Biography of Pedro Romero – Black, Working Class Hero of Cartagena’s Independence

Statue of a man with his fist raised, meant to represent Pedro Romero posted in this biography of Pedro Romero.

A key figure in the independence of Cartagena, Pedro Romero was a free mulatto artisan.  His support for independence was a key factor in the passage of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence.  Often overlooked, Pedro Romero’s leadership of the largely black working class militia helped mark Cartagena’s independence as unique in Colombia for the important role that the working class played.  Read on for a biography of Pedro Romero to learn about this important, but often under-appreciated leader in the movement for independence.

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Statue of a man with his fist raised, meant to represent Pedro Romero posted in this biography of Pedro Romero.
Statue of Pedro Romero in Plaza de la Trinidad. Read on to learn more about the biography of Pedro Romero.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Pedro Romero’s Biography

In the early 1800s, free black, mulatto, and mestizo artisans were an important part of the social fabric of colonial Cartagena.  Making up most of the population of the city and concentrated in the neighborhood of Getsemaní, they made enormous contributions to the city’s history and culture.  They were the carpenters, masons, shipbuilders, and blacksmiths that helped forge and build Cartagena’s wealth.  Among them were Pedro Romero.  Pedro Romero worked as a blacksmith, and there is evidence he built cannons, church bells, and helped arm a ship for the city’s armory.

There is some debate among historians over Pedro Romero’s origins.  According to legend, he was from Matanzas, Cuba and may have arrived in Cartagena in 1770 with a group of Cubans hired to work on the city’s fortifications.  There is also a historical record of him having the nickname “matancero.”  Traditionally this has been the story told in the biography of Pedro Romero.  However, there is no historic record of his birth in Cuba, although that could be due to the loss of some of Matanzas’s historic records.

Furthermore, in a letter Romero wrote in 1810, he described himself as a natural of Cartagena.  There is also no evidence of a family name of Romero in Matanzas, today or historically.  Meanwhile, it was, and continues to be, a common name in Cartagena.  There is also another explanation for his nickname.  At one point there was a shortage of meat and the local government asked him to do an inventory of the people in Getsemaní that were raising pigs.  Therefore, people began calling him the matancero, or pig killer.

While this hole in the historical record makes it somewhat hard to have a full early biography of Pedro Romero, it is clear that he lived the majority of his life in Cartagena, and it would be in Cartagena that he made his lasting contribution to history in leading the citizens of Getsemaní in supporting the city’s independence.

Photo of a bell forged by Pedro Romero. Today it is rusted. Learn more by continuing to read the biography of Pedro Romero.
Bell forged by Pedro Romero for the San Roque Church in Getsemaní.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Pedro Romero’s Role in Cartagena’s Independence

By 1811, Cartagena had become a hotbed of support for independence from Spain.  Romero had also solidified himself as an important working class leader.  He is thought to have owned a number of properties in the Centro in addition to his workshop in Getsemaní.

In 1810, he wrote a letter petitioning the king to allow his son to study law in Bogotá, at a time when non-whites were barred from studying at colonial universities.  Some of his daughters had also married members of the criollo elite.  He was undoubtedly a well respected figure in Cartagena, even by the white elite.

He was also a leader among the pardos, or black and mixed working class population in Getsemaní.  In 1810, he was made a colonel in the militia, becoming the first non-white military officer in Cartagena.  The militia group he led was called the Lanceros de Getsemaní, named for the spears or lances many carried.

In November 1811, Cartagena’s criollo, or men of white Spanish descent, leaders were considering whether or not to declare absolute independence from Spain.  Among the group pushing for the declaration were the Guitíerrez de Piñeres brothers.

The governing council (Junta Suprema) that was created in 1810 and threw out the Spanish governor had granted equal rights to all freedmen regardless of skin color.  (*Learn more on the background to independence, including the creation of the junta here).  The ideas of equality that the criollos espoused were appealing to Cartagena’s pardo population.

In Spain, representatives of the mainland and the colonies were meeting in Cadíz, one of the few areas still free from the French occupation of Spain.  They essentially formed a national assembly and produced a constitution in 1812.  The meetings in Cadíz are considered a major step towards representative government in Spain.

However, in the Americas, the wheels of rebellion and self-government were already turning.  While many of Spain’s colonies sent representatives, some did not, and most awaited the outcome with skepticism.  One of the major grievances of the criollo elite had been their lower status to those born in Spain proper.

The matter of citizenship was therefore a major point of discussion at Cadíz.  The assembly recognized as full and equal citizens all those born to parents of pure Spanish descent.  The criollo elite would therefore get equal rights, but for pardos citizenship would only be granted by special decree.  The assembly formally announced this decision in September of 1811.

Therefore, knowing they would be denied legal equality under further Spanish rule, the black and mixed majority population of Cartagena were solidified as strong supporters of independence.  Seeing the opportunity as ripe, the Gutíerrez de Piñeres brothers enlisted Pedro Romero and the Lanceros de Getsemaní in supporting a declaration of absolute independence.

A photo of a painting with some men standing around a table, signing the proclamation of Cartagena's independence.
Painting of the signing of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence on display in the Palacio de la Inquisición.

On November 11, the cabildo, or city council met at the governor’s palace to discuss and vote on the declaration of independence.  Meanwhile, Pedro Romero and the Lanceros de Getsemaní armed themselves and marched to the plaza outside of the palace.  Their march was a demonstration in support of independence and was meant to put pressure on the men inside voting.

This action helped spur those still in doubt to sign the declaration, and shortly after, the declaration was read in a bando, or public declaration.  With this action, Cartagena became the first place in Colombia to create a fully functioning free and independent state, and Romero and the black working class had played a key role.

Historic Legacy of Pedro Romero

Much of what we know about the biography of Pedro Romero ends with the declaration of independence.  He undoubtedly remained an important figure in Cartagena up until at least the publishing of the Constitution of the Free State of Cartagena in 1812.  However, there’s not much in the historic record of his later actions or when and how he died.

Unfortunately, while the criollo leaders espoused support for the Enlightenment ideas of equality of all men, and natural rights, like the United States earlier, they largely left the black population out.  A predominantly white power structure of wealthy landowners and merchants remained after independence.  It was only recently that Cartagena, an overwhelming black majority city, had its first black mayor.  While race does function much more fluidly in the Caribbean and inequality takes the form of classism much more than straight up racism, Cartagena’s “high society” still looks very different the majority of its population today.

This fact likely explains at least part of the reason Pedro Romero’s importance to Cartagena’s independence often goes under-recognized.  The other reason is the gaps in the historical records, especially after those on his role in the declaration of independence.  Unlike many of the criollo leaders, there are no portraits of Romero.  In fact, the statues and images of him today are based on approximations of how he might have looked.  The only surviving image of him is a rough painting that reveals little about his appearance.

A black and white painting of Pedro Romero where his appearance is unclear, one of the reasons why there are not many clear facts in the biography of Pedro Romero.
The only known portrait of Pedro Romero. Image Source: El Universal

Despite this, Romero is deserving of a higher place in Cartagena’s pantheon of leaders and heroes.  While he does have a statue in the Plaza de la Trinidad and a prominent street named after him, he deserves more recognition both in terms of historic monuments and historic scholarship.  He and the working class’s participation in independence was unique in Colombia.  While in other places the working class did support independence, only in Cartagena did they take the leading role in pushing for independence.  Hopefully awareness of Romero, his role, and that of the black and mulatto working class will continue to grow.

If you are in Cartagena during the Independence Festivities in November, be sure to check out the Cabildo de Getsemaní, a march meant to reenact that of the Lanceros de Getsemaní normally held in the afternoon of November 11. (*Read more in this Guide to the Cartagena Independence Festivities).


Interested in learning more about the celebration of Cartagena’s Independence?

This is part 4 of an 11 part series on the celebration and history of Cartagena’s Independence.  Check out the other parts below:


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