History of the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra in Salvador

Forts and lighthouses in Salvador da Bahia
Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra

Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra oe  Barra Lighthouse in Salvador is certainly one of the ex-libris of the City of Salvador.

However, none of the other fortifications of the Head of Brazil has undergone so many metamorphoses during its more than four hundred years of existence than the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra.

Although historians do not usually state its exact origins, a very old record of the first construction of this defence can be found in a codex of the Overseas Archives.

It transcribes a charter of 21 May 1598, by which Brito Correia, commander of the Fort of Santo Antônio, was appointed “bastion”, “which is begun in the bar of that City.”

This must be the version that succeeded the polygonal rammed earth tower, according to the Livro Velho do Tombo do Mosteiro de São Bento.

Thus, the historian João da Silva Campos’ assertion that the first fort, i.e. the octagonal tower, was the work of the government of Manoel Teles Barreto (1583-1587) is acceptable.

As was the case with the fortifications of that quarter, it is possible that Saint Antony of Barra was born in the shape of a tower, as depicted by Albernaz.

História do Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra em Salvador

These figurations must not be random or fanciful, because there is a graphic scale in the drawings. Furthermore, the other three fortifications represented – the Redoubt of Saint Albert, the Forte de Monserrat and the Tower of Saint James of Agua de Meninos – can be confirmed by analysing other iconographies or, in the case of Monserrate, because it still exists.

Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra in Salvador - profile and plan by José António Caldas (1759)
Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra in Salvador – profile and plan by José António Caldas (1759)

.From the graphic scale provided, we can assess the size of the axes of the regular octagon represented as about 120 palms (approximately 26 metres).

Like the former stronghold of Saint Albert, the Tower of Agua de Meninos and the Castle of Saint Philip, today’s Our Lady of Montserrat had a high entrance with a staircase and drawbridge, suggesting a typological solution of the period.

As an octagonal tower, the original construction of the Fort of Saint Anthony, seen from afar, could be interpreted as a cylindrical tower.

The problem is that, in this specific case, the shapes used as cartographic decoration may not be contemporary with the cartographic plan or its author, Albernaz, but correspond to older fortresses copied from other prints.

The suspicion is justified by information contained in Diogo Moreno’s report – not only the iconography, dated 1609, but also the following reference in the description of Monserrate Fort: “stone and lime fort of the same design as St Anthony’s […]”.

As can be seen, in Moreno’s drawing there is no octagon, but a hexagon, which really resembles the Fort of Montserrat without the towers.

The entrance remains high and has a drawbridge, but the towers protecting access to the inner perimeter are located on the outside of the curtain wall. The parapets have gunboats, although few.

Judging by the artillery listed in Diogo Moreno’s Livro que dá razão do Estado do Brasil, with four pieces in total, this second version, even if built more durably in stone and lime, must also have been of modest proportions.

According to a report by the military engineer José Antônio Caldas, the curtain wall of the late 17th-century version had sixteen pieces of different calibres by the mid-18th century, in keeping with its enlarged firing line.

Some historians want to attribute some strategic value to this friendly and photogenic fort, but they should not be carried away by the excitement, given the coldness of the facts and the reality of the situation.

Rara visão contemporânea do ataque holandês a Salvador, Rare contemporary view of the Dutch attack on Salvador This rare map of Salvador and Baia de Todos os Santos (Bay of Saints) is a very early depiction of the Dutch attack and capture of the city of Salvador in May 1624. Salvador, then the capital of Brazil, was a strategic port under Portuguese control. The Dutch, determined to seize control of Brazil, formed the West India Company in 1621 and sent a large expedition to Brazil. On May 8, 1624, the Dutch fleet under the command of Admiral Jacob Willekens and Vice Admiral Pieter Heyn arrived in Salvador and attacked the city. The Dutch succeeded in capturing the city, although the Portuguese regained control less than a year later. This map depicts the city of Salvador and its fortifications, with the 26 Dutch ships advancing on the city. The remainder of the coastline is sparsely engraved with a few small towns, trees, and hills. The map is oriented with north to the left and includes an inset bird’s-eye plan of Salvador, with 16 locations identified in a key in the title cartouche. A later edition of the map shows fewer ships attacking the city, perhaps illustrating a later Dutch attack. The imprint at lower right credits Henricus Hondius in The Hague. It is unclear if this is the well-known Amsterdam publisher or the lesser-known engraver and printer from Delft who worked during the same period.

From the beginning of the 17th century, Moreno said of him that “every day armed ships of corsairs enter and leave without the artillery that is here doing any damage to it, and even if it has colubrinas [a type of artillery piece] of sixty quintals, it will never be able to fully defend the bar”.

He goes on to describe it as an “adornment of the bar”, and on this we all agree.

The reality is that no expert considered the Fortress of Santo Antônio da Barra to be of great strategic or tactical value.

Diogo Moreno is more than clear when he says: “His Majesty has often been warned that the Forts of Santo Antonio, Itapagipe and Água de Meninos […] are of no use, because they defend nothing, and because of the great risk they run due to their weakness and poor design […]”.

Bernardo Vieira Ravasco, Secretary of State and War, also said in his report of 11 September 1660: “These three forts, being almost together, are of no use to those who attend them […]”.

Even after the substantial reforms at the end of the 17th century, which greatly increased the firepower of the Fort of Saint Anthony of Barra, its prestige did not grow.

In the early 18th century, the field master Miguel Pereira da Costa was also quite emphatic in his opinion of the fort’s inefficiency.

Old photo of the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra in Salvador
Old photo of the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra in Salvador

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It should be noted that, despite already presenting the current, much more developed form, the fortification did not deserve credit, having as a disadvantage a stepfather, the current Gavazza hill.

The opinion on the limitation of Saint Anthony of Barra is shared even by laymen, such as Friar Vicente do Salvador, who states that this fort and that of Saint Philip (Monserrate) are “more for terror than for effect”.

The improvements of the new project did not solve the problem of the strategic efficiency of the fortress, because they did not help to stop invasions of the city from the south.

It remained a defence with no capacity to harass the enemies who entered the bay. From a tactical point of view, although the perimeter of fire had been increased, the conditions for the defence of its curtains were precarious.

The Batavians took this war square in the invasion of 1624, so as not to leave enemy troops in their rear when they landed in Porto da Barra, but they did not invest in a large garrison to hold it. This is a fact, because soon afterwards the fort was retaken by Francisco Nunes Marinho, at the behest of Matias de Albuquerque.

In fact, it was generally believed among scholars of the capital’s defence that it would be foolhardy to divide the small number of troops to garrison the remote defences of Barra and Montserrat.

However, we cannot ignore the role played by the fortification as a lookout for the bar of the Bay of All Saints, a function for which it had a privileged position.

From this position, since the early days of Ponta do Padrão, ships coming from the north in search of its waters were signalled.

There are several documents mentioning the signals with fires, which travelled along the coast, from the Tatuapara Tower House to Ponta do Padrão, warning of the approach of ships, and the shots that were made from fortress to fortress indicating more than four ships entering the bar.

This function earned our fortress the nickname of Barra Lookout.

The lighthouse installed in the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra, still in the 17th century, for the defence of navigators against the escarpments and shallows of that area of the sea, demonstrates that, more than its warlike function, always in doubt, it could boast those of navigation safety and surveillance.

The installation of the lighthouse in the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra took place in 1698, due to the disaster with the Galeão Sacramento, a vessel that was carrying General Francisco Correia da Silva, who would become governor, but died in the shipwreck.

Veja Wreck of the Galeão Sacramento in Salvador BA.

To fulfil these functions, a square-based lighthouse tower was installed, which survived for a long time.

The current appearance of the fortress is largely the same as it was at the end of the 17th century, except for the expansion of the covered area on the embankment. The cylindrical lighthouse tower dates from the 19th century, since Vilhena still represented it as square at the end of the previous century.

According to Silva Campos, the cylindrical tower must be the result of a renovation arising from the Imperial Order of 6 July 1832, when lighting equipment purchased in England was installed.

New European equipment was installed in 1890 and remodelled in 1904. The electrification of the system dates from 1937.

See Defences of Porto da Barra – Forts of Santa Maria and São Diogo

History of the Fort of Santo Antônio da Barra in Salvador – Tourism and Travel Guide of Salvador da Bahia

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