The Siege of Cartagena – La Heroica Bravely Resists the Spanish Reconquest

Painting of Spanish troops in blue uniforms assembled in formation in front of the city walls after the siege of Cartagena.

Today, Cartagena has the nickname of the Heroic City, or La Heroica.  It earned that nickname due to its valiant resistance to the 105 day long siege of Cartagena by Spanish forces in 1815.  Despite its stubborn resistance, the city did fall to the Spanish but only after many of its inhabitants starved rather than surrender.  Read on for a history of the siege of Cartagena, the city’s brave resistance, and the high cost the city paid for its independence.

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Painting of a group of men firing a cannon at Spanish ships in the bay during the siege of Cartagena.
Cartagena’s defenders fire on some of Morillo’s fleet during the siege of Cartagena. Read on to learn more.  Image Source:  El Universal

Pablo Morillo’s Fleet Sails to Reconquer the Americas

By 1814, Spanish patriots had succeeded in defeating the French Occupation of Spain.  Upon returning to his throne, Fernando VII, decreed the that the colonies in the Americas that had declared themselves autonomous or independent must return to Spanish rule.

He sent Pablo Morillo, a hero of the Spanish resistance to the French, to the Americas to bring the colonies there back under firm Spanish control.  He set sail with over 10,000 men in February of 1815.  He arrived to the Venezuelan coast in April and reinforced loyalist forces in and around Caracas.

He next sailed on to Santa Marta, which had stayed in royalist hands and had been at war with Cartagena since the latter’s declaration of independence in November of 1811.  Morillo’s forces arrived in Santa Marta in late July.  He left a small detachment there, but prepared the rest of his forces to march into the heart of New Granada.  His first target would be Cartagena.

Portrait of Pablo Morillo, leader of the siege of Cartagena, in his uniform with a medal on his left breast.
Portrait of Pablo Morillo, leader of the Spanish forces in the siege of Cartagena.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Disunity and Division in New Granada

Much of New Granada had set up independent governments by 1812.  However, they were never able to create a strong and unified republic.  Each province looked out for itself first, leaving the United Provinces of New Granada as a weak confederation that never counted on the support of Bogotá, who favored a more centralized government.  Internal division had prevented the different provinces of New Granada from truly unifying, and this disunity would be a key factor in their fall to the Spanish reconquest.

In an episode indicative of this division, Simón Bolívar, the revered independence leader, had been on a mission to take Santa Marta before Morillo arrived.  On the way he was meant to get more men and supplies in Cartagena, but the city’s governor general, Manuel del Castillo y Rada was a rival and refused to support him.  Bolívar laid siege to Cartagena for a month and a half.

With news of Morillo’s arrival in Venezuela, Bolívar ultimately opted to break his siege rather than take Cartagena by force.  In early May, he was granted passage through Cartagena’s port by de Castillo.  He chose to go into exile in Jamaica and then Haiti, with some of his army staying behind.

New Granada had now succumbed to the same type of failure to unify that Bolívar had lamented in his native Venezuela during his earlier visit to Cartagena in 1812, when he wrote the Cartagena Manifesto (*Read more about the Cartagena Manifesto and Bolívar’s time in Cartagena here).

Photo of the statue of Simón Bolívar in Cartagena.
Statue of Simón Bolívar in Bolívar Plaza.

Cartagena Prepares to Defend Itself

Cartagena was ill prepared to stand up to Morillo’s advancing forces.  It had been in constant conflict with Santa Marta for several years.  While trade continued to prosper for much of the Free State of Cartagena’s existence, it no longer received the military allowance from Bogotá that had been mandated under colonial control.  This allowance had made up more than half of all the gold in city’s coffers as recently as 1808.  It was simply irreplaceable.

Bolívar’s siege had also not helped, as it prevented more hoarding of supplies.  A diplomatic mission to the United States and Jamaica had succeeded in purchasing some foodstuffs, but it would take them time to reach the city.  None would before Morillo.

With Morillo camped in nearby Santa Marta in early August, the city’s leaders implored the other provinces of New Granada for help.  They stated that the fate of all of New Granada would be decided in the city and begged for money, supplies, and men.  In their desperation, Cartagena’s diplomats in Jamaica even offered to become a British protectorate in exchange for protection from Morillo’s army.

This offer was declined, and while some of the provinces did send a few men and supplies, they were much too little, too late.  Cartagena’s defenders gathered as many supplies as they could, burning many of the outlying towns, including Ternera, Turbaco, and Pasacaballos, as Morillo’s forces approached.  However, the townsfolk were forced to relocate to the city proper, increasing the number of mouths to feed.

Portrait of Manuel Del Castillo, leader during the Siege of Cartagena, in military uniform.
Del Castillo’s military plan failed to save the city from the siege of Cartagena.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

In addition to his earlier refusal to support Bolívar, Del Castillo’s decision to follow this scorched earth policy was questionable at best.  A smarter, if perhaps tougher, strategy may have been to expel the civilian population and reserve the city’s stores only for those able to fight.  However, for better or worse, the people holed themselves up inside Cartagena’s walls and hoped they could weather the coming storm.

Having taken on some royalist volunteers and militia in Santa Marta, Morillo’s forces now numbered approximately 11,000.  Meanwhile, Cartagena’s defenders numbered only 2,600 professional soldiers and around 1,000 militia.

Still, Cartagena did count on formidable defenses in its walls and the massive Castillo San Felipe Fortress.  It had survived even worse odds during the 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias, when it repelled Edward Vernon’s British invasion force.  In Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence, the city’s leaders had pledged to defend the city to their last drop of blood, and they had no intention of surrender (*Read more about Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence here).

However, Morillo was an experienced general who was not as foolish or as rushed as Vernon had been.  He knew that taking the city by assault would be extremely difficult if not impossible.  With the rest of New Granada unable to muster a force that could challenge him and his supply lines from Santa Marta secure, Morillo was content to play a waiting game and starve the city into submission.  So began the siege of Cartagena.

Photo of Cartagena's walls today, walls that couldn't save them from hunger during the siege of Cartagena.
Morillo knew an assault on the walls would be costly and decided to starve the city out with the siege of Cartagena.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Siege of Cartagena

Morillo Tightens the Noose

Sailing from Santa Marta in mid-August, Morillo disembarked north of Cartagena on August 19.  He set up a headquarters on the hill of Torecilla near Turbaco.  His forces went to work taking the outlying areas.  By August 27, Cartagena was bordered by the sea on one side while a crescent mooned shaped zone of Spanish control that stretched from Pasacaballos to north of La Boquilla cut off all land routes in or out of the city.

Morillo’s fleet also blockaded the city.  At first, the city was still able to get some food from the Island of Barú, across the bay, but Morillo cut that supply off by taking the town of Santana by September 7, just a little over a week into the siege.  Cartagena was now completely cut off from any outside supplies.

105 Days of Misery

The siege of Cartagena was devastating to the city’s population.  What little food stores they had began dwindling quickly.  As early as mid-September, prisoners and deserters were telling stories of food shortages to the Spanish.  In a letter to the government of the United Provinces that was intercepted by the Spanish dated September 20, Del Castillo predicted that the city’s provisions could perhaps last 40 daysThe city would not surrender for another 76.

While some ships did manage to circumvent the Spanish blockade until it was tightened in early September, the little supplies they brought were not enough.  However, Cartagena preferred to starve rather than submit.  By October, the number of deserters fleeing the city had started to grow.  Some reported not having eaten for up to 4 days and that even at the start of the siege their ration had only been a cracker and 4 ounces of salted beef.  

While not suffering from hunger, many of Morillo’s men did suffer from tropical diseases.  While their situation was better than that of those inside the city, Morillo knew he would not be able to keep the siege of Cartagena going forever.  He decided to stop accepting deserters and refugees, increasing the count of the starving inside the city.

As things became more and more desperate, Cartagena’s residents were reduced to eating horses, donkeys, cats, dogs, rats, and even boiling and eating leather.  The deteriorating conditions led to more political infighting.  There’s contradictory evidence of the exact date, but by October 17, Del Castillo had been removed from power in a coup.  Still, Cartagena’s new powers that be could hardly do much to solve the shortage of food.  By the end of the siege it is thought that as many as 300 people a day were dying of starvation.

Photo of a cannon pointed out of a rampart.
Cartagena’s cannons were useless to fight hunger, the main enemy during the siege of Cartagena.
The Legend of Piñango:  Cartagena’s Defenders Score One Victory

When Morillo sent a force to take the island of Tierrabomba in the bay, he also sent a diversionary force to attack patriot forces encamped on La Popa Hill.  Approximately 800 Spanish soldiers advanced up the hill during the night of November 11, the anniversary of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence.  The hill’s defenders numbered only around 200.

However, their successful defense was not only heroic but led to one of the lasting legends of the city’s defense.  According to the legend, as the Spanish approached, one over-enthusiastically cried out “We’ve got them, long live the king!”  In addition to alarming the defenders to their presence, he was also answered by Francisco Piñango, who shouted back, “Not while Piñango lives!”  The epic response “No estando Piñango vivo” has been immortalized as a saying among Cartageneros to describe something impossible.

Cartagena Finally Surrenders

Despite the heroics of Piñango, Cartagena’s position had become untenable by the end of November.  On November 27, thousands of women, children, and the elderly were finally expelled from the city, many barely still alive.

Still, the city’s patriot leaders refused to surrender.  Supposedly, they even considered blowing up the city’s arsenal, leaving the city a ruin for the Spanish.  However, they ultimately chose to attempt a suicide flight into exile.  Some hoped to later continue the fight, most probably feared the retribution they would face from Morillo.

During the night of December 5, 13 ships carrying around 2,000 attempted to slip by the blockade and escape.  Several were damaged and later sunk or ran aground elsewhere in the Caribbean.  Of those that did not perish, most were captured.

On the morning of December 6, Morillo entered the city.  The siege of Cartagena was over.

Painting of Spanish troops in blue uniforms assembled in formation in front of the city walls after the siege of Cartagena.
Spanish troops assembled outside the city after its fall to the siege of Cartagena.  Read on to learn about it.  Image Source:  El Universal.

Consequences of the Fall of Cartagena

Morillo encountered a horrific sight upon entering the city.  An Englishman who was with them described the scene at the Clocktower.  He described a woman, skin and bones, fighting with a vulture for scraps of food.  Nearby a slave tried to swat away the birds eating the flesh from a child’s dead body.  Several hours later, he also had become fodder for the vultures.

Morillo and his men did attend to the sick and starving people, giving them food and water.  However, those of the criollo leadership and other supporters of independence who had not fled were eventually punished.  Many, including Del Castillo and a group known as the 9 Martyrs, were executed.

It is believed that as much as a third of the population starved during the siege of Cartagena.  The number of people in the city at the start of the siege is not entirely clear, as some may have fled before Morillo’s arrival.  A census of 1810 put the population at 18,000 and one of Morillo’s officers described the city as having a population of 16,000.  In 1830, it was only 11,500.

The fall of Cartagena had drastic consequences for the 4 year long experiment in independent government in New Granada.  The loss of Cartagena, the city that had been the vanguard of independence, was a buffering blow to morale.  It was also the best defended city, and the most likely place to have been able to stop Morillo’s force.  Instead, Morillo would go on to reconquer the rest of New Granada in short order, entering Bogotá with little resistance by mid-1816.

Ironically, within days after Morillo’s occupation of the city, ships from North America and the British Caribbean began showing up on Cartagena’s coast with provisions.  Cartagena’s diplomats had succeeded in purchasing the food that could have saved the city afterall, but it had arrived too late.

Speculating on how history may have been different is basically a useless endeavor, and there’s no guarantee these ships could have made it past the blockade or if the food would have been enough.  However, Morillo had already lost 3,000 of his men and had another 3,000 sick.  Had Cartagena been able to hold out longer, it’s possible he would have had to lift the siege.  It makes one wonder what could have been had the city held out even a few weeks more.

Despite its fall and devastating consequences, Cartagena’s resistance, refusal to surrender, and ultimate sacrifice would forever distinguish it.  Bolívar would bestow upon it the title of La Heroica, or the Heroic City.  Both the city’s and Colombia’s national anthem reference the city’s bravery (*Read more about the anthems here).

Back in Spanish hands, the city would have to wait nearly 6 more years before being re-liberated again in 1821.  But the memory of its heroic suffering and sacrifice during the siege of Cartagena would live on forever.


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This is part 7 of an 11 part series on the celebration and history of Cartagena’s Independence.  Check out the other parts below:


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