The Resilience of Cartagena de Indias: Standing up after Multiple Colonizations and Plunders

Founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia near the indigenous village of Calamari in the North West of South America, Cartagena de Indias became one of the major cities of the Spanish Empire in the New World. As a matter of fact it was considered the richest port of the Spanish Main in the Caribbean sea, and known as the key and antemural (“llave y antemural del reino”) of the Spanish Kingdoms in the Americas. A central place for the collection and shipping of commodities, gold, silver, pearls, and jewels extracted from the Spanish colonies in South America, Cartagena de Indias also became one of the biggest ports for the slave trade in the 16th and 17th century. Its famous trade fairs, riches, and deep bay, as well as its strategic position in the Caribbean and North West of the continent, made Cartagena an object of desire for the French, British, and Dutch empires, transfrontiersmen, and trans-imperial agents.

The Capture of Cartagena de Indias by Sir Francis Drake (military and naval action fought on 9–11 February 1586). Detail of hand-colored engraving, by Baptista Boazio, 1589

Looted, plundered, poached, and occupied by pirates, buccaneers, and filibusters, in multiple occasions, the city earned a fame for its resilience. It was precisely after the raid of the British pirate Sir Francis Drake (El Dragon) in 1586, that the Spaniards started to build stone walls and fortifications around the city perimeter with the help of an Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli. Building the complete wall (muralla) around the city was a long-term project that relied on the forced labor of african slaves, afro descendants, indigenous, and mestizo peoples. The process lasted for almost two centuries amidst multiple attempts by the French and British to raid and plunder the city. Today, the walls and fortifications surround what is known as the Old City, forming an open public space, a site for encounters, and strolls. Walking Cartagena walls remind us of the rich history of the city, and provides an entry point to multiple streets and stories of conquest, exploitation, and resilience.

Carte de l’attaque de Carthagène des Indes en 1697. Published in 1968.

Kaart van de onderdoningschappen van Mexico en Nieuw Granada in de Spaansche West-Indien. Tirion, Isaak. Amsterdam, 1765.

Map of Cartagena, Colombia. Isaak Tirion. Published in Amsterdam in 1766.

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