NINIGRET — A PORTUGUESE FORT
Chapter 10

Click on each photo for a larger view

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Outline of Fort Ninigret is characterized by five-sided bastions on three corners.

Few people know of Fort Ninigret in Charlestown, Rhode Island. Yet, this intriguing structure has captivated the interest of scholars for many years because of its unique configuration and the open breech cannon and sword found nearby.

 Named after Ninigret, sachem of the Niantics, the fort is situated on the point of land facing Ninigret Pond, off State Route 2, half a mile west of Charlestown, a short distance from the ocean. Actually, all that remains of the old fort are the mound and some loose stones and earth from the original walls. 

However, its most striking characteristic is the outline maintained by the railing, marking off three-foot high mounds of the original fort. The fort is rectangular with the corners terminating in five-sided bastions, except for the one facing the water. It measures 152 feet long (from bastion to bastion) and 137 feet wide. The angles of the bastions are approximately 130 degrees. No one doubts that the style in which the fort is built clearly shows the influence of European civilization. 

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Ninigret Statue in Watch Hill Rhode Island

 

DUTCH THEORY: In 1858, 5. G. Arnold, in a footnote in his “History of the State of Rhode Island”, stated for the first time in print, that “the Dutch had two fortified trading posts on the South Shore of Narragansett in what is now Charlestown”. But he presented no proofs, and gave no references. 

Later historians followed Arnold’s theory without questioning its origin or basis until 1921, when Leicester Bradner, after reviewing all the documents concerning the activities of the Dutch West India Company in America since 1626, refuted vehemently Arnold’s theory. Bradner stated that the theory was conceived “with the naive credulity of an old style  historian”. Then he concluded: “The facts I have presented are conclusive and their importance can only be altered by the discovery of new sources. On the present evidence, I consider it impossible that the Dutch owned or occupied the fort in Charlestown.” 

CANNON AND SWORD: In the following year (1922) new discoveries were made. A cannon, open breech type, a sword, and four skeletons were found near Ninigret Fort on the farm of T. L. Arnold (not related to S. G. Arnold) . The Dutch theory was again revived in regional historical circles. In 1932 William B. Goodwin decided to excavate at the ruins of the fort and defend once more the Dutch theory. In spite of all the efforts spent in reviewing the documents of the Dutch Company, he flatly admits that the “five-sided bastions are very unusual”, and that he could “find no such shaped bastions in any of the books on fortifications which I have been able to locate”. 

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Open breech cannon found near the site of Fort Ninigret closely resembles 15th and 16th century cannons exhibited at the military museum in Lisbon.

 

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Open breech cannon (15th - 16th century) at the military museum in Lisbon closely resembles Ninigret cannon

 

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Sword found nearby Ninigret Fort. Its handle shows a significant similarity to that of the sword (XV - V\XVI century)  in the historical museum of Angra, Terceira, Azores.

 

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Sword preserved in the historical museum of Angra, Terceira, Azores. Its handle shows a striking similarity to that of Ninigret Fort

 

BLUE POTTERY:  Goodwin, during his superficial excavation, found in the center of the fort a well four feet in diameter with three circular layers of field stone. He then dug to the depth of nine feet and found “several stones which showed signs of fire and to One side of which stones adhered a layer of clay.” He came to the conclusion that “those stones were out of a chimney which at one time or another had been erected in another place". 

He also found several archeological objects which he attributed without hesitancy, both to the Indians and the Dutch. Among these he obtained part of a plate dish made of blue pottery — which he called “our greatest find” — because it had on it the letter “R” written in blue. He believed that the “R” was the initial for Isaac de Rasier, secretary to the Dutch West India Company which had its head quarters in Manhattan (New York) . Of course, he was never aware that the “R” could very well be a part of Miguel Corte Real, who explored the Narragansett delta in 1502. 

In an effort to demonstrate that the blue and white pieces of pottery came from Holland, Goodwin consulted the experts who informed him that such pottery was Spanish in origin and could have been brought from that country during the Spanish occupation of Holland between 1545 and 1574. 

Many people, even today, mistakenly think that Portugal is a province of Spain, and therefore do not know that Portugal has blue and white pottery par excellence, considered the most beautiful blue tile murals that exist in Europe. 

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM:  In his determination to defend the Dutch theory, Goodwin “with photographs made of the cannon and sword from all points of view”, went to New York City to consult with the foremost authorities on armor. Mr. Grancsay, curator of armor at the Metropolitan Museum gave him ‘‘his unquestioned opinion that the sword could well date back to the early 1500’s and declared the cannon to be a very early breechlock type. In fact, the cannon could go back to the 15th century.”  There is no doubt that both pieces of armor were of European fabrication. And once more their Spanish origin was consider ed, forgetting, as usual, the possibility of their being Portuguese. 

PORTUGUESE THEORY: Up until now, there have been two theories concerning Fort Ninigret: (1) the Dutch, amid (2) the anti-Dutch theory. The latter, being negativistic, has been favored by the Yankee historians, realizing that they have no claim whatsoever on the Fort. Both groups have been watchful of each other to the point of not being able to envision any other theory. 

American historians find the five-sided bastions of Fort Ninigret very unusual and are unable to determine the origin of its configuration because they have no knowledge of the forts of Portugal, or those built by the Lusitanian navigators in other continents during the great period of the discoveries. If historians had the required knowledge, they would have very easily found that the Portuguese forts are characterized by four, five, and six-sided bastions.

Any student of arms knows that the open- breech type cannon found at Ninigret was  obsolete after 1540. Why do historians try to make us believe that such a cannon was used almost one century later by the Dutch or the British? 

Most striking is the similarity of the can non and sword now preserved by the Rhode Island Historical Society, in Providence, with the 15th and 1 6th century cannons and swords in existence at the Military Museum in Lisbon. Furthermore, if we examine Chinese and  Japanese paintings depicting the enterprises of the Portuguese explorers in the Orient, we will see a great similarity between the handles of the Portuguese swords and that of the Ninigret sword. 

The Fort and its artifacts are significant because they demonstrate not only the presence of the Portuguese, but also their occupancy of the land. Ninigret Fort, together with all other evidence presented in the previous chapters, actually make Narragansett Bay a Portuguese Museum of Early American History.

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