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History of Cartagena

Pre-20th Century

Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena de Indias was built on the site of an abandoned Amerindian village, known as Calamarí, located on a small island of the same name. Born into a noble family in Madrid, Heredia left Spain suddenly because of a personal conflict that led to a challenge by duel. Arriving first in Santo Domingo (capital of the present-day Dominican Republic), he later embarked to New Grenada, settling in Santa Marta, where he took up trading with the native inhabitants. After becoming governor, he established himself in the village of Calamarí and founded Cartagena. The little village quickly prospered, with the discovery of numerous treasures in the region, including those in the tombs of the Sinús, an Amerindian people who customarily buried the dead with all their possessions. However, in 1552, a fire reduced the village (whose buildings were made of wood at the time) to ashes, and Pedro de Heredia ordered that all structures be made of stone from that point onward. In a way, this directive enabled the city to preserve its lovely architectural heritage to this present day.

As the Spanish continued colonizing South America, they discovered and pillaged the fabulous riches of various Amerindian nations including the Incas. The port of Cartagena, well protected in a bay, benefited greatly from all of this plundering. Ships loaded with precious cargo arrived from Ecuador and Peru by way of the isthmus of Panama, and stopped at the city’s port to be loaded with other goods from the interior of the country, most of which were brought to the port on the Río Magdalena. Afterward, the ships would continue on their way to Cuba or Puerto Rico, where other merchandise was added to their precious cargo. Finally, fully loaded, they would sail to Spain, the mother country.

Another factor that enabled the city to develop rapidly was the slave trade. In fact, at the beginning of the 17th century, the King of Spain granted the colony a monopoly on this form of commerce. It is important to remember that at the time, the Spanish crown had forbidden the enslavement of Amerindians, but granted certain markets and key figures in its new colonies the right to deal in African slaves. Cartagena thus received the dreadful but highly coveted right to be an official slave-trading centre. At the time, Veracruz, Mexico was the only other centre of this kind.

All of these activities made it possible for prominent locals to amass enormous fortunes and build superb homes and mansions, which still accounts for some of the towns charm today. Thus, within a few years, Cartagena reached a level of prosperity that aroused the interest not only of other colonial powers, but also of the numerous pirates lurking in the Caribbean in search of riches.

Cartagena’s reputation as a flourishing city spread quickly, and the Jolly Mary (the black pirate flag with a skull and cross bones) was often seen approaching the city in search of booty. During the 16th century, Cartagena suffered five sieges by pirates. One of these occurred in 1543 and involved a French lieutenant general and pirate by the name of Robert Baal (aka Roberval). He launched a successful raid on the city and in a surprise attack, the pirate managed to extort 310 kilos of gold from the city while the governor was attending a banquet. This was only the beginning of a long list of attacks by pirates of all different nationalities on the city. They included Englishmen John Hawkins (in 1576) and Francis Drake (in 1586), as well as Frenchmen Jean-Bernard Desjeans and Jean Ducasse (in 1697).

Cartagena managed to fend off at least one attack, mounted by the admiral Edward Vernon sent by King George II of England, along with 15,000 troops, to overthrow the Spanish in 1741. However, the English attackers were in for a surprise since the small garrison, led by General Basco de Lezo, managed to drive them back to sea. This brave general continued to fight even after losing an arm, a leg and an eye in previous battles. With 2500 poorly trained men, General Basco de Lezo managed to fend off 25,000 English soldiers and their 186 ships. He lost his other leg and died soon after, but is now regarded as the savior of Cartagena.

Irritated by the loss of capital to the privateers, the Spanish crown finally decided to fortify the city and its surrounding area. The scale of the project soon converted Cartagena into one of the most well protected colonial cities in all of South America.

Among the numerous armed conflicts that have marked the city’s history, two major dates should be kept in mind. The first is 1741, the year of the famous Battle of Vernon and the second is 1811, when the city was the first to declare its independence from Spain. However, the city came back under Spanish rule in 1815 upon being recaptured by General Pablo Morillo. More than a third of the population perished in the fighting for a total of 6,000 people! Later, during the final war of independence led by Simón Bolívar, Cartagena was once again among the first to declare its independence and obtained its liberty once and for all in 1821. Moreover, Bolívar nicknamed the city Ciudad Heroica (the Heroic City) for its bravery and ability to defend itself.

Cartagena soon recovered and became an important trading and shipping centre again. Its prosperity attracted foreign immigrants, and many Jews, Italians, French, Turks, Lebanese and Syrians settled here.

Cartagena: Modern History

Colombia entered the 20th century wracked by full-scale civil war, then again in 1948 when the struggle between Liberals and Conservatives broke out with La Violencia, a destructive period of civil strife. Cartagena was not immune from the political violence but economically it prospered, largely on the back of oil exports from its increasingly busy port. Platinum, coffee, sugar, tobacco and textiles were also important exports at the time. In 1974, Cartagena celebrated its pre-colonial past, erecting the Monumento a la India Catalina at the entrance to the Old Town in tribute to the Carib Indians.

In recent decades, Cartagena has expanded dramatically and is now surrounded by vast suburbs and high-rise buildings. It is Colombia’s largest port and an important industrial center specializing in petrochemicals. Despite increasing urban sprawl, the walled Old Town has remained virtually unchanged.

In August 2000, USA President Bill Clinton visited Cartagena for talks associated with his government’s 1.3 billion-dollar Plan Colombia aid package to help tackle drug trafficking and armed conflict.