Cartagena de Indias, so named to distinguish it from Spanish Cartagena, was built on the site of an abandoned Amerindian village, Calamarí, located on a small island of the same name.
It has received many names in its history, but none suits it better than Cartagena de Indias – it makes you dream.
Today, Cartagena is the most visited place in Colombia.
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History of Cartagena in Summary
Founded in 1533 by the conquistador Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena is the port of entry to the Andes and is highly coveted.
It was plundered in 1697 by the French during an expedition led by Admiral Jean-Bernard de Pointis and Jean-Baptiste du Casse.
Then, in 1741, the forces of Admiral Edward Vernon attempted to lay siege to the city, but without overcoming the tenacity of its occupants.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cartagena became a hub of the slave trade.
It was then the first city of the vice royalty of New Granada to declare its independence in 1811.
Today, Cartagena is a very touristy city, welcoming about two million visitors every year.
The origins of Cartagena
Rodrigo de Bastidas discovered the bay of Calamarí in 1501 but did not stop there, believing that it was only a gulf.
Two years later, however, Cartagena’s name appears for the first time in a decree of Queen Isabella; no one knows how or why.
Soon after, the gold and emerald rush began.
A port had to be built to repatriate all these riches to Spain, and Pedro de Heredia was entrusted with this mission.
The latter had to leave his noble Madrid roots after an unfortunate duel, and settled in Santa Marta and then in Cartagena, where he began gold trading with the native populations.
Heredia was then accompanied by a beautiful native, Catalina, a former slave from Santo Domingo.
Pedro de Heredia became governor and established his residence in the village of Calamarí and founded Cartagena in 1533, settling on the Bocagrande peninsula.
The access roads to the harbour were easy to control: two or three hills overlooked the surrounding plain, and from there it was possible to observe the bay.
Colonization, gold and mercenaries
The small village quickly prospered thanks to the discovery of many treasures in the region.
Expeditions of mercenaries were dispatched to collect all the valuable remains left in the country by the ancient indigenous civilizations.
During the first expedition, two famous jewels were brought back: a 60 kg solid gold porcupine and eight 1.3 kg gold ducks.
As a reward, the mercenaries received a large sum: 6,000 ducats per person, a fortune when you know that one ducat corresponds to about 37 grams of pure gold.
The treasures brought back during the following expeditions proved to be even more splendid, especially those found in the Sinus tombs, the Amerindian people who buried the dead with their belongings.
The cemeteries were surrounded by trees with gold bells hanging from them.
A popular saying illustrates the richness of the Sinú River: “The gold of Peru is nothing compared to that of the Sinú! »
In 1552, however, a fire burned down the city of Cartagena, whose houses were all made of wood.
Pedro de Heredia ordered that everything be rebuilt in steel.
The city has thus been able to preserve its architectural features to the present day.
As Spanish colonization continued in South America, Spanish plunderers discovered the fabulous riches of various indigenous nations, including the Incas.
The port of Cartagena profited from this looting.
Ships with precious cargoes from Ecuador and Peru reached Cartagena through the Isthmus of Panama, where they were loaded with other goods harvested in the interior of the country.
The conquistadors set up a network of mules and slaves to transport the booty, especially gold and emeralds, to the coast.
The galleons would then call at Cuba or Puerto Rico, where other goods were added to their invaluable cargo.
Finally, the course was set for Spain.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Cartagena was therefore in a way the Iberian safe of the New World.
Lucrative slave trade
Another factor allowed the city to develop rapidly: the slave trade.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the King of Spain granted the colony a monopoly on trading.
It should be remembered that at that time, the Spanish Crown had prohibited the slavery of Amerindians, while granting certain prestigious men from the colonies the right to participate in the African slave market.
Thus, Cartagena received the terrible and highly coveted privilege of being one of the official centres of the slave trade, along with Vera Cruz in Mexico.
All these commercial activities allowed the local notables to amass enormous fortunes and build superb residences which, even today, still make the charm of the city.
Within a few years, Cartagena reached such a level of prosperity that it attracted all the lust of the colonial powers, as well as that of the many pirates who crisscrossed the seas.
In 1543, a Frenchman named Robert Boal launched a successful attack on the city.
The pirate managed to extort 310 kg of gold from the city.
This was the beginning of a long list of pirate assaults, including those of the English Francis Drake (in 1586) and Vernón (in 1741), and the French Martin Cote (in 1559), Jean-Bernard Desjeans and Jean Ducasse (in 1697).
The Spanish Crown, irritated by these losses, decided to fortify the city.
Cartagena became the best protected colonial city in South America.
The construction of a series of forts, castles and fortresses was entrusted at the beginning of the 16th century to the famous Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli, who had been in the service of King Philip V since 1570.
The entrance to the bay was then protected by two fortresses and the only land access road was also blocked by a fortified castle.
Several strongholds were erected, connected by ramparts.
Thousands of black slaves were employed there, and colossal financial fortunes were swallowed up.
The work lasted until the first half of the 17th century.
The fortress of San Felipe de Bajaras was built with the participation of Italian, Spanish and Dutch engineers and architects.
It took forty years to build a set of walls, towers and drawbridges on the hill nearest the city.
A very coveted city
In 1767, Admiral Jean-Bernard Desjeans, Baron de Pointis, was sent from France to weaken Spain by attacking its colonial strongholds.
He stormed Cartagena, seizing one fort after another.
His troops systematically plundered the city.
The spoils of his vandalism were valued at nine million pesos in gold, and a two hundred and fifty kilogram solid silver sepulchre, which Louis XIV later returned.
In addition, trade rivalries between London and Madrid worsened.
England sought to dominate the Caribbean Sea in order to safely transport its goods from America.
Among all the armed conflicts that marked the history of the city, two dates are worth remembering: the first is 1741, the year of the Battle of Vernón, and the second 1810, the year of Independence from Spain.
In 1741, 186 British ships appeared in front of Cartagena, the largest fleet the Carthaginians had ever seen off the coast.
Admiral Edward Vernón commanded 23,600 fighters and a regiment of 4,000 Americans.
Cartagena, on the other hand, had only 3,000 men and six warships.
But it was only on the third attempt that Admiral Vernón succeeded in taking Cartagena.
He seized the fortress of San Luís de Boccachica in sixteen days, using a myriad of cannons.
The English ships landed in the islands of Manga and Gracia, and the American regiment occupied the Popa Hill.
The admiral was already shouting victory…
The Englishman decided to seize the fortress of San Felipe de Barajaras, but his troops were crushed by the garrison of Colonel Carlos de Naux.
He lost 800 men and 200 were taken prisoner.
Dysentery and fever also claimed hundreds of victims among the English, who finally decided to weigh anchor, but not without first destroying all the fortresses they had seized.
The Mother City of Independence
With work now to be undertaken in Cartagena to make it an impregnable stronghold, the fortress of San Felipe de Barajas was renovated and perfected.
This fortress is undoubtedly the most impressive work of military architecture.
An underwater wall, El Dique, was erected between the Bocagrande peninsula and the island of Tierra Bomba between 1753 and 1778 to close the main access road to the bay.
To rebuild this line of defence, hundreds of slaves were made to work, carrying huge rocks to the bottom of the water.
Today, the upper part of the wall is still one metre below sea level.
The war against England, followed by domestic political unrest, forced the viceroys of New Grenada to spend part of their lives in Cartagena.
Viceroy Sebastián de Eslava, for example, lived there for about ten years, governing both the captaincy of Venezuela and the presidency of Quito.
On November 11, 1811, Cartagena proclaimed its independence from Spain.
It adopted a Constitution, inspired by those of France and the United States, and a flag, the cuadrilonga.
It abolished the Inquisition.
However, Cartagena still had to fight battles against the Spanish partisans in the surrounding areas.
In 1815, Cartagena fell under the Spanish yoke of General Pablo Morillo.
The general took over the city in 121 days, ushering in the darkest period in the city’s history.
Famine and disease decimate more than a third of the population (6,000 people).
Later, during the final war waged against the Spanish crown by Simón Bolívar, Cartagena was again one of the first cities to declare its independence.
She obtained her final freedom in 1821.
For the courage and skill of the Carthaginians in defending their city, the Liberator nicknamed Cartagena la Ciudad Heroíca (“the Heroic City”) and pronounced the famous words: “Si Caracas me dio vida, vosotros me desteis gloria” (“If Caracas gave me life, you gave me glory”).
His words were engraved on the equestrian statue erected in his memory in Bolívar Square at the end of the 19th century.
Thus, Cartagena is the mother city of Colombia.
From there came the conquistadors in search of the Eldorado; from there also the spoils of the looting were brought back to the Spanish Crown; from there the African slaves were unloaded; from there finally, in 1819, the insurrection movement started which was to lead to the liberation of the country.
The city today
Classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Cartagena is one of the most dazzling examples of Hispanic colonial architecture.
The city is painted in ochre and mirabelle plum colours, and a whole range of pastels.
Carved wooden entrances open onto sumptuous and elegant residences or green patios.
Today, Cartagena is a very large city, with a million residents, but also the main centre of the regional administration and one of the most important Colombian ports on the Caribbean.
However, despite a modern active life, Cartagena still possesses the magical charms that have always characterized it.
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