Fort George, a vital piece of Cayman’s history, recently received an added boost with a three-part mural that highlights the jurisdiction’s vivid and often turbulent past. Artist John Broad has brought a part of the Islands’ history to life with his colorful work, enriching the National Trust site with new vitality and informing visitors with details of the territory’s history at the same time.
When artist John Broad conceived the design for a new mural at historic Fort George in downtown George Town, he wanted viewers to be able to imagine what they would see if they were standing behind the walls of the fort, gazing out to sea during three important episodes in history.
“On the left, we have the Havana militia storming ashore in the 18th century,” Broad says of the first of the three pieces of the mural. “The middle section from World War II contains the U-boat attack on a local ship in which a Caymanian died, and lastly, a … regatta by the beautiful Cayman schooners during the ‘30.”
While he was painting the murals, Broad says, it took him back to his childhood, as he was always drawing wars and battles as a youngster. In addition, the mural itself has an unusual composition.
“The technique is a first for Cayman in that the original paintings were photographed and prints developed twice the size of the artwork and attached to the wall on site,” he explains.
Broad believes the murals are a vital source of information to help visitors appreciate the turbulent history of the Cayman Islands.
“I feel that both these sites (this and the Wall of History in George Town, which I produced in 2004) should be utilized as sources of information about Cayman history, for example as field trip visits by schools, or cruise ship passengers.”
The remains of the original Fort George are on the corner of Harbour Drive and Fort Street in the heart of George Town. The original fort, built to protect islanders from invaders somewhere around 1790, once stood overlooking the harbor, but development has encroached on the original site, eventually landlocking it.
Built by Caymanians out of local coral and limestone, Fort George was based on the typical military battery being built by the English at around that time. A reinterpretation of the site has been enjoyed by thousands of visitors as they more about Cayman’s history.
A site worthy of enhancement
Denise Bodden, historic education and development manager with the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, gives some details about the recent refurbishment of the site.
“… I proposed the original concept in 2007 to the Historic Advisory Committee. At that time, there was a shortage of funds and various ideas circulating about how best to reinterpret and manage the site. As time wore on, with no major improvements to speak of, I kept my vision for the site alive by promoting its reinterpretation to staff and Council,” she says.
In the summer of 2011, National Trust chairman Carla Reid recalled Bodden’s plans for the site and arranged a meeting with law firm Walkers, who had expressed an interest in helping to develop the site.
“To aid me in my presentation, I had asked artist John Broad to complete a small watercolor with my suggested improvements in place,” she says.
With Walkers’s donation, Bodden says, plans could go ahead to vastly improve the site. Her main objectives were to better define and protect the boundary and the artifact that is the remaining 1700s coral stone wall, as well as to tell the story of Fort George through art and to improve the view.
Other improvements slated included: elevating the Lookout House back to a respectable height, improving the landscaping with native and endemic plants with pops of color supplied by traditional plants, carrying out restoration work on the original coral stone wall and adding signs to better educate visitors.
A vivid history
Bodden says the initial concept behind the murals was to tell two very important stories about the role Fort George played in Cayman’s history.
“The fort was built by local labor and materials in the late 1700s to protect Grand Cayman from attack,” she says. “George Town was attacked shortly thereafter by the Spanish, which was documented by Edward Corbet when he conducted a census and report on the Cayman Islands in 1802.” His report states:
“They can muster in the Islands about eighty persons capable of bearing arms. At George Town there is a small fort, not very well constructed and in which is mounted three Guns, four or six pounders, but which are by no means well equipped. This place is the most accessible to any enemy, but then it is as I have already mentioned the only place where vessels of burthen can anchor with any security. In the course of the war which has just terminated, they have not been annoyed from any quarter, but in the war which preceded it, it was attacked by the Spaniards from Cuba and totally destroyed. Its desirable situation however for shipping lead [led] to its renewal.”
In addition, during World War II, Fort George was used by the Home Guard as one of the six lookout points around the island.
Bodden explains: “The U.S. Naval base was behind the George Town Library and worked together with the Home Guard to keep a watchful eye on German activity in the surrounding waters. The attack of the Comayagua occurred in 1942, just 14 miles southwest of Grand Cayman by German U-Boat 125. Survivors were rescued by the Cayman vessel, Cimboco, owned by Roy McTaggart and were collected from the water and cared for at the George Town Town Hall and later shipped off island.
“Cimboco was unarmed, but her Caymanian crew certainly didn’t shy away from helping survivors during the war.”
Broad was commissioned by the Trust to paint the murals.
“He was chosen for several reasons,” Bodden says. “As a resident artist and teacher, his work is well respected, his earlier contributions are already standing in George Town at Heroes Square, and his work offers consistency from one site to the next in our capital.”
Bodden says that his particular style also allowed for some freedom in the interpretation of the Spanish attack in the late 1700s.
“We literally have five sentences in historic documents to describe Fort George and the attack, which means existing historic documents do not provide great detail and we needed some leeway in that interpretation,” she says. “Peggy Leshikar-Denton, a director at the Cayman Islands National Museum, provided some additional insight into the possibility that the Spanish attack may very well have been militia from Cuba and a deliberate attack on Fort George, as opposed to a random act attributed to Spanish marauders.”
The completion of the nearly year-long restoration of historic Fort George was feted on Feb. 6 with a ceremony and a champagne reception.