Cartagena de Indias, Cartagena of the Americas

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What is the meaning of this fascinating city in the Americas? It is just a lovely place in the South American costs that extends its branches to the Caribbean Sea in a site plenty of histories, adventures and hiding wonders. Among the oldest cities of the Americas, Cartagena de Indias is one of them with many things to say and discover. It was one of the most important American plazas of the New World during the Spaniard conquers and the Colonial time. It was one of the first centers of the shameful slave market. It was the center of the pirate ambitions that fought heavy battles against the Spaniard crown. It is today Patrimony of the Humanity, Cultural District, Tourist Haven and one of the most loved cities of the Colombians. Cartagena de Indias – The Cartagena of the Western India -, is the Colombian symbol of liberty and therefore, the symbol of hope.

By Albeiro Rodas | The Cathedral of Cartagena picture by Araujo.

Whether we want to make a list of the most important cities of the Americas during the European conquers in the Western Hemisphere, Cartagena de Indias would be one of the first. There are many historical testimonies that can prove this statement. Cartagena was one of the most important and strategic spots for the Spaniard Empire in the American soil. It has the most fabulous military wall of the Hemisphere that keeps at its interior area a rich architecture of palaces, churches, museums, balconies and streets.

A history of wars and warriors

It is true: sirens use to relax in the Bocagrande beaches. Picture by Ale Colina.

The city was named after Cartagena de Murcia in Spain, another important center which a millenarian history dated since 227 BC when the General Hasdrubal the Beautiful, who was from the Phoenician city of Cartago (north of Africa), founded what he called Qart Hadasht (the new city). It became the main Carthaginian center in Spain at the time and from that place Hannibal departed to start the second Punic War in 218. Under the Roman Empire the city was known as Cartago Nova and today is Cartagena de Murcia. When the Spaniards founded the city in the Caribbean shores of the South American continent, they did the distinction of that European Cartagena adding “de Indias” that means “the Cartagena of the Western India”. The name of “Western India” was one of the first names of the Americas and therefore, if we were about to “up date” geographical names, we could name the city as “Cartagena of the Americas”. “Cartagena” is therefore a name that brings to mind battles and old empires in the three continents where this name has been used: the Cartago of the north of Africa, the Cartagena of Murcia in Europe and the Cartagena of the Americas. The other name, Cartago, is also present in the Hemisphere in our Colombian Cartago – the department of Valle del Cauca – and the Cartago of Costa Rica. There is also another Cartagena, the one of el Chairá in the department of Caquetá and there is a Cartagena of Chile.

India Catalina, the ancestral female chief of Colombia and the guard of Cartagena de Indias. It is said that she was brought to the place by Pedro de Heredia as interpreter and she was married to Alonso Montañez and went to live in Seville, Spain. She is remembered by the popular tradition as a very beautiful lady of great intelligence who became the symbol of the city. Picture by kosumel.

Pedro de Heredia founded Cartagena de Indias on June 1rst 1533 and its strategic location at the south of the Caribbean Sea and in the northern part of South America would make soon that Cartagena became the first Spaniard port in the continent. It was to Cartagena where gold and other merchandise products of the New World arrived from cities like Lima, Quito and Santafé de Bogotá to be embarked to Spain. It was also to Cartagena where thousand of ships loaded with Africans arrived and men, women and children were brought to be auctioned as slaves for the Spaniard colonies in South America. Although this, today there is a big statue of a proud Pedro de Heredia in his plaza, but there is not a single sign to remember the human drama of thousand of persons who endured as slaves one of the most successful business of the 16th to 18th centuries. Cartagena would be also the unique seat in the Viceroyalty of New Granada (today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama) of the infamous Palace of the Inquisition, a sort of ghost hunters at the service of the Empire that were in charge of protect the religion through a heavy machinery of torture and killings of those that were considered enemies of the faith. The commercial fame of Cartagena would bring not only adventures and Spaniard migrants, but also other characters from different European nations, but among them, the most problematic would be the British pirates.

The Walls of Cartagena: the most impressive war engineer work of the 17th century in the Americas. Picture by Leo Villamizar.

In 1586 the city got its first “Punic War”: the British pirate Francis Drake attacked. It is thanks to Francis Drake that King Philip II of Spain decided drastically the construction of the most fabulous military wall of the New World and for this reason Cartagena de Indias is today a Historical Patrimony of Humanity. The walls are today an object of studies and researches and they were built in such a way that pirate and other military attackers could not invade by sea the Cartagena’s Bahia. The walls are not only the ones easy to see at the exterior of the old center, but it includes a very complicated and specialized system of tunnels, underwater walls and castles. For example, between the San Felipe Castle and the sea there is an underneath tunnel with the enough space to allow the passing of a heavy army. Unfortunately, all those wonders are not ready to receive the even heaviest invasion: tourists. But surely Cartagena will show soon to the worlds those hidden wonders that would make it even more admired than what is today.

A post of guard on the wall. Picture by Leo Villamizar.

The construction of the walls was done through different periods. In the first period the master of creation was the Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli since 1586. Since 1608 the turn was of Cristóbal de Roda who lead the fortification of the part that divides the sea from the old city. Between 1631 and 1633 Francisco de Murga rose the walls that defend Barrio Getsemaní. In 1669 Juan Betín lead the reconstruction of a part of the walls that were defeated by the sea and by the attacks of Baron de Pointis. The Viceroy de Villalonga ordered to governor Juan de Herrera the construction of underwater structures in front to the walls that were destroyed in 1721. The walls were not yet finished when Cartagena was about to face its “II Punic War”: A powerful British army leaded by Edward Vernon, attacked the city with 186 ships and 23,600 men. Cartagena had for its defense 6 ships and 3,000 men in a history that reminds of the Siege of Malta by the Turks. The heroes of the time were Blas de Lezo and Carlos Suillars de Desnaux and the battles were about to be among the most important military actions in the Spaniard America leaded by the British ambitions to conquest South America. But it was thanks to the Vernon’s attack, the Spaniards hurried their intentions to fortify their American colonies in the will to stop the British.

As every Hispanic city of the time, Cartagena has its Intramuros, it is the area inside the walls that was created with five very well distinctive barrios: Santa Catalina that was the place for the high class with its Cathedral and many other palaces; Santo Toribio that was the commercial center; La Merced that was the military sector; San Sebastian and Getsemaní that were the artisan and port workers housing areas. Extramuros (the outside of the walls), was destined for the aborigines, so, those who were not considered – in modern terms – the Spaniard citizens. The city followed then the scheme of the medieval age (civitas romana) in which only the citizens with such condition could live within the protective walls of the city and those, in the Cartagena of that time, were born in Spain.


The Cathedral, picture by Kik8.

During the conquests and the establishment of the Spaniard colony, the Zenú People almost disappeared from the area: many of them died due to the European epidemics imported to the New World, other died during the unequal battles against the powerful Spaniard army, others did not bear the condition of being excluded and slaved and many others migrated to other inland areas. Their space would be filled by other people with a similar tragedy: the Africans. Cartagena became at the time the stock market of the slavary of the 16th to 18th centuries that involved nations like Portugal, Spain, France, Great Britain, Holland and a big number of pirates. It is also possible that many Zenú peoples did mix not only with the Spaniard conquers (it was a very common practice that male Spaniards married female natives), but also to Africans.

The San Pedro Plaza. Picture by Ale Colina.

Cartagena and its surroundings is today an obliged site for the scholars of slavery in the Americas. The role of Africans in the battles for freedom in the continent is well known in the region. Not all the Africans that were brought to be slaves in the Americas accepted their fate. If Cartagena has written on stone the names of the valiant Spaniards like Blas de Lezo who defended the plaza against pirates or the courageous fathers of the nation who defeated one of the most powerful armies of the time, the popular oral tradition keeps with zealous the name of other almost unknown heroes within the Africans and indigenous who led their own battles for freedom. The cimarrones, for example, have a special chapter in the Colombian history. The walls of Cartagena are symbol of the resistance against the menaces of the sea, while Palenque de San Basilio (inlands) represents the powerful cry of freedom from those men and women who were violently brought from their native Africa as merchandise to a foreign land. Among all these almost anonymous heroes of our history, Cartagena is linked also to one man who would be declared saint by the Catholic Church almost by a popular acclamation but he is also the model of human rights defenders: Saint Peter Claver, defender of the slaves or, as he liked to call himself, the slave of the slaves. Peter was a Spaniard cleric of the Jesuit order who came to meet the drama that was being lived by the African peoples in Cartagena. From his convent, today one of the most visited ones of the city as Claustro, museo e iglesia de San Pedro Claver, he kept vigil of the sea waiting the slavery ships and he used to provide medicine and food for the new comers that were terrorized miles away from their native lands and treated as animals. The slavery market was located in what is today the prestigious Saint Peter Claver Salesian College in Plaza de las Bóvedad. Although this, Cartagena does not keep today a monument to the African peoples.

The ghost hunters on Inquisition

A street of the Old Cartagena de Indias. Picture by Virginia LC.

But the Cartagena’s history is not ended with pirates, punic wars, mega works and cimarrones. It was also the center of another interesting chapter, this time by religion: Inquisition. Today the Palace of the Inquisition is an interesting tourist atraction, but at its time it was a center of horror. Among the different kinds of Inquisition, the Cartagena’s Inquisition belongs to what was known as the Spaniard Inquisiton that was founded by the Catholic Monarchs in 1478 with the objective to protect and promote the Catholic faith within the Spaniard territory. It was also a part of the politics of the expulsion of the Spaniard Jews and Muslims and it persecuted also the marranos, a term used to distinguish the Jews converted to Catholicism in Spain. “Marranos” is “pork” in Spanish and they were called like that because the new converted persons ate pork exaggeratedly to demonstrate to the Christian society that they were not more Jews. The Inquisition put special attention to them as it was prevented that many of the new converted Jews were “not sincere”. When the terror of persecution against Jews and Muslims and eventually Lutherans finished, the Inquisitors turned to the same Catholics, in this time to purify their faith against witches and magicians. Cartagena was a very good place because the Africans came from their native continent bringing with them their idols and forest gods that were seen by the Inquisitors as the representation of the devils. Thanks to the action of the Inquisitors, the Africans – as eventually Jews and Muslims did at their way -, gave Catholic masks to their idols and that is why many saints were heavy venerated in the Caribbean region by the Afro-Colombians. Contrary to what many could think, the Inquisitors were very well prepared personalities, educated in prestigious colleges of the time in Spain and sent with all the honors to lead that difficult work of prosecute offenders of the faith. The Inquisitors were appointed directly by the Spaniard Crown and not but Rome as many others could think, therefore, the Inquisition was a political machinery and its influence in the political life of the Viceroyalty of New Granada was terrible. One of the best works of literature that illustrates how was the Cartagena’s Inquisition is a series of television, La Pezuña del Diablo (The Hoof of the Devil). As one of the best documental of history produced in Colombia, the series of the Colombian-Spaniard director Kepa Amuchástegui reproduces the sceneries, conflicts and influence of the Cartagena Inquisition at the time. Other works of the Colombian literature have in the Cartagena Inquisition a reason for inspiration. One of the most famous authors is Gabriel García Márques in his work Del amor y otros demonios (About the Love and Other Demons.)

Heroic Cartagena

A Cartagena balcony. Picture by Leo Villamizar.

The history has its lessons. In many occasions it does not follow the imposition of politic, but the will of a real democracy. The city that defended the proud of the Spaniard Empire and the integrity of the Spaniard colonies in South America was the first to break the chains from Spain. On November 11, 1811 the city proclaimed its freedom from the far capital of the Empire at the other site of the sea unable to see their colonies with respect. But Spain was not ready to let its colonies unpunished. The only thing was that Spain was about to attack its own invention, a well thought military wall, one of the best of the time. In this time, the royal flag was not inside the walls, but was at the place of the traditional British pirates that tried several times to conquer Cartagena de Indias. The defeated of Cartagena would mean the recovery of the Spaniard Empire. But Cartagena was born for the war. The city was a strong soldier that supported the attacks of four centuries and now the soldier was serving a noble cause, the ideal of freedom. The courageously resistance of Cartagena against the siege of Pablo Morillo was recognized by the Libertador Simon Bolívar when he gave the eternal title of Heroic City.

The Republican Cartagena de Indias

Although Cartagena de Indias was also very important during the 19th century, at the beginning of the 20th century its importance would be reduced to give room to the growing Barranquilla, a most modern city that was born at the end of the 19th century in the joining of the Magdalena River with the Caribbean Sea, northern of Cartagena. Cartagena de Indias was built as a center for commercial interchanges between the colonies and Spain. It was also a fortress against pirates and all the enemies of Spain. But as soon as the colonies got independence from Spain and pirates disappeared, the city came into a truly decadence. The development of strongest war armies did that military walls became historical monuments. During the 1930s intentions to reactive the importance of the city brought to developers the idea to destroy the walls in order to built “modern” buildings and markets. Curiously a British company offered its service to clean the place as a new kind of Velmon ready to conclude what pirates could not do centuries before. Thanks to the strong intervention of some personalities that knew of the value of the walls, the dark project was stop and the beginning of the II World War closed the matter. If that would happen, the walls of Cartagena were today something written on the books at the best style of the walls of Jericho in the Dead Sea. But in 1959 the Congress gave status to the walls as National Patrimony and lately Unesco declared the walls as Historical Patrimony of the Humanity in 1984.

Nowadays, Cartagena de Indias is one of the main centers of tourism in Colombia and one of the first cities in population with almost 800 thousand persons. The fast growing population is undoubtedly a key to give back the importance to the city and the gate to best perspectives for the 21srt century. A reform in the public transport, the privatization of the port and a best national and international proyection will make of Cartagena de Indias one of the first cities of Colombia during this century. The Rafael Nuñez Airport connects Cartagena with other Colombian regions. A flight from Cartagena to Medellín or Bogotá is about one hour. Traveling from Cartagena by bus to Medellín is about 12 hours passing from the Caribbean planes to the Andes mountains by the Troncal del Caribe road. A good road along the coast from Rioacha at the north to Turbo at the south connects Cartagena with all the coastland regions of the north of Colombia like Barranquilla and Santa Marta. It is easy to go from Cartagena to Caracas. A fabulous coralline islands, Islas del Rosario, is a tour that not visitor can avoid. A long list of atractions makes that you should expend more than a month in the city.

But it is also necessary to remember the other Cartagena, the one forgotten, that of the poor. Because this Cartagena is the Colombian symbol of freedom, all the people of Cartagena has the right to have the same opportunities. Only when the poor is included, the city would become a strong and powerful center of tourism and investment.

Cartagena is also the center of many national and international gatherings and programs. In the city there are annual events like the International Film and Television Festival of Cartagena among others. The Centre of Congresses and Exposicions of the city is the seat for meetings among head of states and the celebration of Miss Colombia.


* CUNIN, Elizabeth y Christian Rinaudo. Las murallas de Cartagena, entre patrimonio, turismo y desarrollo urbano (pdf). El papel de la sociedad de mejoras públicas. Revista Memorias, Año II, No. 2, Uninorte, Barranquilla. ISSN 1794-8886
Las murallas de Cartagena, su itinerario histórico. Reproducido con autorización de Hernando Pereira Brieva.
* FERNÁNDEZ ARRIBAS, Javier y otros.
La victoria sobre la armada invencible. Fundación Letras del Mar.
Monumento a la India Catalina. El Universal. Cartagena, ensueño del Caribe.

Recommended links

* Desde Cartagena Colombia. Guía completa de turismo, negocios e inversiones.
* Alcaldía Mayor de Cartagena de Indias.

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