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Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered by many as one of the World's most beautiful, fascinating and magical cities, Cartagena was founded by Spanish conquerors as a main port to bring Europeans and their goods into South America, and transport gold, silver and all sorts of plants, animals, minerals and handcrafts from all over the subcontinent across the Caribbean and on to the Old World. 


Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, in the area where the Caribbean Calamarí people lived, their name meaning 'crab'. This native population was part of a native tribe called the Mocanáes; Spanish accounts describe them as fierce and warlike, and point out that even women fought on a par with men. Nevertheless, the Spanish conquered the less equipped Calamari and claimed the bay for Spain.


A few years after it had been founded, the Spaniards designed a defense plan in which the main strategy was the construction of a walled military fortress to protect the city against the plundering of English, Dutch and French pirates.

Cartagena was a slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz (México) were the only cities authorized to trade with black people. The first slaves arrived with Pedro de Heredia and they worked as cane cutters to open roads, in the desecration of tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinu, and in the construction of buildings and fortresses. The agents of the Portuguese company Cacheu distributed human 'cargos' from Cartagena for mine exploitation in Venezuela, the West Indies, the Nuevo Reino de Granada and the Viceroyalty of Perú.

On February 5th, 1610, the Catholic Monarchs established from Spain the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena de Indias by a Royal Decree issued by King Philip II. The Inquisition Palace, finished in 1770, is still there with its original features of colonial times. When Cartagena declared its complete independence from Spain, the inquisitors were urged to leave the city.  The Inquisition operated again after the Reconquest in 1815, but it disappeared definitely when Spain surrendered six years later before the patriotic troops led by Simón Bolívar. During its two centuries of existence, the court heard 767 defendants, most were punished, and six of them were burned at the stake.

Sir Francis Drake enters

For the British, Francis Drake is "Sir" Francis, the brilliant sailor who defeated the Spanish Armada. For the Spanish, Drake is a pirate, the heartless predator who plundered its settlements from Chile to Peru and extorted a fabulous ransom from Cartagena de Indias and from St. Augustine in Florida. For the English he was a brilliant strategist and loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth; for the Spanish he was an infamous despoiler of churches so sinister that even today when the children refuse to do as they are told, their parents threaten them with the words, "El Draque is going to get you!". Drake was known as "The Dragon", no relation.

Drake and Hawkins were amongst the first to prey on the new settlement of Cartagena de Indias in the late 1500's. Drake disembarked at night and took the city at dawn; he forced the inhabitants to take refuge in the neighboring village of Turbaco, burned the houses and destroyed  the Cathedral.  Drake forced the authorities to pay him 107.000 ducats and took some jewelry and 80 artillery pieces.  And in 1568, the Englishman John Hawkins besieged the city for seven days because the governor Marín de las Alas did not want to carry out a commercial fair in the city; Hawkins could not subjugate the city. 

It was their activities and those of their French counterparts, Robert Baal and Martin Cote, that forced the Spanish Crown to undertake the construction of the intricate complex of fortresses, walls, and castles that were to make the city unassailable for almost one hundred years. It is said that the King of Spain looked out the western windows of his palace one morning and insisted ironically that he should be able to see the fortifications of Cartagena de Indias, considering the immense fortune he had spent in constructing them.

It was only at the end of the 1600's that the Baron of Pointis and a crew of buccaneers were able to successfully attack the city. And still the defenses, although weakened, were sufficient to resist the Siege of Cartagena undertaken by the English Admiral Edward Vernon in 1741. No one made another attempt until the winds of Independence swept Spanish South America at the beginning of the 19th Century.

 Don Blas is called

If there is one man who stands out in Cartagena’s colorful 470-year history, it is Don Blas de Lezo. He was born in Spain in 1689, in the Basque country, of noble parents. As was the custom with the well born, he entered the service of the King, and as a young officer he had the misfortune to lose his left leg in the battle of Gibraltar when he was 16. He remained in the service, however, and in the battle of Tolon he lost his right eye, and more was to come. Even when in the battle of Barcelona he lost his right arm, he continued as a commander, as his reputation for tenacity and courage was already making him a legend.

In 1740, King Philip’s spies in London learned that Edward Vernon and Chalamar Ogle were planning a major assault on Cartagena the following year. On learning this, Sebastian Eslava, the Viceroy in Cartagena, immediately requested Don Blas de Lezo to bring his fleet to help and defend the city. This gave Don Blas scarcely four months to train and coordinate the defending forces. Historians differ on the number but it was probably less than 2,500 counting slaves and Indians, and about 500 Spanish soldiers.

Capitan Nicolas de Zubiria was born between the years 1705 y 1710 on the island of Milazzo, in Sicily, then under the Spanish crown and arriven in Cartagena de indias asigned to one of headquarters of the barracks in the city where he lived during Vernon's assault on the city and his behavior was that of a brave Spanish officer. Capitan de Zubiria found himself in all actions defending the city of Cartagena de Indias in seventen fourty one mainly in castillo de Bocachica, where he attended with honor and valor the glorious resistance that the English experienced.


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Edward Vernon fills the horizon with his fleet

It must have been a frightening sight when on March 15 the first three English ships arrived and anchored in front of the city!. They kept coming all through the following day until there was a line of them anchored as closely to each other as they dared, facing the city from Punta Canoa to Bocagrande. The total force had 186 ships mounting 2,070 cannons. Not counting the sailors, there were 23,600 men just waiting for orders to go ashore. One of the regiments was composed of North Americans commanded by Lawrence Washington, a half brother to George. The Washington family admired Edward Vernon so much that they were later to name the family home site Mount Vernon in his honor.
 


After a few probing attacks at the various forts along the sea, the battle began in earnest on April 1. Vernon’s first job was to take control of the narrow mouth of the harbor, Bocachica, so that he could move his fleet into the bay. 

The three forts at Bocachica were reinforced by a chain stretched across the entrance, and behind the chain Don Blas had four Spanish warships anchored to add their firepower to that of the forts. It was in this bloody battle that Don Blas was wounded again, this time in his good leg. Two of these forts were shown on my web page last month, with the dragon sailing between them, just as little Dragonet did!

After three days of heavy bombardment, Don Blas decided to fall back to the next line of defense. He brought the survivors to the next pair of forts, Castillo Grande and Manzanillo. Between these two forts Don Blas sank seven ships and moored two men-of-war in the line of sunken ships to use their guns to reinforce the fire from the forts. 

After causing considerable damage to the English, these two also were sunk to close off the channel. Unfortunately, the current changed at the last moment and one ship sank partly sideways leaving a small, hazardous gap in the line. This left only the small fort Boquerón, which was quickly destroyed. Then came Vernon’s big disappointment. He had planned to bombard San Felipe from his ships but discovered that it was so high that to get in range, he would have to come in very close. To do so would have placed his fleet in a disastrous position directly under the guns of San Felipe. He realized he would have to unload his cannons and attack by land.

On April 5, forces were landed and after one of the bloodiest battles in British history, they took possession of the Convent of La Popa, on the high hill overlooking the city, from which they could observe everything the Spanish were doing.

Vernon Stopped by Spanish Military Engineering

Vernon now felt that victory was within his gasp, for there was nothing between him and the great fortress of San Felipe. He landed the balance of his forces and equipment and before dawn on April 9 he attacked with three columns coming from three directions.

Both sides were well motivated. The English forces knew that it had been nine months since the last shipment of treasure, so they believed that the fortress contained a fortune. The Spanish had no place to retreat if the fortress fell. The battle raged fiercely all day, but by dark it was Vernon’s turn to retreat, for little had been accomplished and his losses were substantial. While trying to regroup, he kept receiving reports of wide spread illness among his troops. Sir Chalamar Ogle himself had such severe stomach pains that he had to report himself unfit for duty.

Epidemic is on the Spaniards’ side

A Council of war was held on April 15, at which it was decided the only way San Felipe could be taken would be to bombard it from the ships in the bay. This, it was decided, would be too dangerous to the fleet. According to the English historians, the widespread dysentery, malaria and yellow fever had rendered their forces unfit for another frontal assault so the men and equipment were reloaded on the ships and preparations were made to return to England. It took them almost a month to get ready for sea and to destroy the forts that they had taken. On May 12, the last of the English had left and the siege of Cartagena was ended. Even today, it is said that if you can live here for a month without a fever, you will not get sick and die of yellow fever (we have 2 1/2 weeks to go ).

Vernon is left with his victory medals

The English had been so sure of success that they struck some victory medals as soon as the siege was underway. The inscriptions reflected their confidence: "The forts of Cartagena destroyed by Ad. Vernon", and "They took Cartagena, 1741." Probably the most arrogant of them all was the one showing Vernon and Ogle standing in front of Don Blas as he kneels in surrender. The inscription says, in English of course, "The pride of Spain humbled by Ad. Vernon."

The English apparently felt it was ungallant to conquer half a man so they put his arm and leg back on for the capitulation that never took place. As a result of the leg wound he had received Don Blas de Lezo was to die shortly after the withdrawal of Admiral Vernon’s fleet. His indomitable spirit represents the best of Cartagena’s colonial tradition. This spirit was to rekindle during the independence movement of 1810, when Cartagena declared its partial independence from Spanish rule. 

At first Cartagena claimed continued loyalty to the Spanish King and his son, then in prison thanks to Napoleon. The Cartagena call was followed by Santa Fe (Bogota) and other cities. Pressure toward complete independence grew until the final declaration of independence on November 11. This first period of independence was to last only until 1815 when Royalist and Spanish forces under Morillo retook the city and executed nine of the revolutionary leaders. 

In this way, Cartagena was to pay dearly for its early challenge to Spanish authority. Final independence was not until 1821. For its early calls to arms and its repeated sacrifices during the struggle for independence, Simon Bolivar gave to Cartagena her well deserved name: La Heroica, the Heroic City.