Un Once de Noviembre – Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence

Painting of several men standing around and signing Cartagena's declaration of independence on display at the Palacio de la Inquisición.

By 1811, there were increasing calls for independence in Spain’s colonies in the Americas, among them the colony of New Granada, made up of present day Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia.  These calls eventually brought about a complete break from Spanish rule.  On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared absolute independence from Spain and established the independent and sovereign Free State of Cartagena, the first functioning independent state in Colombia.  Read on for a complete history of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence.

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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.

Background to Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence

By the early 1800s, the spread of Enlightenment ideas of democracy and the influence of United States independence and the French Revolution had reached South America.  Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in 1808 had set off a political crisis.

Many of Spain’s colonies in the Americas declared autonomy and vowed only to return to the fold with a return of the exiled King Fernando VII of Spain.  Among them was the colony of New Granada, where colonial leaders in the capital of Bogotá had declared autonomy on July 20, 1810.  There and elsewhere, governing councils (Juntas de Gobierno) were created to rule in King Fernando’s absence.

(*Why did Cartagena declare independence? – Read more on the historical background here)

However, some of the population was calling for a permanent break with European rule and full independence.  Particularly in Cartagena, these calls were growing by late 1811.  The city had already become a center of independent activism.

Political Debate, Maneuverings, and Conflict

By mid-1810 the debate between realistas, those supporting continued loyalty to Spain and the restoration of the monarchy, autonomistas, who favored moderate moves towards self-governance, and more radical independistas, those supporting complete separation, had intensified to outright conflict.  Mompox, a river port to the southeast and under Cartagena’s authority declared independence in August of 1810.

In Cartagena, on June 14 of 1810, the autonomistas, took control of the government in a coup and threw out the Spanish appointed governor.  They were aided by a militia known as the Lanceros de Getsemaní made up largely of free blacks and mulattos (known as pardos) from the neighborhood of Getsemaní and led by the popular Pedro Romero.  Not ready to go as far as a complete break from Spain, the new powers that be in Cartagena sent a force to bring Mompox back under the provincial capital’s control.  The Realistas, meanwhile, tried and failed to retake control of the city in February of 1811.  The next 6 months saw a power struggle between the independendistas and the autonomistas.

Finally, the brothers Germán and Gabriel Guitiérrez de Piñeres, the leaders of the independistas who had earlier led the short-lived declaration of absolute independence in Mompox, enlisted the support of Romero’s militia to help them make a decisive move for complete independence.

A photo of the governor’s office, where Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence was proclaimed.

Signing of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence

During a meeting of the Governing Council, on November 11, 1811, Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence was to be debated.  The Lanceros de Getsemaní, marched to an arsenal where they armed themselves and waited outside the governor’s palace, ready to demand independence by force if the council did not pass the declaration.  In the end, the council decided in favor of independence, with all but one of the members, the bishop, signing the document.  Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence was read in a bando, or public declaration.  Today, the celebration of the anniversay is referred to as a bando.

The participation of the common people, many of them free blacks, made Cartagena’s push for independence unique in Colombia.  It is true that in other areas many commoners did support independence, and it is also true, like elsewhere that the main political leaders of independence in Cartagena were wealthy white criollos.  Still, only in Cartagena was it the popular classes that pushed the elites, many still reluctant, to the step of declaring full independence.

In a colony with an extremely racist social and class structure and in the city that was the entry point of the overwhelming majority of Spanish South America’s slave population, the expression of the ideas that all citizens had equal rights and the participation of the Afro-descendant population was significant.

A photo of the Act of Independence declaring why Cartagena declared independence.
The full text of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Free State of Cartagena

Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence declared it an independent and sovereign state.  It laid out a series of grievances against the Spanish government, notably in its refusal, even while much of its territory was under the control of France, to appoint leaders born in the Americas to positions of colonial power.  It also stated its support for equal rights, political liberty, a free press, and the separation of powers into three branches of government.

The city also adopted a flag and seal for its new state.  At the end of November, Cartagena joined the provinces of Antioquia, Tunja, Pamplona, and Neiva to sign the Constitution of the United Provinces of New Granada (Provincias Unidas de la Nueva Granada).  A federal system that operated more like a confederation, the United Provinces declared themselves to be equal and have control of their internal affairs with only centralized control of the military and foreign relations.  Bogotá, wanting centralized control, refused to sign.  So began the period known as La Patria Boba, when the centralist vs federalist conflict prevented a united front in the creation of a strong, independent republic.

Cartagena's flag, adopted after Cartagena's Declaration of Independence in 1811 that is commemorated during the Cartagena Independence Festivities, consisting of a green rectangle inside a yellow rectangle inside a red rectangle with a white seven pointed star in the center.
Cartagena’s flag was originally adopted as the flag of the Free State of Cartagena, whose creation is commemorated in the Cartagena Independence Festivities.

The failure to unify during the Patria Boba led to near constant conflict between different political factions over the next several years.  Some areas, such as Santa Marta, also remained loyalist strongholds, and Cartagena and Santa Marta were in a constant state of war from 1811 to 1815.  These internecine conflicts would help allow Spain to reconquer New Granada and go on to influence later conflicts in Colombia as well.

To the Last Drop of Blood:  Cartagena Vows to Protect Its Independence

In the last words of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence its signers solemnly pledged their lives to the cause, vowing to shed up to their last drop of blood before failing to keep their sacred commitment.  (*You can read the full Spanish text of the declaration here).

The nascent experiment in self-government would prove to be a failed one for the colony of New Granada.  In 1815, the Spanish, recently rid of Napoleon’s French forces, returned to the Americas.  They succeeded in reconquering Cartagena in a devastating siege that the city wouldn’t fully recover from for a century.  After retaking Cartagena, they continued on to Bogotá and took back most of New Granada.

Cartagena would suffer 6 more years of a repressive occupation until the city was finally freed again from Spanish control in 1821, nearly a decade after Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence.  The first area to establish an independent government, it would be among the last to be incorporated into the new and lasting independent republic.

Today, Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence is celebrated annually during a week of festivities around November 11th.  A colorful, fun, and rowdy affair, it rightfully celebrates the city’s leading role in Colombia’s independence.  (*See more on Cartagena’s Independence Festivities here)

The second place to declare it, it would be the first to successfully set up a fully functioning sovereign state, the Free State of Cartagena.  While it would take another decade of struggle, the colony of New Granada was now on an irreversible path towards independence, with Cartagena leading the way.

Photo of the statue of José Fernández de Madrid.
Statue of José Fernández de Madrid, an independence leader  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

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

This is part 3 of an 11 part series on the celebration and history of Cartagena’s Independence.  Check out the other parts below:


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