Cidade Velha excavations

Forte de San Braz and the Sea Wall

At the foot of the escarpment upon which the churches of Santa Luzia/San Miguel were situated lay the bastion Forte de San Braz along with a conjoining remnant of the town’s sea wall. Both are located upon the shingle beach a short distance from the ocean (Fig. 8). Today, the bastion has been adapted into a small open air chapel. A sequence of at least two phases of cobbling have been laid within its interior, thereby obscuring any potential internal features. Moreover, the area immediately to its west, where any adjacent and/or associated structures may originally lain – including the eponymous church from which the bastion gained its name – have been replaced by modern housing. Nevertheless, some details of its original form can be discerned.

The bastion is of classic, semi-octagonal form and was clearly designed to house multiple cannons. To the west it directly abuts an outcrop of natural bedrock, which forms an imposing natural barrier, whilst to the east it connects to the sea wall that then continued the defensive perimeter across the bay to an opposing cliff face that was in turn surmounted by a further bastion (Forte de San Virissimo). The surviving remnant of Forte de San Braz measures a minimum of 10.5m by 7.5m in extent (Figs 12 & 13). It rises 2.75m above the present beach height and its walls measure over 1.2m thick at their base. The latter are composed of two outer skins of roughly coursed basalt blocks that retain an inner of core of irregular rubble, the whole of which is bonded with seashell-rich off-white lime mortar. The walls are also pitched at an angle of approximately 15 degrees in order improve their efficacy against cannon fire; a common design feature during the 16th and 17th centuries. Externally, two rows of put-log holes are discernible. These would originally have housed scaffolding that facilitated the bastion’s construction. Alone, Forte de San Braz would have been of relatively limited defensive capability. As part of a network of similar fortifications, however, which together provided a wide field of fire, it would have been of significant benefit. Indeed, it appears most likely that this particular bastion was added to the town’s defences in response to the sustained period of attacks that occurred during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when the economy of Ribeira Grande was at its apogee.

In addition to the bastion, this same area also houses the best-preserved remnant of the town’s sea wall (Figs 8, 12 & 13). The latter structure – which was originally ‘V’-shaped in plan-layout and enclosed the entire bay from cliff to cliff, penetrated only by a small river gate – played two important roles. On the one hand, it protected the low-lying structures in the valley base from the devastating effects of tropical storms and unusually high tides, whilst on the other it acted as a retaining barrier which permitted the reclamation of the land lying immediately to its rear. Both roles were of particular importance to the burgeoning town, and as a result it appears likely that a sea wall was first constructed during the late 15th or early 16th century (albeit not necessarily in the form which now partially remains). By the 19th century, however, its usefulness had receded, commensurate with Ribeira Grande’s declining economic fortunes. Increasingly breached by waterfront buildings, many of its constituent basalt blocks were also robbed. Today it survives only in occasional, isolated patches. By examining one of these surviving fragments, details of its original form and method of construction can be discerned. Firstly, it is apparent that the same materials and construction technique – involving a rough rubble core retained by two well-laid outer skins – was employed in the sea wall’s erection as was later used to construct Forte de San Braz; the principal differences being its verticality and an absence of put-log holes. Notably, only one major build phase is represented. This measured 1.56m in width and in excess of 2.75m in height. Although on its seaward side the wall’s face has been repointed at least once, this work could well have been undertaken relatively recently. Thus, somewhat surprisingly, there is no evidence for the gradual enlargement/reinforcement of the sea defences (though it is of course possible that an initial, less substantial wall was later entirely replaced). This may imply that the decision to enclose a large area, and thereby establish a relatively substantial town, was made quite early on in the settlement’s history.

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Design Dave Webb