Because of Cartagena’s history as a target for pirate attacks, the walls around the entire city are heavy and an inescapable part of the environment and culture. However, although the colonial walls are historical sites that you can walk along and observe, there are even more fortifications that tell you about the history of Cartagena. One of these is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, also known as the Cartagena Castle.
The Wealth of the Caribbean
The Spanish colonies in Central and South America were sources of great wealth to the Spanish empire. They had both mines and plantations stretching across the New World, and the great Spanish galleons brought cacao beans, chili peppers, gold, silver, tobacco, and more across to continental Europe. To be able to do this efficiently, they needed a seaport. Cartagena in Colombia was that seaport.
As a result, both pirates (non-affiliated crews) and privateers (crews of specific countries allowed by the monarchy to attack and raid ships and properties of rival nations) set their sights on Cartagena. The French and the English were the most active over the years. In response, Spain built the largest fort it has in any of its colonies. Named for King Philip IV, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is a remarkable castle on its own.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Whoever has the higher ground in a fight has the distinct advantage. A small group of soldiers on a mountain can hold out against an army on the plains. Simply, it’s easier to pick off the enemy when you’re looking down at them. It’s so much harder to do so when you have to look up.
With this principle in mind, the Spanish built the castle on the 130 foot-high San Lazaro hill. It overlooks the town, and more importantly it stands between the town and the sea. The crown of the hill was the first to be covered by the fortress. Eventually, over a hundred years of adding fortifications, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas became a 7-mile wall of several layers and levels. Any army which took over one level or section would still find itself isolated.
The original architect of the castle, Antonio de Arevalo, deliberately designed the fortress for the best defense possible. Even though the fortress is large, there is a complicated network of tunnels sunk into the thick walls and throughout the entire fortress. Each tunnel is so designed that the sound of any approaching enemy would immediately be heard as the footsteps reverberated.
These echoes and reverberations also made it much easier for a small company of soldiers to defend the single fort and city. Instead of using soldiers as runners and wasting valuable time in coordinating information, the tunnels were used as speakers. Any soldier from one checkpoint could call updates down the tunnel, and the message would be passed as fast as the speed of sound, literally.
Cartagena Castle: Not To Be Underestimated
Because of these fortifications, a 3,000 strong Spanish contingent held off 23,000 English troops attempting to take over Cartagena. The design of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was ideal for Spanish soldiers to hold the city against any number of attackers, whether by sea or land. Until today, it stands as an amazing example of design and strategy.