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Barbados - Land Of Sun, Sand, Surf And A Canadian Super Gun

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Most people come to Barbados for sand, surf and sun.

I ended up searching for a Super Gun.

Designed and built in the 1960s by a Canadian ballistics engineering genius named Gerald Bull, the massive artillery piece today sits rusting amid encroaching foliage, on the island's southeast corner, just down a hill from the end of an airport runway.

It, no less than the Avro Arrow, is a reminder that Canada had great aeronautical aspirations in the 1950s and early 1960s -- aspirations that ultimately came to naught.

Bull, a native of North Bay, Ontario, is, to this day, a highly controversial character.

Educated at the University of Toronto and a professor at McGill, Bull was convinced that a very large gun would provide a better (and cheaper) means of testing the aerodynamics of objects destined to reach orbit and return.

He even believed that a gun, if sufficiently large, could be built that would launch objects into space without the need to use a rocket at all.

By 1961 Bull was able to convince both the American and Canadian governments, as well as McGill, to fund the building of just such a Super Gun. The scheme, called HARP (High Altitude Research Project), was sited in Barbados, in the parish of Christ Church.

McGill had a long-standing relationship with Barbados -- indeed, there is still a research facility on the island to this day -- and Bull felt it was the perfect place to assemble and fire his gun, which eventually reached 120 feet in length and set a record in 1963, firing an object 58 miles (92 km) skyward. At its peak, the project employed more than 300 individuals, the majority local islanders.

While the gun was in many ways a technological marvel, rockets were becoming more reliable. Funding began to dry up. A CBC correspondent alludes to the lack of Canadian support when interviewing Bull -- Bull is circumspect in his response, but in truth he was reportedly already embittered by the Canadian government's earlier cancellation of the Avro Arrow project.

The next stages of Gerald Bull's career read like something of Faustian fable. Seemingly in love with the technology he had helped to create, he pressed on with increasingly dubious sponsors, including the apartheid government of South Africa (who were looking for an artillery piece that could reach rebel strongholds in Angola). This foray ended badly, with Bull spending time in a U.S. federal penitentiary for violating a U.N. arms embargo. (Bull had been granted retroactive U.S. citizenship -- itself an unusual and murky move -- in the 1970s. He was thus subject to U.S. jurisdiction).

Next Bull went to work for Iraq, in the person of Saddam Hussein. In the late 1980s Iraq was in conflict with Iran -- and had also been a long-standing enemy of Israel. Research and development of a gun that could potentially fire a projectile hundreds of kilometers caused more than a little unease in several Middle East capitals.

This also ended badly. By March 1990 Bull was dead, executed "professionally" in (or just outside -- accounts differ) his suburban Brussels apartment. Israel's MOSSAD is considered by many the most likely perpetrator, although some point to Iran and possibly even the CIA.

One could argue that Gerald Bull was a prototype for Walter White, the brilliant chemist from the epic "Breaking Bad" TV series who, when thwarted by business partners and a U.S. health care system that forces one into bankruptcy, goes over to the dark side.

Did Canada's lack of financial support push Gerald Bull into the arms of repugnant regimes? Or was he simply an obsessed opportunist? Let the debate begin.

His most fitting memorial is in Barbados, seldom visited or even recalled.

But if you visit the island, this somewhat bizarre relic of Canadian history is still accessible and worth a short hike and perhaps an hour of your time.

Overlooking the sea, the Super Gun site today features a decaying bunker, the gigantic gun barrel tilted seaward, and other objects scattered about. It is technically owned by the Barbados military, which periodically (and somewhat ironically) use it for small arms practice.

There was nothing small about Bull and his dreams -- and that was arguably his ultimate undoing.

Robert Waite is a professor at Seneca College and a frequent writer on travel

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