The Unconquerable Castle on the Hill: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena
You know those geeky looking people you see on self-guided tours wearing the oversize, dorky black earflap headphones and squinting at their maps? That was us, complete with the big audio recorder that hung around our necks like a lead weight and bounced against our stomachs with each step. At 9 AM in the morning we were already sweating buckets under the merciless sun and we hadn’t even started the climb up the hill. We’d had a brief introduction to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas during our city tour a couple of weeks previous but the structure is so immense that we decided it deserved much more of our attention and time leisurely exploring it and besides, those tunnels looked like fun!
The fortress completely covers the Hill of San Lazaro, a brilliantly strategic site that overlooks both land and sea approaches and is nothing if not imposing in its very size. Begun in 1536 and completed in 1767 it’s the largest, most complex Spanish fort ever built in the New World. Slaves, using pickaxes and shovels first flattened the highest knob on the hill, no mean feat in itself, and then commenced with building the garrison from the top down. The original portion of the work which included constructing the “Old Fort” should have taken five years, but the governor’s unmerciful schedule finished it in a year; the number of slave deaths went unrecorded. Using rectangular blocks gouged from both the coral reefs offshore and from a quarry nearby (manned by slaves and unfortunates who had been sentenced to hard labor by the ongoing Inquisitional Tribunals) they eventually covered the hillsides with ramps and walls, sentry stations, watchtowers and bell-towers, weapons plazas, ramparts for cannon and artillery, etc. Also built were the structures needed to maintain those 500 troops at any one time such as a central kitchen, laundry, hospital, foundry and huge cisterns to collect water during the rainy season in preparation for the times of drought.
And then there were the miles of labyrinthine tunnels throughout the hill, many dug by Welsh miners brought over especially for the task. There are only a few that are open to the public now but it’s not hard to experience a rat in a maze feeling and sense of disorientation when one takes a wrong turn. The tunnels were used for moving and storing provisions (food, weapons, and gunpowder) as well as repositioning troops or even evacuation/retreat, if ever needed, through a fortified exit at the base of the Castillo. They were structured so that the acoustics allow for discrete sounds, such as footfalls or verbal commands and alerts by ringing bells with pre-arranged codes, that carry through the intersecting tunnels.
We had to applaud the strategic placement of the castle where the land adjoining the Hill of San Lazaro could aid the Spanish most in their acquisition and safeguarding of the New World’s plunder from those (also!) avaricious pirates. Residing at the base of the castle was a “hospital” for lepers where treatment consisted solely of prayer and whose location was avoided by all who feared the dreaded flesh-eating disease believed to be caused by demons. The area surrounding the castle on the three sides was a mixture of lowlands and hillocks which were frequently flooded by seasonally heavy rains. An elevated roadway connected this inhospitable region to the castle and served as an avenue of supply; it was useless to attackers as the road was well protected by the fort’s cannons.
Fetid swamps, lying to either side of the roadway, populated by swarms of mosquitos and carrying malaria and yellow fever that had been introduced to the New World by the African slaves, further hindered the enemy. An army weakened by disease, exhaustion and thirst was an easier foe for the Spanish to vanquish. On the seaward approach three stone causeways, connecting the Castillo to the walled city it defended, were intended to be destroyed by gunpowder to thwart the enemy in the event of an attack. These heavily guarded entry points were the only means to access the bastion.
The entire massive fortress stands as a testament to Spanish tenacity and genius. The geometry of the Castillo was fifty years in advance of that practiced in Europe; a full half century would elapse before fortifications on the continent would rival those in Cartagena. The Castillo itself was actually seven defensive structures built over time with overlapping fields of fire. Should an attacker actually breach one of the outer parameters they would find themselves confronted with enfiladed fire coming from two or more of the remaining six fortifications. It was a death trap waiting to ensnare any adversary foolhardy enough to accept the challenge.
Three hours later with the sun at its zenith, our faces sweat-streaked and flushed under our hats and our water bottles emptied, we walked down the hill. Our awe at what the Spanish had accomplished in the building of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas had only grown. The fortress, along with the old City of Cartagena well deserves its 1984 recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth a lengthy and leisurely exploration.
By Anita and Richard