Martello Tower


In the year 1794, during the Napoleonic War, the British Fleet was engaged in blockading the French port of Toulon.  A requirement arose to establish a safe anchorage in the Bay of Fiorenzo, Corsica for use by the Fleet. However, the shores of the Bay were well fortified.  On 8th February two British ships, Fortitude (74 guns) and Juno (32 guns) arrived at the entrance of the Bay intent on destroying these fortifications.  On the western extremity of the Bay on Cape Mortella stood a large circular tower armed with two guns and a garrison of two grenadiers and twenty seamen. During the attack of some two and a half hours the garrison put up such a spirited defence that the ships had to withdraw, having suffered 6 dead and 56 wounded, as well as being severely damaged.  The same evening a body of troops under the command of Major General David Dundas was landed and the following morning an attack was launched from the landward side and victory was only gained when the attacking troops contrived to smoke out the gallant defenders by setting fire to faggots piled against the tower.

Martello Tower Simon’s Town late 1800s
(Image ST Museum)

The Prince of Wales Tower in Halifax, Nova Scotia was begun in 1796 but only completed in 1798. The towers on the East Coast of Britain were built in 1805 and numbered one hundred and three towers.  This remarkable achievement of such a small number of men with only two medium sized guns, in repelling an attack by two heavily armed warships, immediately established a reputation, out of all proportion to its importance, for this type of fortification.  Admiral Sir John Jervis, aboard HMS Victory wrote “and I hope to see such works erected on every part of the Coast likely for an enemy to make a descent on”.  A model of this tower was made in the same year and is now preserved in the Military College at Woolwich and is inscribed: “Model of a Martello Tower in the Isle of Corsica sent to the Repository by Admiral Sir John Jervis.” This is the first time the name “Martello” appears, a corruption of Cape Mortella.

Maretello Rower Simon’s Town 2000
(Image ST Museum)

When the British occupied the Cape in September 1795, they did so to forestall any similar French action. The occupying troops were under the command of Major General James Craig, who was appointed Acting Governor of the Cape and who set about improving the coastal fortifications of Simon’s Bay.  He constructed, as part of these improvements, a large powder magazine capable of containing 980 barrels of gunpowder, (being the reserve ammunition for the Royal Naval Ships) in the near vicinity of the Southern Battery built by the Dutch and known as the ‘Boeselaar Battery’.  To protect this magazine as well as the rear of the Battery, he completed the construction of the Simon’s Town tower in early 1796.  Therefore it is certain that this tower is the oldest surviving Corsican designed Martello Tower in the world as the one on the island of Corsica encountered by the two British ships on 8th February 1794, was demolished by the evacuating British troops on 26 October 1796.  Both the powder magazine and the tower still stand in the East Naval Dockyard in Simon’s Town.