Fort Shirley Officers' Quarters

Fort Shirley Officers’ Quarters: Where Mutiny Begat Emancipation

Ever notice how the historic importance of a colonial attraction is often predicated on the level of conflict or tragedy that occurred within its environs? As a rule, it seems, the more historic the spot, the more bloodshed it has witnessed. In the Caribbean, the fighting and uprisings that make these types of attractions “great” rarely yielded positive outcomes. At least not for native Amerindians, enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the poor. Some historic colonial attractions, though, are different. The Fort Shirley Officers’ Quarters is one of them.

Fort Shirley – Unequal Parts, British and French

Fort Shirley, and the tombolo upon which it stands, rank among the Caribbean’s top historic attractions. The fort is part of the  Cabrits National Park, one of 20+ UNESCO World Heritage sites sprinkled throughout the Caribbean. 

The British initiated construction of Fort Shirley in 1774. It was the French, though, who extended and finished the stronghold during their occupation of Dominica, 1778– 1784. At its peak, the sprawling complex comprised 50 buildings.

As elsewhere in The Nature Island, the Cabrits is a quiet, peaceful place noted for its natural charms. Wooded hiking trails crisscross the headland. Ramparts provide awe-inspiring views of Prince Rupert’s Bay.

Fort Shirley overlooking Prince Rupert's Bay
Fort Shirley overlooking Prince Rupert’s Bay | Photo by Patrick Bennett

Brief showers on the breeze are a regular occurrence. Brilliant rainbows often emerge in their wake. It’s hard to imagine a bloody conflict breaking out here.

That’s just what happened, though, back in 1802. 

Big British Problem

Britain, which retook possession of Dominica from France as part of the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, was the colonial power at the time. Britain also had a problem.

Endless wars had severely thinned the ranks of British soldiers. In the Caribbean, tropical diseases further culled the number of conscripts called to duty in the region. Britain needed to maintain a sizable fighting force in order to maintain their Caribbean colonies. They found it in the form of African slave soldiers.

Forced To Serve at Fort Shirley

It’s one of the lesser-known and more incongruous aspects of the darkest chapter in human history. It is true, though, that corps of slave soldiers played a critical role in keeping the peace across the Caribbean during the colonial era.

They were called “Black West Indian Regiments” in the British colonies.

Fully Restored Fort Shirley Officers Quarters
Fully Restored Fort Shirley Officers Quarters | Photo credit: Steve Bennett

The first soldier slaves arrived in Dominica in 1795. Their forced boot camp took place on the field of the Newtown Savannah in Roseau. By 1801, a division of 500 men was stationed at Fort Shirley. They were the 8th West India Regiment.

Soldier status placed members of the Black West Indian Regiments above field slaves in the social pecking order. The soldiers, however, were still considered property. Still roundly mistreated. Still deprived of their basic human rights.

On the night on April 9, 1802, the 8th West India Regiment had enough.

Codeword: Black Man

In the dark of night, they surrounded the Officers’ Quarters. At the sound of the codeword, Black Man, the African soldiers stormed the building. They killed three British officers, and held the rest captive. A full-scale mutiny had begun.

Three days later, though, it was all over.

British troops dispatched from Rosseau engaged the 8th West India Regiment in the shadow of Fort Shirley on the Carbrits. The battle that ensued saw 60 mutineers killed. Thirty-four additional slave soldiers received hanging sentences. Black West Indian Regiments elsewhere in the Caribbean absorbed the remaining members of the 8th West India Regiment. 

The story of the 8th West India Regiment Revolt, however, is not an entirely sad one. The positives here even go beyond the symbolic strength many often draw from martyrdom. 

First Step Toward Emancipation

Just five years after the revolt, the British government abolished the use of slaves in the military. Instead of forcing slave soldiers to work the plantations, though, the British actually granted them their freedom. 

Fort Shirley Misty Afternoon
Today, the historic Fort Shirley Officers’ Quarters hosts weddings, concerts, and other special events | Photo by Patrick Bennett

They didn’t do this for altruistic reasons, of course. The British still needed the former slave soldiers to safeguard their territories. At the same time, the newly-freed Africans had solid military jobs that they wanted to keep.

Somehow, the arrangement worked. In fact, the majority of troops stationed at Fort Shirley remained African soldiers until the garrison was decommissioned in 1854.

(The freed Black West Indian Regiments also put down slave revolts, so there’s definitely some bad mixed in with this as well.)

Still, the violence and sacrifice that started here at the Fort Shirley Officers’ Quarters directly resulted in 10,000 slave soldiers receiving their freedom. A plaque posted outside the building notes the importance of the revolt:

It was the first act of mass emancipation in the British Empire.

The Cabrits and Fort Shirley are located along the western shores of northern Dominica just outside of Portsmouth. The fort itself actually sits inside a long-dormant volcanic crater, which only adds to the unique setting.

Go for the hiking and the history. Stay for the rainbows and amazing views…

Last updated by Steve Bennett on .

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