The Liberation of Cartagena – La Heroica Rids Itself of the Spanish for Good

Cartagena had declared itself independent from Spain in 1811, becoming the first place in Colombia to create a truly independent state.  However, the Free State of Cartagena fell to Spanish Reconquest 4 years later.  After 6 years of reoccupation, Cartagena would join the rest of Colombia as independent in 1821.  Read on for a complete history of the liberation of Cartagena in 1821.

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A painting of a solider in a blue uniform carrying a Colombian flag.
A painting of a patriot soldier carrying the tricolor of the Colombia.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Cartagena Suffers for Its Leading Role in Independence

Cartagena had been the first place in Colombia to establish a truly independent and sovereign state with the sighing of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence on November 11, 1811.  Establishing the Free State of Cartagena, it adopted the first flag to represent an independent Colombia and pushed the rest of the colony of New Granada towards independence. (*Read more about the flag and Cartagena’s patriotic symbols here).

However, this first experiment in self-government was doomed to failure.  The different provinces of New Granada failed to unify and remained fractured and divided under a weak confederation.  Fighting civil war amongst themselves as well as against royalist forces, they failed to consolidate their young independent republics into a state that could survive outside aggression.  New Granada would go on to face the same fate that Simón Bolívar had warned them of when reflecting on the fall of the First Venezuelan Republic in his Cartagena Manifesto of 1812.

Their fall was inevitable after the arrival of a Spanish expeditionary force led by Pablo Morillo.  Morillo subjected Cartagena to a siege that left thousands dead from starvation, finally forcing its surrender in December 1815.  The price of Cartagena’s leading role in independence had been high, and many of its leaders were executed for their insubordination (*Read more about those executed, including Cartagena’s 9 Martyrs here).

After Cartagena, the rest of New Granada fell quickly.  However, the Spanish reoccupation would also be short-lived with the liberation of Cartagena coming in 1821.

Bolívar Liberates Most of New Granada

Bolívar had been carrying out a guerilla war from bases in plains of the Orinoco river valley of his native Venezuela since 1816.  However, he had succeeded in little but harassing the Spanish loyalist forces there.  Knowing it would be all but impossible to take the well defended Caracas to the north, he hatched a daring plan to turn the tides of war.

Statue of Bolívar on a horse with his hand stretched out holding his hat.
Statue of Bolívar in Cartagena. His daring plan would play a role in the chain of events that led to the liberation of Cartagena.

His plan was to march his forces across the plains of the Orinoco and over the Andes into the heart of New Granada.  There he hoped to catch the Spanish forces unawares and claim New Granada as a base to return and liberate Venezuela.  His target was the lightly defended capital Bogotá.

Bolívar’s plan was truly bold.  He planned to set out during the rainy season through the Llanos, the flood plains of the Orinoco.  That time of year the plains were a mess of with floods up to a meter high.  Hot and humid, it was also a breeding ground for mosquitos and tropical illness.  Once crossing the plains, his forces would then have to pass over the cold mountains of foothills of the Andes.

Considering it unlikely to succeed, much of the rest of Bolívar’s fellow Venezuelan rebels disapproved.  However, he had made plans to meet up with Colombian Francisco Paula de Santander’s forces once in New Granada.  He chose to set out with his small army of approximately 2,500 on the campaign that would lead to New Granada, Venezuela, and Cartagena’s liberation.

After meeting up with Santander, their combined forces braved the mountain passes.  Many of Bolívar’s men and horses were ill equipped for the cold and fell ill or died.  However, they managed to succeed in crossing and arriving near the town of Tunja.

There the Spanish mistakenly allowed him time to regroup and gather new recruits.  These marched with him to a bridge near the town of Boyacá.  In the ensuing Battle of Boyacá, Bolívar routed a royalist army.  The battle left the way to Bogotá undefended.

The Spanish viceroy hastily fled for Cartagena before Bolívar could arrive 3 days later.  However, he had left behind loads of money in the treasury.  This money helped fund the rest of the liberation of New Granada, and over the next few months, patriots assumed control in most of the population centers of New Granada.  However, Cartagena’s liberation would have to wait, as it remained firmly in royalist hands.

A painting depicting the battle with men fighting on the bridge at the Battle of Boyacá.
A painting of the Battle of Boyacá. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Spanish Hold Out in Cartagena

While much of the interior of New Granada had been left lightly defended, there was still a large garrison in Cartagena, and the loyalists could count on the protection of its walls and fortifications.  Loyalist forces also held most of the Caribbean coast and many of the patriot soldiers from the interior highlands suffered fighting in the hot, humid climate.  However, the tide had been turned and expelling the Spanish from Cartagena for good would only be a matter of time.

Events in Spain and elsewhere also helped to wear away loyalist resolve.  The final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 had allowed the British to end their convenient alliance with Spain.  The British offered loans and the sell of arms to the patriot forces.  Many British soldiers of fortune also joined their ranks.  In Spain, conflict between absolutists and constitutionalists from 1820-1823 prevented the sending of any reinforcements to the loyalists in the Americas.

Still, as long as royalists held the major coastal ports of Cartagena and Santa Marta along with the Magdalena River, the vital link between the interior and the coast, they remained a force to be reckoned with.

Photo of a bastion on the walls of Cartagena
The formidable walls of the city would prevent an easy liberation of Cartagena.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Cartagena is Put Under Siege Again

By mid-1820, patriot forces had succeeded in taking most of the Magdelena River.  They now set their eyes on expelling the Spanish from Cartagena.  Much like Morillo had concluded when he took the city in 1815 during the first Siege of Cartagena, they determined that a direct assault was impossible.  Again, Cartagena would suffer a protracted siege, this one even longer than the first.

Patriot forces under Venezuelan general Mariano Montilla approached and surrounded the city on July 14, 1820.  However, the city’s port stayed open as the patriot fleet under Admiral José Prudencia Padilla focused on taking the cities of Riohacha and Santa Marta to the north.

The Spanish commander tried to negotiate with both Montilla and Bolívar, but both refused.  He even vainly had a force sally forth thinking they could reach Bolívar in Barranquilla to negotiate in person.  In addition to losing a battle and being forced to retreat, he later found out that Bolívar was not even in Barranquilla.

In late November, Bolívar and Morillo did sign a 6 month truce.  However, the truce worked in favor of the patriots as royalist desertions increased, and Padilla’s fleet was able to position itself off Cartagena’s coast.  When hostilities resumed in April of 1821, Cartagena found itself cut off from both land and sea.  Fortunately for Cartagena’s residents, the Spanish had larger stores of provisions than the patriots had during the earlier siege, and the population was spared the same type of mass starvation.

Portrait of Prudencio Padilla in a naval uniform.
Portrait of Prudencio Padilla, a chief protagonist of the liberation of Cartagena.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

In May, Padilla’s fleet occupied the bay.  On the night of June 24, during Saint John’s Eve, Padilla launched a surprise attack under the cover of darkness.  His forces approached the docks in the Bahía de los Ánimas (Bay of Souls) near where the sculptures of Pegasus stand today.  They succeeded in taking the docks, just a stone’s throw from the city’s main gates.

With Spain still in turmoil, the loyalist garrison finally accepted their fate in October.  On October 10, 1821, the Spanish surrendered the city, more than a year after the siege began and nearly 10 years after Cartagena’s original declaration of independence.

Free at Last

The liberation of Cartagena made it part of the recently established republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela.  With the exception of the area around Pasto, near the border with Ecuador, Cartagena had been the last place to be liberated in modern day Colombia.

After leading the way in the move towards independence, Cartagena could now join the young republic.  Unfortunately, the union of Gran Colombia would not last long as factionalism tore it apart within a decade, and Cartagena would suffer a long decline due in part to its suffering during the wars of independence.  However, the city and its central role in the drama of the wars of independence had forever left its mark on Colombia’s history, rightfully earning it the name of La Heroica.


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This is part 9 of an 11 part series on the celebration and history of Cartagena’s Independence.  Check out the other parts below:


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