Centre for International and Defence Policy

Centre for International and Defence Policy
Centre for International and Defence Policy

The Martello Tower


The logo of the Centre for International and Defence Policy features a Martello tower, a distinctive feature of the Kingston landscape.  The four Martello towers in Kingston were part of a program undertaken by the British Army over the first half of the nineteenth century to build coastal fortifications of a standard design throughout the British Empire.

Fort Dennison, Sydney Harbour, Australia

Fort Denison,
Sydney Harbour, Australia.

The enthusiasm for these towers, and their name, came from a single engagement between British and French forces in 1794 at Cape Mortella in Corsica.  Occupying a circular stone tower that had been built by the Spanish in the 1500s, just 33 French soldiers armed with three cannon were able to withstand a sustained attack from both sea and land by a much larger British force.  Much impressed, the British Army adapted the design--a squat circular tower on top of which a pivoting cannon could be located, garrisoned by no more than two dozen troops--and built a series of towers along the south coast of England, around Ireland, and throughout the British Empire. In the process, however, the name was corrupted and these fortifications became known as Martello towers. (Image by Andy Mitchell, courtesy Wikipedia)

Fourteen Martello towers were built in British North America.  Canadian towers, unlike their counterparts in less northern climes, featured removable conical roofs to protect against snow.  The four towers built in Kingston--the Murney, Cathcart, Shoal and Fort Frederick towers--were built in the 1840s in the heat of the Oregon Crisis, and were designed to defend the city's harbour, naval yards, and the southern terminus of the Rideau Canal against the possibility of an American attack.

The fortifications in Kingston never had to be used for their original purpose; indeed, almost as soon as they were completed, the towers were already obsolete as a result of advances in artillery rifling technology that could reduce a tower to rubble within a few short hours.

Shoal and Frederick Martellos, Kingston

Shoal and Frederick Martellos,
Kingston, Ontario.

Today, Kingston's Martello towers are tourist attractions, part of the Rideau Canal and Kingston Fortifications World Heritage Site.  But they remain a useful reminder of the enduring challenges of crafting international and defence policy in Canada.

Visit the Murney Tower in Kingston...