fort page.

Most of the fortifications are readily accessible, though perhaps with a bit of a walk. Ladder Hill Fort, at the top of Jacob’s Ladder, is open in parts to the public. Mundens Battery is a short walk up from Jamestown, and an extension of this route leads to Banks Battery.

Lemon valley is a short boat ride from Jamestown (or quite a long walk from the centre of the island). The fortification of Lemon Valley started soon after the recapture of St Helena from the Dutch in 1673. The site was also used for quarantine purposes for slaves from Madagascar infected with Smallpox.

Gallery

Here are pictures of some of our historic fortifications:

Munden’s Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Munden’s Battery

Munden’s Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Munden’s Battery{b}

Munden’s Hill West Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Munden’s Hill West Battery{c}

Banks Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Banks Battery{b}

Banks Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Banks Battery

Entrance to Banks Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Entrance to Banks Battery

Lemon Valley fortifications [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Lemon Valley fortifications

Lemon Valley Wall and Guardhouse [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Lemon Valley Wall and Guardhouse

Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley

Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Half Moon Battery, Lemon Valley

Repulse Point Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Repulse Point Battery

Saddle Battery, overlooking Rupert’s [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Saddle Battery, overlooking Rupert’s

Chubb’s Lower Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Chubb’s Lower Battery{c}

Bunker’s Hill Battery [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Bunker’s Hill Battery{c}

Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay{c}

Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Martello Tower, Prosperous Bay{d}

Sandy Bay lines [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Sandy Bay lines

Here are some older pictures:

Sandy Bay lines, 1862 [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Sandy Bay lines, 1862

Undated but maybe 1800s [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Undated but maybe 1800s

Ladder Hill Fort, 1860 [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Ladder Hill Fort, 1860

Ladder Hill Fort, early 1900s [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Ladder Hill Fort, early 1900s

Ladder Hill Fort, 1903 [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Ladder Hill Fort, 1903

Munden’s Fort, 1809 [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Munden’s Fort, 1809{e}

Parade, Ladder Hill Fort, 1903 {1} [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Parade, Ladder Hill Fort, 1903{1}

Banks Battery collapse, 2010

In March 2010, after a period of heavy seas (not unusual for the time of year) a large chunk of the wall at Banks Battery collapsed into the sea. The Banks fortifications - comprising a platform and five separate batteries - are one of the most impressive and significant military sites on the island.

Since Banks was last used in the 1870s it has been slowly decaying. As recently as the 1960s most of the Banks platform and wall was still standing but more recently only about a quarter of the original curtain wall remained, with the rest having been smashed down and washed away by the sea.

The Government of St Helena has no budget for the maintenance of the island’s built heritage. Such maintenance as is done is undertaken by voluntary organisations such as the St Helena National Trust.

Banks Battery, 1860s [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Banks Battery, 1860s{f}

Banks Battery, 1990s [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Banks Battery, 1990s

Banks Battery, 2010 [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Banks Battery, 2010

Closeup (recent) [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]
Closeup (recent)

We understand the person in charge of building the battery went by the name of Banks, so strictly it should be ‘Banks’ Battery’, but ‘Banks Battery’ is more commonly used so we have gone with that.

Read More

For more about the weaponry in these batteries see our Guns page. You may also be interested in:

Forts Map, Bill Clements, 2007# [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]{g}

Read More

For more about our historic buildings consult The Historic Environment Record.

HER image [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]

Article: “Bicentenary of Bunker’s Hill Battery.

By Ken Denholm, published in the St Helena Herald 6th February 2004{3}

Bunker’s Hill Battery, overlooking Rupert’s Valley [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]{c}

Although not a very significant battery of the Island’s fortifications, Bunker’s Hill Battery is perched on a very prominent eminence in Rupert’s Valley, and I am submitting this article to record the bicentenary year since it was built in 1804 during rule by the East India Company under the Governor Robert Patton. Fortunately i was able to locate in the Castle Archives the exact record of when Governor Patton authorised its building during the perilous period on the Island in 1804 when Napoleonic wars with France were resumed. After placing the Island’s garrison and all its inhabitants in a state of total alertness, on the 29th August the Governor announced his plans to the Council for preparing the Island’s defences, as recorded from Consultations of that date:

Why attention in carrying on our present operations is in the first place directed to resist a group de main which has repeatedly been threatened, and is the mode of attack most likely to be attempted. When Rupert’s and Ladder Hill are secured by the works now carrying on, something should be done in aid of our natural defences which would render the Valleys adjacent to James still more inaccessible by blowing away part of the Rocks and by superadding at some places, particularly Breakneck Valley, a wall and Fraise a Battery on the central Eminence called Bunker’s Hill to enfilade Rupert’s Valley is a necessary appendage to the works carrying on there, because it will cover the Island Guns on the left. It may be proper also to secure that the Battery on Bunker’s Hill, which will enfilade Rupert’s valley, is commanded by the Guns of High Knoll, and would be completely defended by a Block house on the summit of Rupert’s Hill. This chain of defence on both sides appears to be very complete and I don’t think it will be difficult of execution. I have thus laid my ideas upon these important subjects before you with two views, either to derive confidence from your concurrence, or to be further enlightened by your suggestions.
Signed by Governor Robert Patton and totally approved by the Board of the E.I.C Council on St Helena.

Certainly, when Cocks’ map of St Helena was published in 1804, Bunker’s Hill Battery was shown on it, and just as certainly it was manned by soldiers of the St Helena Artillery Regiment which together with the St Helena Infantry Regiment were both raised on the Island by the East India Company. The name of Bunker’s Hill is believed to have been bestowed on the Battery out of defence to the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, which was fought during the American war of Independence in 1775. Bunker’s Hill Battery could well have been manned by the St Helena Artillery Regiment during Napoleon’s period of captivity on the Island during 1815 to 1821. In 1824/25 it was listed as still amounting a 24 pounder cannon, and in 1850 it was shown on the St Helena Military Map by Captain Palmer as a Battery with a reference number. Thereafter it appears to have faded into obscurity.

And what of Bunker’s Hill Battery today? I decided in its Bicentenary year to carry out a survey. Firstly it’s lower reaches can be reached from the road that passes by the Power station, but there are no defined tracks whatsoever and one simply has to choose any step upward route that seems best, although as all the slopes and summit of this Hill are densely clad with prickly pear, these cannot be avoided. It seems that the western slopes of this Hill are slightly more accessible to reach the summit which includes four rocky Knolls on one of which the very reduced ruins of the old Battery can be found. Very little of its circular breastwork remain and there is no pairing to its platform. There must also have been a magazine nearby and a big heap of stones probably was the guard house. There is no gun there now, but it certainly had a good bearing straight down Rupert’s Valley, which it was intended to defend. On the western side of the summit there is a long walled terrace where guns may have been mounted. Splendid viewing from the summit includes Rupert’s Bay, the Ocean to its far horizon, and in a westerly direction High Knoll is visible as commented on by Governor Patton.

For the past 150 years, every little if anything is known about Bunker’s Hill Battery. When the Battery was built in 1804 there would not have been anything like the mass of prickly pears that now exist on Bunker’s Hill, as that aggressive plant was only introduced to St Helena in the late 18th century, and just as surely at the same time there would have been tracks to provide access for personnel and supplies. Hopefully during the course of time it may be possible to restore this old Battery and its appurtenances so that future generation may see the kind of defence that was then felt necessary to resist an invasion of St Helena in 1804, but at present the only way to reach it is by a climb that is almost a nightmare.

Yours sincerely
Ken Denholm.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]

Laugh at funny forts humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Forts and Batteries]


Credits:

{a} Marc Lavaud/Tourist Office

{b} Tourist Office

{c} ‘An Island Fortress (7.3Mb)’, by Ken Denholm, published in 2006.

{d} James Fantom

{e} W. Innes Pocock, R.N.

{f} John Isaac Lilley, our first photographer?, 1861-1866.

{g} St Helena: South Atlantic Fortress, by Bill Clements (2007) (646.1Kb)



Footnotes:

{1} The strange perspective is because the photo is a Panorama. The camera rotates while the film is being exposed, and so captures a 180° view. To get proper perspective you need to download and print the photo, then wrap it around your head in a semi-circle!

{2} There are two Half Moon Batteries, at Lemon Valley and as part of the Banks Lines.

{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.



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