November 1, 2013
Cartegena was an important gold trading center in the region and was frequently sacked and held for ransom. The Spanish invested an incredible amount of money to fortify the city, and when they actually manned the fortifications, it worked.
In 1741, British and American colonial forces assaulted on the city during the War of Jenkin’s Ear. The attackers, led by Admiral Vernon, outnumbered the defenders nearly 9 to 1 but were forced to lay siege to the city due to the fortifications. The British were ultimately undone by a serious outbreak of Yellow Fever which killed more men than those who fell in battle. As an aside, Lawrence Washington, George’s older half brother led a failed charge of Colonial troops during the operation. He survived though, and named his estate in honor of his commander, Admiral Vernon.
While the whole old city is walled and remnants of old forts litter the hills around the city, the most imposing defensive feature is Castillo San Filipe de Barajas. The massive stone fort occupies a hill which overlooks the old city. The original ground was high enough to be considered a threat to the city, allowing potential enemies to bombard the city from above. Original plans to tear the hill down with forced labor were abandoned as too expensive and time consuming, so instead the knoll was fortified with stone in 1536. The original structure grew through a series renovations until it reached its current, massive, sprawling state in the late 1700’s.
The fort is considered a war engineering masterpiece, which was nearly impossible to seize. Batteries of cannon and defensive positions not only pointed at the ground approaching the fort, but also provided excellent firing angles directly at the lower batteries. If an enemy did capture the lowest parts of the fort, they would be sitting ducks for the cannon and soldiers higher up.
The fort included a large cistern so defenders could sit and wait a while while an enemy laid siege. This was a very important part of the design- the longer the enemy was forced to sit and maintain the siege in the swamps around the fort, the more likely an outbreak of some tropical disease would wipe them out.
A massive network of tunnels riddled the original hill under the fort, providing underground access to various positions. In the unlikely event that the fort was captured, small rooms filled with barrels of gunpowder could be detonated, blowing the fort to bits.
I wandered around doing a self guided audio tour which provided hours of detailed information, while Kalyn and Jenny did their own self-guided tour.
When I caught up with Jenny and Kalyn, we headed down to the tunnels. At first, we just traveled in a circle in a narrow and short tunnel before we arrived back at the entrance. Still curious, we turned back around to explore one of the passages that shot off the main tunnel. This tunnel lead us down, down, down. Jenny eventually got very claustrophobic and had to turn around, Kalyn and I joined her in returning to the surface. We later learned that the tunnel led down to an area that once was dry, but has subsided and filled with water that gets higher or lower depending on the tide and is pitch black.
The rest of the day was for walking around the town and relaxing.