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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 15

A History of Martello Towers in the Defence of British North America, 1796-1871

by Ivan J. Saunders


This report is an examination of the military history of Martello towers in British North America between the years 1796 and 1871. It combines a structural analysis and narrative history of the completed towers with an exploration of the defensive milieu in which Martello towers were an accepted form of fortification and in which they enjoyed such an enduring popularity.

This study was originally intended to be a comparative history of the surviving Canadian towers, with a particular emphasis on those in the possession of the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch. Something of this emphasis has survived into the final product, but it quickly became evident that such a confined outlook offered an unsatisfactory perspective for research. Viewed in such a limited context, the extant towers became military anomalies erected "for the sole purpose of puzzling posterity." Consequently, to make them fully explicable, it was necessary to expand the parameters of the study to include the other towers proposed for British North America, and to attempt to fit all of them into the emergent British fortification and defence policies of the era.

The great breadth of the defence field has rendered all but a cursory and selective examination of it impossible here. It has been necessary to restrict this study to the important points in the development and use of Martello towers. This necessarily limited viewpoint may, in some instances, have produced an overweighted view of the towers' overall importance, though on balance it would appear that they were of more importance than is evidenced by the mere historical footnotes accorded them by most military writers. Even a superficial examination of defence and contemporary fortification policy indicates that in British North America, Martello towers played a definite and substantial role in the development of permanent military works for the colonies. Equally clearly, they were a constant component of all proposed general defensive systems for fifty years.

There was little of direct value on this subject in the published secondary literature. The necessity for detail forced an almost exclusive reliance on primary sources. Consequently, the thoroughness of the report suffers to an extent from the unavailability of many of those sources in Canada. Most of the major policy documents are readily available, but the materials necessary for a close comparison of the British North American towers with contemporary developments throughout the British Empire are lacking. Within the bounds imposed by time and available source materials, this report attempts to provide the fullest possible explanation of the inception, evolution, and persistent and varied use of the Martello towers erected in British North America.

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