History of Cartagena – A Comprehensive Guide to the History of Cartagena, Colombia

It only takes a quick glimpse of Cartagena’s walled city and beautiful colonial architecture to know the city has a long and storied history.  The city was a seat of Spanish power and trade during colonial times, played a decisive role in Colombia’s independence, and has become a major tourist destination today.  This post is a comprehensive and detailed look at the fascinating history of Cartagena from precolonial times to today.  If you would prefer a quicker read covering the most important aspects of Cartagena’s history, then check out our Primer on the History of Cartagena.

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A row of colonial houses are an example of the rich history of Cartagena.
Sites like this show off the rich history of Cartagena. Image Source: Jaimemiralles at Pixabay

Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena was founded on June 1, 1533 by Spaniard Pedro de Heredia.  He and the other members of his founding party named their newly founded city Cartagena de Poniente (meaning Cartagena in the West).  There is some debate about why they chose that name.  Some historians from the colonial period claimed that much of Heredia’s crew was from the city of Cartagena in Spain and they therefore named their new city in its honor.  Others claim they chose it because the coastline and bay were similar to those of Cartagena, Spain.  Still others point to the origin of the name to the first map of the new world where a bay with the name Cartagena was included.  Eventually, the name would be changed to Cartagena de Indias to recognize its location in the so called West Indies in contrast to the Cartagena in Spain.

Regardless of the exact origin of the name, the bay would prove to be enormously important to Cartagena’s history as the city would become one of the most important centers of trade and a seat of Spanish military power in the Americas.  The history of Cartagena has also had an outsized impact on the history of Colombia, serving as the main entry and exit point for goods during colonial times, being a leading player in the wars for independence, and more recently becoming the crown jewel of Colombia’s growing tourism.

Cartagena’s Indigenous Past

However, Cartagena’s history does not truly begin with the founding of the colonial city in 1533 as there were indigenous peoples here long before the Spanish.  The people living around Cartagena belonged to the umbrella group known as Caribes, who also made up the populations of most of the Caribbean islands.

While the indigenous people of Colombia did not build great empires like the more well known Inca or Aztecs, they still had vibrant cultures.  In fact, the oldest evidence of ceramic pottery work in the Americas, dated to 6,000 years ago, has been found near the town of San Jacinto about 85 kilometers inland from Cartagena.

The arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 and continuous expeditions by Europeans from then on led to the rapid deterioration of the indigenous populations of the Americas due in large part to diseases bought by the Europeans wrecking havoc on their populations, along with subsequent conquest and enslavement.  The peoples of Colombia’s coast were unfortunately no exception.

There was another indigenous group that had a marked impact on the history of Colombia and the history of Cartagena, the Zenú.  Their culture was based around the Sinú river in the present day departments of Córdoba and Sucre, and they were expert goldsmiths.  It was their gold that lured many Spanish to Colombia, among them Pedro de Heredia.

Founding of Cartagena

Pedro de Heredia came to the Americas not only in search of riches and fame, but also to escape murder charges in Spain after he killed three men who had earlier attacked and robbed him.  He eventually arrived in Santa Marta and led several expeditions exploring the area around Cartagena’s bay before returning to Spain to get get royal approval and title to found a new city.

The Statue of India Catalina commemerates her role in the history of Cartagena.
The Statue of India Catalina, commemorating her role in the history of Cartagena. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Heredia disembarked on the peninsula of Bocagrande and immediately met resistance from the indigenous people in the village of Calamarí (located more or less where the walled city stands today) and other surrounding villages.  He had brought an indigenous woman named Catalina, known today as India Catalina, with him.  Catalina had been kidnapped when she was a child, then raised in Santo Domingo, and later made her way to Santa Marta, where Heredia took her on as a guide and translator.  According to popular legend, she may also have been Heredia’s lover.

Heredia succeeded in conquering the area by use of force and negotiated truces with the natives.  Cartagena was formally founded on top of the destroyed village of Calamarí on June 1, 1533.

The new settlement quickly enriched itself from stolen gold from Colombia’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Zenú.  Nearly all of the gold was taken by forced tribute or outright theft, including grave robbing.  You can see some of that stolen gold on display during a visit to the Gold Museum in Cartagena today.

Heredia himself led near continuous expeditions into Zenú territory, enriching himself from stolen gold and the ransom of indigenous chiefs.  He was three times called to trial to answer accusations of misconduct, including the embezzlement of public funds, nepotism, and extreme abuse of the indigenous population.  Heredia was able to get the charges dismissed the first time, was found guilty the second time but faced no consequences, and on the way to Spain for the third trial in 1554, his ship sank just off the Spanish coast leaving him to drown.

Cartagena’s Colonial History

Much of what is most captivating and beautiful about Cartagena is the historic walled city and its charming colonial architecture.  It conveys the prosperity and legacy of Cartagena’s history.  However, it is worth keeping in mind and reflecting on the fact that its beauty was built on three very ugly things:  the robbing of indigenous people’s gold, the importation of large numbers of slaves, and the exportation of the fruits of the labor of those slaves.

Cartagena as a Major Port of Call for Spanish Trade

A fire in 1551 destroyed much of the original settlement of Cartagena, but the city was rebuilt, this time all in stone, and continued to grow rapidly and prosper.  In addition to the continued influx of stolen gold, Cartagena also emerged as an important commercial port.  The conversion of the city into the preeminent port for all of Spain’s northern South American colonies is the defining characteristic of Cartagena’s colonial history.  All of that was made possible by Cartagena’s geographical position permitting it to become a major trading center.

There were three main geographical features that gave Cartagena an advantage.  The first is the city’s bay, wide and deep with relatively calm waters.  The second is the city’s location, allowing it to serve as a gateway to the South American continent and the link it with the budding Spanish trade with the islands of the Caribbean.  Finally, the city’s close proximity to the Magdalena River, which runs through the interior of Colombia, allowed it to be a point of entry and exit of goods coming to and from the interior of the continent.

The completion of the El Dique Canal in the late 16th century connected the bay to the river and made it much easier to export goods from the interior of the continent to the coast and beyond to Europe or vice versa.  The city’s importance as a center of Spanish trade and power throughout Cartagena’s colonial history was thus solidified.

The are of modern day Colombia was originally under the authority of the Viceroyalty of Peru.  However, the difficulty of managing such a large area from Lima led to the Spanish to later create the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada that included most of modern day Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela, with its administrative capital at Bogotá.  Venezuela also later became its own colonial administrative unit near the end of the colonial period.

The Spanish gave monopolies to trade with Europe to designated ports in their colonies, of which Cartagena Nueva Granada’s.  This monopoly became even more significant once the Spanish instituted their flotilla system to conduct trade with their colonies in the Americas.  This system of consisted of sending a huge fleet, essentially a convoy of ships, to protect against pirate attacks, only twice a year to conduct all trade with their colonies.

The fleets first stopped at the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic, where they split into two groups, one heading to Veracruz, Mexico, and the other to Cartagena, with a few of them also going to Portobello, Panama.  They then regrouped in Havana, Cuba before making the return voyage across the Atlantic to Spain.

A ship in front of the city's walls today near to where the colonial docks were located for much of the history of Cartagena.
A view of the historic walled city near to where the colonial docks were located for much of the history of Cartagena.  Image Source: USA-Reiseblogger on Pixabay

Early in Cartagena’s history, most of the exports were precious metals, mainly gold stolen from indigenous peoples or mined and eventually the riches from the silver mine in Potosí in present day Bolivia, while later sugar and tobacco were also prominent trade goods (coffee did not become a significant agricultural cash crop until nearly a century after independence).

The mercantilist system of designating that trade could only be conducted with Spain and only through certain designated ports persisted until the late 1700s.  Cartagena’s colonial history is therefore characterized by the city enjoying a monopoly on international trade within the Spanish possessions on the continent, and nearly all the goods flowing into or out of Spanish South America passed through the city, filling the city’s coffers and its merchants’ pockets.

Cartagena’s Role in the Slave Trade

The city also emerged as a major point of entry for African slaves, a fact that is unfortunately often overlooked or glossed over in the history of Cartagena.  Cartagena also held a monopoly on that trade in mainland Spanish South America.  It is believed that at least a million slaves entered the port of Cartagena.  Slaves were sold at the Plaza de los Coches, the plaza just inside the city gates where the Clocktower and the Statue of Perdro de Heredia is located today.

Buyers came from near and far to buy their slaves in Cartagena, and the institution of slavery also contributed to the social class system of the city.  Owning slaves was seen as a symbol of wealth and status by Cartagena’s elite.  Rich families often had their slaves accompany them through the city and even used slave women dressed in elaborate clothing to send gifts in order to show off their wealth.

In addition to being a status symbol, within the city most slaves worked as domestic workers in homes or in religious institutions such as churches and convents, dock workers, artisans such as carpenters and ship builders, couriers, or in construction.  Slaves bought into the city and taken elsewhere primarily worked on plantations or livestock ranches, in the silver and gold mines, domestic work, and construction.

While there were many more slaves brought to Portuguese held Brazil (as many as 4 million), and slaves were also brought to British Guyana, Dutch Suriname, and French Guiana, it is reasonable to assume that Cartagena was the likely point of entry of the ancestors of not only Colombia’s but nearly all of Spanish South America’s Afro populations.

Many slaves from Cartagena, as well as elsewhere in Colombia and South America, escaped and formed free communities.  These escaped slaves were often referred to as maroons, and they built many walled villages called palenques in the less inhabited interiors of the colonies of South America and the Caribbean islands.

One of the best examples of these free communities was San Basilo de Palenque, often times simply referred to as Palenque, located a few hours to the southeast of Cartagena.  The freemen there repeatedly made raids on Cartagena to free more slaves and aided runaways and repeatedly repelled Spanish attempts to destroy their village.  In exchange for stopping the raids on the city, the Spanish crown actually granted them recognition as a free community in 1691, making Palenque the first officially recognized free black community in the Americas.

The citizens of Palenque worked to preserve their African culture, religion, language, and traditions.  You can visit San Basilo de Palenque today and see a unique syncretism of African, Caribbean, and Latino culture.  Many of the residents still preserve traditional African customs, with the town even having its own special justice system, and the language of Palenquero still spoken by many in the community is considered to be the only surviving example of a Spanish Creole language.

A statue of San Pedro Claver ministering to a slave
Statue of San Pedro Claver Ministering to a Slave

San Pedro Claver was a Jesuit priest in Cartagena who ministered to slaves and argued for their humane treatment in the mid-1600s.  He often boarded slave ships upon their arrival in Cartagena, tending to the sick and preaching to the slaves as well as traveling to nearby plantations.  He is believed to have baptized more than 300,000 slaves.  For this work, he was later made a Catholic saint and has been called an advocate for human rights.  This legacy is muddled somewhat by the fact that there is little evidence that he actually advocated freeing slaves and his main concern seems to have been converting them to Catholicism and making sure they were baptized.  That being said, his calls to treat slaves as fellow Christians were in a sense an acknowledgement of their equality, and his healing of the sick and advocacy of better treatment likely eased many slaves’ suffering upon arrival in Cartagena.

Today you can visit the church where he preached and that today bears his name.  His remains are under the altar and the church’s museum has an impressive collection of art in addition to being a great example of Cartagena’s colonial architecture.

In the 18th century, slavery began to decline in most of the Spanish colonies (Cuba being the exception with much of the slaves brought there not arriving until the early 19th century with the large scale adoption of sugarcane production).  This decline was due to the exhaustion of many of the mines, the cost of buying slaves, and the growth of low cost free labor.

This free labor was primarily made up of freed slaves, mestizos (people of mixed European-Indigenous descent), mulattos (people of mixed European-African descent), zambos (people of mixed African-Indigenous descent), and pardos (people of mixed European-African-Indigenous descent).

Cultural Influence of Slavery in Cartagena

Conceptions of race were fluid within the social structure of Spanish South America and the Caribbean and was (and in many ways still is) complex with numerous categories.  This conception of race contrasts with the stricter “one drop” rule that characterized conceptions of race in British North America.  Whether that is better or worse is debatable, as while it allowed more fluidity, it also led to ideas of differing “shades” and ideas that one can succeed in “whitening” themselves, whether that be through their profession, hair style, or who they associate it.  It has also led to class being more important than race (in other words a double edged sword, a poor black person is black, a rich black person is treated as “whiter” and successful despite his skin color, so that’s evidence that racism doesn’t exist).

Nonetheless, African slaves have had a marked impact on the history of Cartagena and the history of Colombia.  Whether it be the cuisine, the music, the fast and slang filled costeñol Caribbean Spanish, or the brightly colored dress, the influence of African culture is unmistakable in Cartagena.

The African influence in the history of Cartagena and the history of Colombia particularly shines through in its influence on music.  Cumbia stems primarily from a blend of African influenced drums and indigenous indigenous flutes.  The use of the clave, a musical instrument consisting of two sticks hit together, as part of the rhythm of salsa (invented in Cuba) and tango (usually most associated with Argentina) has its origin in African rhythms as well.

The two largest musical influences of African culture on the history of Cartagena you are likely to see today are the music and dance of Mapalé and Champeta.

Mapalé is a form of dance that originates from slave and Afro-descendant fishermen along Colombia’s Caribbean coast and Magdalena River.  Its origin was as a form of recreation and celebration of success after a long day of work by the fishermen.  The dance is set to the rhythm of drums and its movements are meant to represent the action of fishing and the wiggling of a fish out of water.  Due to its recreational origins, its movements often have an erotic element to them.  The dance usually beings with a line of men and women which then come together as dance couples.  You can often see Mapalé performed in the city in its public plazas, and it serves as one of the best representations of the influence of African culture on the history of Cartagena.

Dancers doing the fisherman's dance of Mapalé, an example of the cultural influence of the slaves that were brought to the city during the history of Cartagena.
Dancers performing the Mapalé, a fisherman’s dance that shows the cultural influence of the many African slaves brought to the city during the history of Cartagena, in Plaza Bolivar. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Over the last decade, Champeta music has become Cartagena’s most significant musical export to the rest of Colombia and beyond.  The origin of the word champeta was a description of a short version of a machete used in the field, the kitchen, or as a weapon, and the term champetudo was often used as a derogatory term by Cartagena’s white elite to describe the majority black lower class.  While the term is often used today to people to who like Champeta music, it can still sometimes carry a negative connotation to refer to uncultured or vulgar people.

However, the term Champeta came to describe a unique form of music ubiquitous with Colombia’s Caribbean coast that has its roots in African rhythms.  The music developed in the barrios of Cartagena and the town of San Basilo de Palenque.  In the 1970s, records from Africa influenced Colombian artists to make their own versions of the songs.  Both the original African versions and the Colombian versions became hits in the pic´ós, or sound systems (I’ve seen this translated as or even written as a Spanish pronunciation of pickups, which seems to make sense, but I’m not sure on that).

The picó became a center of recreational life in the Afro-Colombian barrios of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in particular Cartagena.  They range in size from a few speakers set up with a DJ to massive sound systems.  They continue to be popular today, and the brightly colored posters you might see posted advertising El Rey de Rocha or El Imperio are for the largest and most well known sound systems..

El Pibe de Santa Ana, an example of a smaller picó sound system.
El Pibe de Santa Ana, an Example of a Smaller Picó

Champeta stands as a unique expression of the culture of Cartagena and Colombia’s Caribbean coast’s African cultural influence.  When I arrived in the country in 2011, while enormously popular in the barrios it was more or less confined to this part of the country.

However, over the last few years, it has grown to have more and more acceptance.  Part of that has been due to the fact that some of the artists, in particular Kevin Florez and Mr. Black, have adopted the music to more closely resemble reggaeton and latin rap and make it more mainstream.  Champeta has increasingly gotten more playtime not only in popular dance clubs in the tourist area of Cartagena but also in other parts of the country, including Bogotá and Medellín.

While this growth in popularity has caused it to evolve towards pop and lose some if its unique qualities, it’s still an important development that a music that originated in and around Cartagena, and is overwhelmingly black in influence, is coming to have a major influence on the music scene in Colombia, especially as other more socially conscious black musical artists such as ChocQuibTown are also gaining popularity.

Cartagena as a Target of Pirate Attacks

The prosperity of the city and the riches that passed through it made it the target of attacks by pirates and other European empires.  There was a continuous threat of pirate attacks throughout Cartagena’s colonial history and the city was even sacked three times.

The first pirate attack on Cartagena was carried out by the French Huguenot Roberto Baal only a decade after the city’s founding in 1544.  The city had yet to have been fortified, which made it a relatively easy target.  Baal seized the city and left after being paid a hefty ransom.

However, it was privateers that carried out many of the pirate attacks during Cartagena’s history.  Privateers were basically pirates who were given permission by one country to attack the ships of another and in exchange shared some of the loot with their sponsoring country.  In other words, they were paramilitary like pirates who were given a license to be pirates as long as they promised to attack a country’s enemies and share their spoils with the licensing government.  It was common practice from the 16th and into the 19th century for the European powers and later the United States to employ privateers to boost their naval capacities during times of war.

One of the most notorious pirate attacks in Cartagena’s history came at the hands of one such privateer, the British Sir Francis Drake in 1586.  Drake’s fleet arrived in the bay on February 19, 1586 and that same night sent a force of about 1,000 mean ashore to take the city.  After successfully bypassing the city’s outer defenses, they succeeded in storming the city’s still primitive defenses.

Francis Drake’s occupation of Cartagena lasted for over two months.  His troops looted much of the city’s wealth, down to the church bells and cannons, and they left the city in ruins and practically defenseless.  Finally on April 12, he sailed away from Cartagena, just 2 days before a Spanish fleet arrived to try to trap him.

A canon at the Castillo San Felipe which was built to help defend against the pirates like Drake who were threats for much of the history of Cartagena.
A canon at the Castillo de San Felipe, one of the many fortifications built over the history of Cartagena to prevent another attack like Drake’s.

On an interesting side note, according to one legend, the mojito was invented during Drake’s flight from Cartagena.  Scurvy and dysentery struck his crew shortly after leaving Cartagena, and they made a stop in Cuba hoping that local indigenous peoples could help them with medicine.  They gave the pirates a mix of cane liquor, sugarcane juice, lime, and mint.  The drink was referred to as El Draque at the time, and there are differing accounts of how the mojito was actually invented, but it seems this was one of the first accounts of these ingredients being mixed together, and as rum became more common in the Caribbean it became a popular mix.

So next time you are enjoying a mojito, be sure to keep in mind it possibly originated with pirates and more importantly is an effective remedy against scurvy and dysentery!  (Well really it’s just the lime juice that helps, but it’s still a good line to use when you want an excuse to drink a mojito).

“La Ciudad Amurallada”:  The Construction of Cartagena’s Walls and Fortifications

It was Drake’s sack of Cartagena that prompted the Spanish to get serious about the city’s defenses.  Engineers from Europe were brought to oversee the construction of a series of fortifications to help defend the city in the event of future pirate attacks on Cartagena.

In particular, it was Drake’s siege of Cartagena that prompted the building of the Cartagena’s city walls that are emblematic of the city today.  The first major construction of the walls was the Baluarte, or bastion, de Santo Domingo.  The bastion was named for its proximity to the convent of Santo Domingo.  Construction of the Baluarte de Santo Domingo began in 1602 at the site that Drake’s forces had entered the city.  Today Café del Mar sits atop the Bastion of Santo Domingo.

Next were constructed the Baluartes de Santa Catalina y San Lucas, which defend the area facing towards El Cabrero to the north of the historic center of Cartagena.  They were finished in 1638 and suffered significant damage during the invasion of Cartagena by Barón de Pointis in 1697, but were later repaired.

Next came the Balurate de San Ignacio de Loyola, a wall built overlooking Bahía de las Ánimas in front of the location of the Convention Center today.  It was meant to defend against attack through Getseman´í, Bocagrande, or the inner part of the bay as well as protect the jesuit cloister and school where San Pedro de Claver Church stands.

All of these bastions were connected to form one single wall that surrounded the city.  Most of this wall is still intact today with the exception of the portion that ran from where Cartagena’s Clocktower stands today along the Avenida Venezuela to the the laguna of Chambacú.

The iconic Clocktower of Cartagena was also constructed as a point of entry to the now enclosed city at the start of the 17th century.  Originally with no clock, the archway became the gate to the city with the completion of the walls.  A drawbridge eventually replaced the original wooden bridge that connected the walled city with Getsamaní, further fortifying the city against attack.  In the late 1800s a clock was added, which further distinguishes this site as the entrance to Cartagena’s historic center.

A view of the Clocktower, which was the main gateway to the city for much of the history of Cartagena.
The Clocktower marking the entrance to the Walled City, the main gateway to the city for much of the history of Cartagena. Image Source: Neufal54 at Pixabay

By this time Getsamaní, just outside the main colonial center of Cartagena had also become a major center of population consisting mostly of artisans.  Therefore there were also a series of walls built around it including the Baluarte de San Miguel de Chambacú that runs from near the present day location of the Monument to India Catalina through the Baluartes de Santa Teresa, Santa Bárbara, y San Jose to where the Casa de la Cerveza stands atop the Baluarte de Reducto.

There were also several defenses built to protect the approach to Cartagena.  The narrower entrance to Cartagena’s bay between the mainland and the island of Tierra Bomba, known as Bocagrande and lending its name to the neighborhood on the nearby peninsula today, was made impassable by the sinking of some Portuguese ships on a sand bar in 1640.  A century later, the Spanish built an underwater wall to further impede the entrance through the Bocagrande channel.  Even today, the channel is passable only by small crafts with a depth of about 8 feet, and larger crafts must enter through the main Bocachica channel.

There were also defenses placed on the lands overlooking the entrance at Bocachica which became the forts of San José and San Fernando.  The two forts stood on either side of the entrance to Cartagena’s bay through the channel.  Both remain standing today, and San Fernando can be easily visited.

The most impressive structure that made up the fortifications of Cartagena was the fort of Castillo San Felipe.  The construction of the massive fort was begun as an expansion of a previous fort atop the hill of San Lázaro in 1657.  The fort was built in a triangular shape and later renovated to have a square shape.  The fort was gradually expanded in the 1760s to to give it its present day massive appearance.  A tour of the still imposing Castillo San Felipe is a must for visitors to Cartagena.

The Continued Threat of Pirate Attacks on Cartagena

Despite the formidable defenses of Cartagena, it was still the target of pirate attacks.  Spain’s naval prowess had considerably declined since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and many of Spain’s colonies, including Cartagena, remained fearful of pirate attacks except for times of the year when the flotilla came to port.

These fears were again realized in 1697 with the attack of the Frenchman Barón de Pointis.  Pointis arrived off the coast of Cartagena in April 1697.  One by one, Cartagena’s defenses fell to Pointis, and he succeeded in capturing the city, and over the period of about a month the Frenchman plundered Cartagena once again.

In 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the city itself was not attacked, but there was a major attack against the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cartagena.  In fact the flagship of the fleet San Jose was sunk and went down loaded with treasure.  The ship carried gold, silver, and emeralds believed to be worth billions of dollars in today’s money.  The ship was found of the coast not far from Cartagena in 2015, and has caused a dispute between Colombia and Spain over the riches buried in the deep with it.

Cartagena’s defenses were further repaired and expanded and, in 1741, successfully stood up to the test of an attack from the naval forces of Edward Vernon, the largest pirate attack in the history of Cartagena.  Vernon, given command of a quarter of the English navy, approached the city with over 100 ships and 20,000 men while only perhaps 6,000 or fewer defended the city.

Fortunately for Cartagena, the English raiders, which included North American colonists from Virginia and slaves from Jamaica, had suffered various hardships on the way to Cartagena, including shortages of provisions and disease, from which the English commander Charles Cathcart died.  With the overall commander dead at sea, Vernon, the commander of the naval forces, and Thomas Wentworth, commander of the infantry, sparred.  Many of the Spanish soldiers defending the city were also suffering from diseases brought on by the rainy “sickly” season.

The English forces successfully took the defenses on the island of Bocachica, but only at a high cost, while Cartagena’s defenders retreated to the inner defenses of the port.  Vernon’ forces now planned an all out assault on Castillo San Felipe in the hopes taking Cartagena’s primary defense and cutting it off from supplies.  His naval forces occupied the bay and landing parties made ready for the assault while the city’s defenders prepared for the onslaught.  What ensued was probably the greatest battle of Cartagena’s colonial history.

The English attempted an assault on the shorter walls of San Felipe facing Cartagena.  They did so at night so the cannons from the city would be unable to aim and fire on them.  However, their assault was repelled by the fort’s defenders.  Once the sun rose, the guns from the city opened fire on the English invaders and eventually the English were forced to retreat.  The Battle of Cartagena de Indias was a resounding victory for the city’s defenders.

A view of the Castillo San Felipe, showing how imposing this fort was to any would be attackers throughout the history of Cartagena.
A View of the Imposing Castillo San Felipe. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

The English sailers in the bay and soldiers encamped on land continued to suffer mightily from tropical disease, which played into General Blas de Lezo’s original plan to conduct a fighting retreat against the Spanish defense and take advantage of Cartagena’s fortifications and the coming spring rainy season.

Lezo was already well known for his military exploits in Europe and for having lost an eye, an arm, and a leg.  He has in fact often been cited as a model of the popular representation of pirates with an eye patch and peg leg.  He had been promoted to Lieutenant General of the Spanish Navy shortly before the battle of Cartagena in 1741.

Lezo’s plan worked and by mid-May casualties from the fighting and disease had drastically reduced the English forces, and they withdrew.  Lezo himself succumbed to typhus several months after the siege, likely spread due to the unburied bodies from the battle.  Blas de Lezo’s statue stands outside the fort today to honor this important victory in the colonial history of Cartagena.

*You can learn more about the different pirate attacks on the city if you visit the excellent Naval Museum today.  You can also read a detailed account of Vernon’s attack here.

The Inquisition in Cartagena

As such an important place of Spanish power, an office of the Inquisition was also founded in Cartagena.  Although, the Inquisition committed far fewer brutalities in the Americas than in Spain, the office functioned throughout much of Cartagena’s colonial history.

The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 to enforce Catholic hegemony in Spain and after the unification of Spain under Catholic rule was especially used to persecute Muslims and Jews.  Later the onset of the Reformation and emergence of Protestantism led the Spanish to extend the Inquisition to its colonies.

Cartagena’s office of the Inquisition was opened in 1610.  Its primary aim was to enforce Catholicism as the dominant religion and punish those accused of witchcraft, heresy, or blasphemy.  Torture was often used as a way to extract confessions of guilt from the accused and many Jews, Muslims, and women were subjected to torture and death in Europe due to the Inquisition.

The Palace of the Inquisition in Cartagena was not completed until 1770.  The site is a beautiful example of Cartagena’s colonial architecture and doubles as a museum of Cartagena’s history and the history of the Inquisition, with numerous examples of torture devices on display.  You can learn more about it by visiting the museum today.

However there’s something to be said of life being easier and more relaxed with the sun and sand of the Caribbean.  The Inquisition was for the most part less horrific in Cartagena, which was filled with traders from all over the world, including Protestants, promoting more tolerance.  Most of the torture devices on display today state that they were not actually used in Cartagena, and over its 200 year existence there were only about 800 people put on trial for heresy in Cartagena.  Of those only 5 were sentenced to death.

Cartagena’s Role in Colombia’s Independence

Origins of Colombia’s Movement for Independence

Cartagena played an incredibly important role in Colombia’s fight for independence.  Arguably it is the most important city for understanding the history of Colombian independence.

Sentiment for independence in the Spanish Americas was influenced by new political ideas of the Enlightenment, the independence of the United States in 1776, and the events of the French Revolution, particularly as they pertained to Spain.

Spanish colonial governance was always in the hands of peninsulares, people born in Spain.  Criollos, people of Spanish descent born in the Americas, made up the majority of the wealthy landowners but were barred from holding the highest royal positions of power, a situation which led to resentment.  Many criollos were also educated in Europe and increasingly came under the influence of the political ideas of the Enlightenment and began nursing ideas for self-government.  Among them was Simón Bolívar, who would become the leader of the independence movements in Colombia and much of South America.

Statue of Simón Bolívar mounted on his horse.
Statue of Simón Bolívar, the leader of the independence armies, in Bolívar Plaza.

However, it was Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in 1808 and his installation of his brother as king that lit the spark that caused this growing desire for self government to become a full fledged movement for independence.  Many of Spain’s colonies declared themselves loyal only to the deposed Spanish king Fernando VII, and declared self-government until he was returned to power.

Among these was the colony of Nueva Granada, and on July 20, 1810 in Bogotá, a declaration was passed that declared the colony autonomous and that they would only resubmit to Spanish rule with the return of Fernando VII as king.

There is some debate over the importance of the declaration of July 20th.  While it is celebrated today as Colombia’s Independence Day, the declaration itself did not declare full independence.  In fact, it explicitly declared continuing loyalty to the a Spanish king and kept the Spanish viceroy in charge.  However, the declaration of autonomy was still a significant step in paving the way for later full independence.

The first area in present day Colombia to actually declare complete independence was the city of Mompox, a city along the Magdalena River.  Mompox was an important river port and stop over point on the trip from the interior to the coast.  It also fell under Cartagena’s jurisdiction.  The people of Mompox declared all ties between themselves and the Spanish throne to be dissolved in August of 1810.

Ironically, a force from Cartagena brought Mompox back into the fold the following January, but just 10 months later, the city of Cartagena declared itself and the areas under its control, including Mompox, a free state and completely independent.  This type of apparently contradictory infighting represents three interconnected factors that played important roles in how the the wars for independence in Colombia developed.  These factors were divisions between patriots and royalists, divisions between different political factions, and geographical divisions.

While today we perhaps like to think that independence is a result of the people banding together to overthrow their oppressive rulers, rarely has it worked that way in history, and wars for independence are often as much civil wars as wars against a foreign power.  While calls for independence had been growing, many were still not ready for a complete break, and many remained loyal to and fought for the Spanish crown throughout the wars for independence.

Additionally, there were often rivalries between different political families and factions.  While many of these rivalries were between patriots and royalists, there were also rivalries between patriots.  Even when sharing the goal of independence, leaders often refused to help each other or even worked against each other in pursuit of their own personal interests.

Finally, there were considerable divisions on how a new government should be set up.  Cities such as Cartagena often chaffed at the authority of Bogotá as the colonial capital, while cities such as Mompox chaffed at the authority of their local administrative capital.  Conflict between centralists who called for a strong central government and federalists who called for more local autonomy was a defining feature not only of the wars for independence but the later breakup of Gran Colombia, the independent state set up after independence that included present day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela.

These three factors contributed to near constant disagreement and fighting throughout the independence wars.  In fact the period between the first moves for independence in 1810 and the Spanish reconquest in 1815-16 is often called the Patria Boba, or “Foolish Fatherland,” as a result of this failure to unify.  These same factors have continued to play roles in the violence that has characterized much of Colombia’s history.

Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence:  Un Once de Noviembre

By late 1811, calls for a move for absolute independence in Colombia and Cartagena had continued to grow.  These calls would culminate in the decisive moment in the history of Cartagena’s independence.

With a meeting of the city’s governing council planned, the faction of Cartagena’s politicians calling for independence led by the Gutiérrez de Piñeres brothers planned to make a motion declaring Cartagena’s independence.  They enlisted the help of Pedro Romero, a charismatic pardo and a popular and influential figure in Getsemaní.  Romero helped drum up support for independence and led a militia group known as the Lancers of Getsemaní who raided the city’s arsenal and gathered outside the meeting to pressure a vote in favor of independence.

And so on November 11, 1811 at 11 a.m., the council voted in favor of a declaration of independence of Cartagena.  The Act of Independence of Cartagena declared the province to be a free and sovereign state and dissolved all ties between it and the Spanish crown.

A statue of Pedro Romero, an important black and working class hero in the history of Cartagena.
Statue of Pedro Romero, a black working class leader and key figure in the city’s declaration of independence, in Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemaní. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

A particularly interesting part of the history of Cartagena’s independence is the leading role of Pedro Romero and the working class population.  It marks Cartagena’s independence as unique compared to the rest of Colombia.  Other cities counted on popular support for their declarations of independence but only in Cartagena was it the working class, and a largely black working class, that forced the criollo elites’ hand.

While the crillos would go on to dominate politics during the independence period and beyond and in many ways further entrench a racist and classist power structure, the popular classes participation and the importance of Getsemaní to Cartagena’s cultural and historic identity were of extraordinary significance and have largely gone unrecognized and under-appreciated.

The Free State of Cartagena

Upon declaring itself independent, Cartagena organized it and the area under its jurisdiction as the Free State of Cartagena, which included much of the present day provinces of Bolivar, Atlantico, Sucre, and Cordoba. It wrote a constitution and adopted the flag and seal still in use today.  It would remain a sovereign state until recaptured by the Spanish in 1815.

This period was characterized by the divisions of the Patria Boba discussed above, and the area that would make up Colombia remained largely fragmented.  Bogota, as the former colonial capital, favored a centralized government with authority over the rest of the territory, while much of the rest of the areas that declared independence, including Cartagena, favored a federal system that gave them authority over their own local affairs.

Furthermore, some areas, such as Santa Marta to the north of Cartagena, also remained loyal to Spain.  In fact the period of 1811-1815 saw a state of near constant war between Cartagena and Santa Marta.

In an episode indicative of the period, in early 1815, Simon Bolivar was to lead an army to defeat royalist Santa Marta.  On the way to Santa Marta, Bolivar was to acquire more men and arms in Cartagena.  However, the governor of Cartagena Manuel de Castillo y Rada, a rival of Bolivar’s, refused.  In response, Bolivar laid siege to Cartagena from the hill of La Popa for a month and a half. All the while, royalist forces captured the cities of Barranquilla and Mompox.  Also, an expeditionary force from Spain had landed in Venezuela and would shortly be on its way to retake Cartagena and the rest of Nueva Granada.

This type of refusal to set aside political disagreements and personal rivalries and unite behind the common cause of independence is a perfect example of the dynamics of the Patria Boba.  These dynamics led to the downfall of the free states and the Spanish retaking control in Nueva Granada by 1816 and the temporary frustration of the independence of Colombia.  Cartagena especially would pay dearly for its role in independence.

La Heroica:  Cartagena’s Heroic Resistance to Spanish Reconquest

The French had been driven out of Spain and Fernando VII restored to the throne by the end of 1813.  In addition to reinstating an absolute monarchy, he also looked to reassert Spanish control in the Americas and the profitable trade that came with it.  In early 1815, a force of 15,000 men and 65 ships left Spain for South America under the command of Pablo Morillo.  Morillo landed on the Venezuelan coast in April 1815.

With the news of Morillo’s arrival, Bolivar, still camped outside Cartagena, ultimately decided taking Cartagena by force was both unlikely and undesirable.  He negotiated a truce and broke his siege in early May.  He passed through Cartagena on his way exile in Jamaica and then Haiti, leaving Cartagena to face the coming Spanish attack.

With the patriot forces divided and distracted, Morillo restored Spanish colonial control in Venezuela and began marching towards Cartagena via Santa Marta. By early August, Morillo’s forces had encircled Cartagena and by the end of August, his naval forces had successfully blockaded the city, beginning the siege of Cartagena.  The city was cut off form all outside supplies or communication.

The final words of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence in 1811 had vowed to defend the city’s liberty to the last drop of blood.  With a defending force of 2,600 regular soldiers and another 1,000 militia against Morillo’s approximately 11,000, that vow would be put to the test.

A corner of the city's walls shows the defensive advantage they offered throughout the history of Cartagena.
The city’s walls offered a defensive advantage throughout the history of Cartagena, even when the city’s defenders were heavily outnumbered.

Despite Morillo’s advantage in numbers, the city was well fortified and its walls made a successful assault difficult.  Morillo chose instead to starve the city into submission through a protracted siege.  However, Cartagena refused to capitulate and withstood a siege of over 100 days.  This refusal to surrender is why Cartagena is called the Heroic City today.  The city’s valiant and stubborn resistance would cause Bolivar to honor it with the nickname La Heroica.

However Cartagena’s perseverance came at a high cost.  Its citizens had been reduced to eating dogs, cats, horses, rats, and even leather.  Starvation began to take its toll and under siege and weak from hunger, the citizens of Cartagena were unable to bury their dead, causing disease to spread rapidly.  As many of 6,000 people, or a third of the city’s population, are thought to have died during the siege of Cartagena of 1815.

By December, the situation had become untenable.  Yet, still the city’s leaders and patriot forces refused to capitulate.  They even considered blowing up all the gunpowder stored in the city, destroying it rather than surrendering it to the Spanish.  Ultimately, they decided to flee and attempted to pass the blockade and join Bolivar in exile in early December.  While some succeeded in passing the blockade, most were captured and the others were later lost at sea.

Morillo finally occupied the city on December 6.  Morillo recounted a horrific scene upon entering the city, with dead bodies in the streets and many people bedridden or barely able to stand they were so weak from starvation.

Morillo’s forces would go on the retake Bogota and the rest of Nueva Granada with little resistance by mid-1816.  Upon doing so, they would take retribution on patriot leaders.  A tribunal was set up and supporters of independence were tried and punished.  In February 1816, 9 independence leaders were publicly executed in Cartagena.  They became known as the Nine Martyrs.

Today, these Nine Martyrs along with other patriots executed by the Spanish for supporting Cartagena’s independence are immortalized in monuments in the median just outside of Cartagena’s Clocktower in front of the city’s convention center.

Liberation of Cartagena

The recapture of Nueva Granada was short-lived.  Simon Bolivar had returned to Venezuela from exile with new funds and recruits and had been carrying out a guerilla war against the Spanish forces there.  Knowing that Bogota and the interior of Nueva Granada were less well defended, Bolivar devised a daring plan to march across the Venezuelan plains and over the Andes and liberate Nueva Granada, giving him a base of operations to complete the liberation of Venezuela.  In mid-1819, his army set off during the rainy season when the royalists believed him to resting.

Bolivar’s plan was successful and patriot forces surprised the royalists in a series of battles in early August, culminating in the decisive Battle of Boyacá on August 7, after which most of the royalist army surrendered.  The viceroy and the royalist government in Bogota immediately fled to Cartagena and Bolivar entered Bogota on August 10.

In the well-defended Cartagena, the royalist forces would hold out for nearly two more years.  In mid-1820, patriot land forces surrounded Cartagena and in January 1821, a patriot fleet under José Prudencio Padilla blockaded the city.  Once again there would be a siege of Cartagena.

On July 24, patriot naval forces under Padilla defeated the Spanish fleet in the bay outside Cartagena’s walls, near the present day site of the city convention center.  Finally, on October 10, nearly ten years after Cartagena’s declaration of independence, the royalist forces surrendered and Cartagena would have its independence, this time to keep.

Cartagena’s Post- Independence Decline and Revival

Consequences of Cartagena’s Struggle for Independence

Cartagena would suffer a long 19th century.  The toll of siege, Spanish occupation, and war, had drastically reduced its population.  After the breakup of Gran Colombia, central authority in Colombia was firmly established in Bogotá and Cartagena fell into a period of neglect decline.  After the city’s heroic and glorious role in Colombia’s wars for independence, the rest of the 1800s was a dark age in the history of Cartagena.

During Cartagena’s colonial history, it had enjoyed a monopoly on the rights to trade.  However, with free trade opened up, other areas began to challenge it.  Also, the El Dique Canal began to fall into disrepair and became impassable.  First Santa Marta, who had remained royalist and suffered little during Colombia’s wars for independence, and later Barranquilla, with its direct access to the Magdalena river, would surpass Cartagena in commercial importance.

This loss of the income from trade along with the loss of the tax paid by the rest of the colony to support it as the seat of Spain’s military power along with tropical diseases such as yellow fever and cholera, which struck the city with an epidemic in 1849 kept it in a state of decline.  It would not reach its pre-independence population numbers again until after the turn of the century.

Cartagena’s Revival at the Turn of the Century

The late 1800s saw the beginnings of a revival in Cartagena’s history.  Rafael Nuñez from Cartagena served as president of Colombia from 1880-1882 and again from 1884-1892.  Nuñez had been an influential journalist in Cartagena, a congressman, and governor of Cartagena’s Bolivar province before becoming president.  Colombia’s national anthem is based on a poem he wrote in honor of the celebration of Cartagena’s independence in 1850.

A portrait of Rafael Nuñez who was from Cartagena and served as a president of Colombia.
A portrait of Rafael Nuñez, a politician and president of the Colombia from Cartagena, in the 1880s. Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

As president, Nuñez helped get funding for dredging and repair work to the El Dique Canal and a modernization of Cartagena’s port.  A railroad was also built connecting the city with the Magdalena River.  With the city connected to the interior, trade was again able to flourish.  The city primarily benefited from the export of coffee, which was just becoming established as a major crop in Colombia around the 1890s, and the export to the Caribbean islands of cattle raised in the areas surrounding Cartagena.  While Cartagena would never recuperate its former dominance and still takes a backseat to Barranquilla, the port continues to play an important role in the city’s economy today.

Around the turn of the century, Cartagena also saw the growth of some industry, including investment in infrastructure related to the, port, the canal, and railroads.  The city’s first electrical plant was built in 1891.  A central market was established in Getsemaní in 1904 at the site of the present day Convention Center and a naval base was commissioned in 1907.  Finally, a new aqueduct was constructed that helped bring fresh water to the city and reduced the spread of disease.

The turn of the century also saw the expansion of the city, most notably with construction in Cabrero, Bocagrande, the island of Manga, and Pie de la Popa.  Immigration from abroad and from other areas in Colombia led to population growth and the continued recovery of the economy.

Growth of Tourism in Cartagena

As early as the 1930s, commentators from Colombia and abroad began noting the potential of tourism in Cartagena, with its year round warm weather, beaches, and historic sites.

View of the crowded beach in Bocagrande.
The city’s beaches along with the rich history of Cartagena has made it a major tourist destination today.

Starting in the 1960s, there were serious efforts undertaken to restore many of Cartagena’s historic buildings, and the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.  The 1990s saw continued investment in the tourist sector with many of the city’s historic buildings being converted to hotels or boutiques.  A number of the city’s historic fortifications and cultural buildings were also renovated and restored by the Colombian government in the 1990s.

While Colombia’s internal conflict worried many would be visitors, Cartagena remained relatively peaceful and continued to grow as a tourist destination.  However, it would be the 21st century that saw tourism really explode as the country became safer for visitors and more and more tourists began coming to the country, with Cartagena being the top destination in Colombia.  The Colombian government has also continued to make large investments in the tourist industry in Cartagena and elsewhere.

Challenges Facing Cartagena’s Future

There’s little doubt that tourism in Cartagena will only continue to grow exponentially.  Even in the 7 years I have been in Cartagena, the city has grown enormously, with countless more visitors, restaurants, and hotels and the building of the Transcaribe public transportation system and other infrastructure projects.

However, there are a number of challenges still facing the city.  While serving as a vehicle for economic growth, tourism also brings its own set of problems, among them the common sight of drug dealers and prostitutes, gentrification, and the often unequal distribution of the fruits of the industry.

While the historic center of Cartagena boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world and the modern condos and hotels along the beachfront show an enormous amount of wealth in the city, much of Cartagena still lags behind the rest of Colombia in economic development.  Wages are generally depressed and unemployment is high, some of the reasons why there are so many street vendors.

Also, pollution in Cartagena’s bay and damage to the mangroves around the city, which are important to the bay’s ecosystem are problematic.  While tourist areas are kept relatively clean, many areas in the city are rife with litter and many poorer areas lack paved roads and have inconsistent public services.

Cartagena has a long and storied history from its height as an economic and cultural center of colonial South America, to its heroic resistance to siege by the Spanish, to its decline, revival and emergence as a international tourist destination.  As the city looks to the future, hopefully it can look back on this history with reflection on aspects such as its legacy of slavery and with pride for its heroism against Vernon and the Spanish and for its contributions to Colombian culture, while at the same time looking to continue to grow and progress in a sustainable away.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Harold Roffey

    Thank you , thank you for this wonderful description of the history of Cartegena.
    I visited Cartagena in 1993, aged 52 where I helped prepare a yacht and sailed from there to Providencia. I’ve had a sense of loss of the place and its wonderful people ever since. I visited again in 2018. I’ve not known it well but it has remained in my mind as a magical place. I wrote a very short and highly condensed story of passion (4 pages of A4) with Cartagena and one of its bullrings as the backdrop. The charactors later facing the restrictions of COVID-19 (published along with others in 2020) – I’ll send you a email version if you wish. I’ve decided to extend that story into a novel and hence needed to understand the history of Cartegna. Thank you again. Harold Roffey. Oxford UK.

    1. Adam McConnaughhay

      Hey Harold. That’s so cool, I bet that was an amazing experience. My wife and I actually travelled to San Andres over the holidays and were planning to go to Providencia but couldn’t due to all the damage from Hurricane Iota. And yes I’d love to read the story, and the novel someday! Feel free to email it over to adam@cartagenaexplorer.com, and I’m glad you enjoyed the history here. Bet regards, Adam

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