Cartagena, Colombia has a long and storied history, and a key attraction of the city is its charming colonial architecture and historic sites. 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. Read on for a primer on the history of Cartagena and be sure to check out our longer Comprehensive Guide to the History of Cartagena if you would like to learn even more about the history of Cartagena, Colombia.
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Cartagena’s Colonial History
Founding of Cartagena
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the village of Calamarí, of the Caribe indigenous people, stood roughly where Cartagena’s historic walled city stands today. In 1533, a group of Spaniards led by Pedro de Heredia arrived and conquered Calamarí and the other surrounding indigenous villages.
The city of Cartagena de Poniente was officially established on June 1, 1533, with the name later being changed to Cartagena de Indias. The city quickly prospered, largely due to the plundering of gold from the indigenous peoples of Colombia. Some of this plundered gold can be seen during a visit to the Cartagena’s Gold Museum today.
Cartagena’s Importance as a Trade Port
The city also became an important trading center. Cartagena’s bay was perfect for the building of a port and the city was relatively close to the Magdalena River that runs through Colombia’s interior. After the completion of El Dique Canal connecting the bay with the Magdalena, Cartagena became the gateway for Spanish trade with the interior of their South American colonies.
The city was made one of only a handful of ports that had monopolies on trade between the colonies and Spain and all that trade made it extremely prosperous. For the colony of Nueva Granada, which included Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela, as well as the colony of Peru, Cartagena was the designated trading port. Nearly all the goods exported from or imported to Spanish colonial South America passed through Cartagena. That made it an important seat of Spanish colonial power, and there was even an office of the Inquisition built in the city, which doubles as a museum on Cartagena’s history and the history of the Inquisition today.
The Role of Slavery in the History of Cartagena
In a darker part of Cartagena’s history, this trade also included the trade in human beings. Slaves were sold in the Plaza de los Coches just inside of the city’s Clocktower. It is thought that at least 1 million African slaves entered Cartagena and as the only slave port in Spanish South America, it is likely nearly all of Colombia’s and northern Spanish South America’s Afro populations can trace their ancestor’s arrival back to Cartagena.
The city’s legacy as a slave port had a big impact on the history of Cartagena. African influence can be seen in everything from the city’s cuisine, the costeñol Spanish accent spoken, and the music. Some of the best representations of the influence of African culture you can see today are the groups performing the Mapalé dance in Cartagena’s plazas and the genre of music called Champeta.
Pirate Attacks on Cartagena
With all the wealth trade brought to the city, the history of Cartagena includes the constant threat of pirate attacks. There were at least 4 major pirate attacks on Cartagena, and three of them resulted in the city being occupied and sacked, with the pirates only leaving after being paid handsome ransom fees.
The most famous pirate attacks in Cartagena’s history were by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and Sir Edward Vernon in 1741. Drake’s attack on Cartagena was successful and he occupied the city for 2 months. However, Vernon’s attack on Cartagena was not successful despite the fact that he had over 100 ships and 20,000 men at his command compared to the approximately 6,000 defenders of Cartagena. However the outnumbered defenders prevailed and Vernon was forced to sail away empty handed.
You can learn more about the pirate attacks on Cartagena during a visit to the excellent Naval Museum today.
Cartagena’s Historic Fortifications
This threat of pirate attacks was the motivation in the building of Cartagena’s historic fortifications. Cartagena’s iconic wall was built around the colonial city, giving the it its nickname of “La Ciudad Amurrallada.” Most of Cartagena’s wall still stands today and walking along it is a must do activity on a visit to the city.
There were also a series of forts built to protect the exterior and the interior of the bay. The most famous of these is the Castillo San Felipe, located just outside Cartagena’s historic walled city. The fort has a long and interesting history. Construction on the fort was begun in 1657 and it was expanded in 1763 to give it its present day appearance. It played a crucial role in the defense against Vernon as the fort’s defenders successfully repelled an assault by the invading British forces. The fort is an imposing structure and impressive example of Spanish colonial fortifications, making a visit well worth it.
Cartagena’s Leading Role in Colombian Independence
Cartagena Declares Independence
There had been growing sentiment in favor of independence in Colombia and Spain’s other American colonies by the late 1700s and early 1800s. French occupation of Spain under Napoleon and the installation of his brother as king of Spain helped accelerate the moves towards independence.
On November 11, 1811 (11/11/11) at 11 a.m., Cartagena’s governing council approved the Act of Independence of Cartagena, declaring the city and the province of Cartagena a free and independent state. The Free State of Cartagena was the first place in Colombia to successfully create a functioning independent state, making Cartagena a leader in Colombia’s movement for independence.
Cartagena as the “Heroic City”
However, this independence would initially be short-lived. The Spanish king was restored to power in 1813, and he set to work to reconquer and reimpose Spanish rule on the colonies of the Americas. In 1815, a Spanish force under General Pablo Morillo arrived to reconquer Nueva Granada.
Cartagena’s declaration of independence had vowed that the city would fight to the last drop of blood for its liberty. This vow would be put to the test as Morillo’s forces neared the city. Morillo had a force of 11,000 compared to Cartagena’s 3,600. The defense of Cartagena is one of the decisive moments in the history of Cartagena.
By August of 1915, Morillo’s land and sea forces had encircled the city, cutting it off from any supplies. Rather than try to storm the city’s formidable defenses, he decided instead to try to starve it into submission. Morillo’s siege of Cartagena of 1815 lasted over 100 days and as much as a third of the city died from starvation and disease. Its brave resistance caused independence leader Sim´ón Bol´´ívar to give Cartagena the nickname “La Heroica,” or heroic city.
Finally, the city surrendered on December 6, 1815 and Spanish forces reoccupied the city. Morillo ordered the execution of nine independence leaders, immortalized as the “9 Martyrs” with busts and a monument honoring them in the median in front of the Clocktower today.
After Cartagena’s fall, Morillo succeeded in retaking the rest of Nueva Granada. However, the Spanish reconquest would also be short-lived. In August 1819, Simón Bolívar scored a major victory over the Spanish forces at the Battle of Boyacá which effectively liberated the majority of Nueva Granada.
However, Morillo had retreated to Cartagena, and it remained in Spanish hands for another 2 years. It was the last significant area in Colombia to be liberated from Spanish control. By mid-1820, patriot land forces had surrounded the city, and in January 1821, a naval force cut the Spanish off from supplies from the sea. Again, Cartagena would be subject to a siege. Finally on October 10, 1821, nearly 10 years after Cartagena’s declaration of independence, the Spanish surrendered and the city was free.
Cartagena’s Post-Independence Decline and Rebirth
The Toll of Independence
Having suffered two extended sieges during the struggle for independence, Cartagena was left damaged and depopulated. So began a dark age in Cartagena’s history with the city neglected by the central government in Bogotá as well as suffering from a number of epidemics from tropical diseases, mainly cholera and yellow fever.
Also, due to the deterioration of the El Dique Canal and the loss of its monopoly on trade, Barranquilla supplanted Cartagena as Colombia’s main trading port. With its income reduced, the city lagged behind the rest of the country for most of the rest of the 1800s.
Revival and Growth of Tourism
The rise of Rafael Nuñez, a politician from the city, helped start a new and brighter chapter in the history of Cartagena. Nuñez helped the city get the funds to renovate the El Dique Canal and the city’s port as well as building new infrastructure, including a railroad. While it would never retake its former dominant position, the economy was revived and the city’s population began to grow again.
In the 1960s, the Colombian government as well as the private sector began investing in restoring Cartagena’s historic sites in an effort to promote tourism. In 1984, UNESCO named the city a World Heritage Site. As the level of violence in Colombia fueled by the drug trade and internal political conflict was reduced, more and more visitors began coming , and Cartagena is the country’s premier destination.
While poverty and high unemployment rates, political corruption and graft, and the need to balance growth with protection of the surrounding ecosystem are challenges facing Cartagena, the city looks towards the future hoping to capitalize on the charm and beauty of the long and storied history of Cartagena to build its future.
Interested in learning more about the history of Cartagena?
- Check out our History of Cartagena-A Comprehensive Look for a more comprehensive and detailed discussion of Cartagena’s History
- I conducted much of my research on Cartagena’s history using Marco Forero, Jr.’s book Breve Historia de Cartagena. The book is not available translated in English but is a doable read with an intermediate level of Spanish. It can be purchased on Amazon or picked up at local book stores.
- Other books of interest are The Fortifications of Cartagena de Indias: Strategy & History covering the city’s colonial military history (available in English and Spanish on Amazon) and No Limits to Their Sway: Cartagena’s Privateers and the Masterless Caribbean in the Age of Revolutions covering the role that privateers played during the independence era.
- You can learn more about Cartagena’s history on visits to the Inquisition Palace and Historical Museum, the Gold Museum, the Castillo San Felipe and the excellent Naval Museum.
- Cartagena’s Official City Website has information on many of the city’s historic sites, monuments, and churches.