The largest colonial Spanish fortification on mainland South America, the Castillo San Felipe Fortress in Cartagena, Colombia has a rich history. First built in the 17th century, the fortress fell once to the French but later successfully repelled a large English force. Expanded in the late 18th century to the massive and imposing fortress one can see today, it stands as a testament to Cartagena’s colonial opulence and importance to the Spanish Empire. Read on to learn more about the history of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress and its role in the defense of Cartagena.
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Cartagena as a Target of Pirates and Foreign Powers
Cartagena was the seat of Spanish colonial power, trade, and wealth for its northern South American colonies. That made it a near constant target for foreign powers and pirates throughout the colonial era. Perhaps most famously, the city was sacked by Francis Drake in 1586. After occupying the city for a month, Drake left much of Cartagena destroyed and looted.
After Drake’s attack, the Spanish authorities began the construction of Cartagena’s iconic city walls and a series of forts to protect the entrance to the bay and the approaches to the city. The hill of San Lazaro outside of the wall was considered a weak point. There had been a small fort there named Castillo San Lazaro built in 1536, but it was not much to speak of. Spanish officials worried the hill could be taken by an enemy force and then used to fire at the city and its walls.
In 1656, Spain found itself at war with England, and the English attacked several Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. The people of Cartagena feared the British would also strike at the city. According to legend, the residents of Cartagena were so worried that some mistook a herd of goats grazing on the hill at night to be English troops massing to lay siege to the city, sparking a brief panic.
Construction of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
In response, the Spanish commissioned the engineer Pedro Zapata to build a new fort on the hill in 1657. Zapata named his fort Castillo San Felipe de Barajas after the Spanish King Philip IV. This fort paled in comparison the massive structure visible today. It consisted roughly of the central part of the fort at the highest point of the hill and was designed to garrison only 20 men operating 4-6 cannons.
The fort was meant to be a last line of defense should the forts protecting the entrance and inner approaches of the city’s bay. Should an invading force successfully blast its way into the bay, the fort could fire at the approaching ships and serve as a check on any landing forces attempting to storm the city’s walls.
However, even this new fort could not stop the French privateer Baron de Pointis, who invaded Cartagena in 1697. The late 1600s saw the heyday of pirating in the Caribbean. According to one account from 1682, no one dared leave the port of Cartagena and it only maintained a small trade with Cuba for fear of pirate attacks, who were the real bosses of the sea. In this context, the French looked to imitate the English and attack Spanish ports in the Caribbean, using corsairs, pirates supported by the crown, like Jean-Bernard Desjeans, the baron de Pointis to do so.
Pointis arrived in Cartagena in April 1697 with a fleet of 28 ships armed with over 500 cannons and 4,000 men. First the bay’s outer defenses fell, then the Castillo San Felipe, before finally Pointis succeeded in taking the walls entering Getsemaní. Once the colonial authorities surrendered, Pointis, like Drake before him, ransacked the city.
The Fort’s Valiant Defense Against Sir Edward Vernon
Vernon’s Massive Force Arrives and Bears Down on Cartagena
In 1739, Britain declared war on Spain to begin the War of Jenkins’s Ear (seriously, the war started because Spanish coast guards cut the ear off a British merchant, a chap named Jenkins, albeit it 8 years earlier!). Fearing attack, San Felipe Fort was fully repaired and a new battery was added.
These renovations were timely as the newly renovated fort would prove to be decisive in the defense of the city during the largest battle of Cartagena’s colonial history, known as the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. This battle would be the defining moment of the history of Castillo San Felipe.
On March 13, 1741, a fleet led by Sir Edward Vernon arrived off the coast of Cartagena. Vernon had at his command over 120 ships and more than 20,000 men, including 12,000 foot soldiers. Meanwhile, Cartagena’s defenders numbered no more than 6,000, much of them militia.
In charge of Cartagena’s defenses was Admiral Blas de Lezo, already a legendary naval commander who had a peg leg, peg arm, and eye patch. Knowing he was outnumbered, de Lezo planned for a fighting withdrawal from the bay’s outer defenses, hoping the draw the British into a battle of attrition. He hoped to exhaust the British of their will to fight and supplies. He also hoped that tropical diseases such as typus, malaria, and yellow fever would be his allies, especially if he could delay the British until the onset of the raining season in late April.
By the first week of April, the bay’s outer defenses had fallen to the British, and the city’s defenders retreated to the walls of the city and the Castillo San Felipe. At this point, Vernon was so confident, he sent word to Britain of his impending victory. Medals, of which you can see and buy replicas today on a visit to the fort, were made in commemoration.
Blas de Lezo Makes His Stand at the Castillo San Felipe
However, de Lezo’s plan was working as the taking of the outer defenses of the city had only come at a high cost to the British. Furthermore, many were already suffering from disease, and the dead bodies in the water only added to its spread. While the Spanish were also suffering from disease, they at least had the advantage of not being cooped up with the injured and sick on ships.
De Lezo knew that his hope of stopping the British advance on the city stood with the Castillo San Felipe Fortress. If the British succeeded in taking it, they could use it as a base from which to bombard and lay siege to the city. Therefore, he concentrated much of his remaining forces there.
Growing impatient and desperate, Vernon ordered an outright ground assault on the fort on April 20. The British ground forces planned to try to scale the walls of the fort. They planned their assault for night so as to approach the shorter walls facing the city. In the dark, the city’s cannons could not fire on them.
However, their attack was delayed an began only shortly before dawn. Furthermore, many of the ladders the soldiers carried were not even tall enough to reach the tops of the walls. The fort’s defenders rained musket fire down on them. Once the sun came up and the guns from the city opened fire, they were caught in a deadly crossfire and began dropping like flies.
Finally, they retreated to their ships. As they licked their considerable wounds, and Vernon contemplated what to do next, de Lezo’s plan paid off as the rains began in earnest. Forced into the cramped quarters of their ships, the already suffering British would only be more susceptible to disease. Vernon finally decided to give up and sailed away from Cartagena humbled and embarrassed.
Blas de Lezo himself would become a victim of his own plan as he died from typhus a few months after the battle. However, he is remember today both in Spain and in Cartagena as a hero. There is a statue in his honor outside the fort today.
Expansion of the Castillo San Felipe Fortress
Beginning in 1762, the fort was expanded to become the massive structure it is today. The surrounding hill was entirely covered with stone walls and a number of batteries were constructed on top of it over the next seven years. The work was overseen by engineer Antonio de Arévalo.
Arévalo even had a network of tunnels cut into the ground around the fort so that the surrounding land could be demolished by dynamite in the event of an attack by a large ground force. There was even a tunnel dug into the city so that the fort’s defenders could escape if need be. The fort also boasted a fake rampart to fool any force that stormed its walls and overlapping fields of fire to trap any force that did manage to make it inside.
By the end of these expansions, the fort could garrison as many as 500 men and boasted a number of batteries facing in all directions. Due to the geography of the hill it was built on, it also did not follow the perpendicular model of most European forts constructed at the time, making it a truly unique example of colonial period fortification. It would be the largest fortification the Spanish built on the continent.
It was considered to be impregnable, and as one can still see today, it is an imposing structure. Perhaps to this, no other foreign power attempted to attack Cartagena again and its new batteries remained untested.
Deterioration and Modern Restoration
With large stone forts made obsolete by improvements in military technology by the mid-19th century, the fort remained largely abandoned. It became overgrown with bush and was even used for a while as a quarry.
However, by the late 1800s there were some efforts to protect it as a historic landmark and the Colombian government acquired the property in 1887. However, it was not until 1928 that serious attempts to restore the fort were undertaken. It was restored by Carlos Crismatti and eventually turned into a tourist site.
The city of Cartagena along with its walls and the fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. The fort was also declared a National Monument along with the city’s walls and other fortifications in 1995. Today the fort is managed by the Escuela Taller Cartagena de Indias and is open to the public daily to visitors.
Interested in learning more about the Castillo San Felipe and Cartagena’s history?
- Check out our visitor’s guide to the fort.
- Check out this detailed history of the successful defense of the city against Vernon’s attack.
- Check out the official site for the fortifications of Cartagena, where you can learn more about visiting Castillo San Felipe and the city’s other fortifications.
- Check out The Fortifications of Cartagena de Indias: Strategy & History covering the city’s colonial military history (available in English and Spanish on Amazon).
- Check our our primer on the history of Cartagena or our longer, more comprehensive article on the city’s history.
- Check out our guides to Cartagena’s Naval Museum and the Historical and Inquisition Museum, where you can learn more about the fort’s and the city’s history.