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Some Aspects of Cartagena's History

The Mocanaes

The Mocanaes, were part of the Carib tribe which populated the northern coast of South America at the time of the Spanish conquest of the New World. Spanish accounts of their conquests acknowledge that the Mocanaes defended themselves fiercely against European subjugation, pointing out that their spirited  women fought shoulder to shoulder with the men. Indeed, the Mocanaes were the last people in the entire region to fall victim to colonization.
The legendary figure of the India Catalina belongs to this culture.  She was an indigenous princesss who served as interpreter between tha army of Heredia and the Mocanaes at the time of the conquest. Her image is one of the most popular icons of Cartagena de Indias.

A  prize of war for real pirates of the Caribbean.

No city in the New World has been threatened, laid siege to, attacked and sacked as much as Cartagena de Indias. And no wonder since Cartagena was the fortified imperial warehouse where all the loot that was being robbed from the Inca empire plus the gold, silver and emeralds pillaged from the many different tribes scattered throughout New Granada (present day Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador) was kept, often for long periods of time, awaiting shipment to Spain.

Cartagena’s treasure trove was an  irresistible prize.  The rays of  the riches amassed here  sparkled in the  imagination  of every pirate lose in the western world.  But the best armed, the  boldest and the most successful were  those who pursued their prizes under government  auspices.

Spain´s two eternal enemies – France and England – desired a piece of the conquered pie in the heart of the Americas, the beautiful Caribbean basin. They attacked in tandem for a long period of time.

The wiley Pirate, Robert Oval

The first assault took place in 1544, eleven years after the founding of the city by the Castillian cavalier Pedro de Heredia.  Legend has it that Heredia was in the middle of a splendidly laid nightime banquet as part of the festivities celebrating the wedding of his sister when the French pirate Robert Oval, having entered  the city with his band of brigands by stealth,  burst in upon the scene sowing utter confusion because the people of Cartagena thought that the bombardments which commenced at the same time were part of the governor’s party. The French sacked the city and only marched off only after extorting the formidable ransom of 200.000 pieces of gold. which he quickly turned to his advantage when.  

In 1559 the French attacked again. Martin Côté, accompanied by Jean de Beautemps arrived in Cartagena with seven ships and more than a thousand men. After a fierce battle in which three hundred men died and in spite of the resistance offered by the governor and his men and the help of more than 500 hundred indians, the French attained the complete submission of the city and exacted a huge ramson from its vanquished inhabitants. This along the skillful mediation of Juan de Simanca, the bishop of the city, saved Cartagena from being set ablaze which had been the stated  of the pirate Côte and it was no empty threat considering that he had put the torch to the city of Santa Marta only a few days before his assalt on Cartagena.

Next it was the turn of the Englishman, John Hawkins,  who  was  an insolent and menacing  mixture of navigator, pirate, slave merchant, and fanatical fundamentalist protestant. He arrived in 1568 with a cargo ship full of slaves  and   merchandise,  asking  permission   to  hold  a fair in the city in order to be able to sell the slaves. The governor of course refused to grant permission.  the forces of the English captain bombarded the city but after  eight days held of by sustained and strong  resistance they suddenly decided to quit the  Bay  of Cartagena with a promise to return in the  near  future  with  reinforcements to inflict heavy damage on their Catholic foes.

Then Hawkins’s promise of return and revenge was  kept by his nephew, the illustrious and notorious Francis Drake, who was one of the most able and intrepid sailors of his time having circumnavigated the globe on his ship,  “The Golden Hind”.

In   1586 Drake, after taking the city ELAB made  a forced entry in the governor’s office where a  letter was found in which the viceroy of New Granada had written to the governor declaring that  an attack by “the pirate” Drake was imminent. Drake, a temperamental redhead who had already been knighted by her majesty Queen Elizabeth, was greatly offended by this epithet and he vented his rage by destroying one of the naves of the Cathedral  which was in construction at that time, and putting the torch to some 200 houses.  The authorities were obliged to pay him a ransom of  107.000  gold  ducats to save the rest of the city from more such blaze and fury.

During the seventeenth century, which witnessed the commencement of the Scientific Revolution in Europe, Cartagena de Indias  became a commercial stronghold for traffic in African slaves authorized by the Spanish Crown. The genocidal pernicious business was at its apogee (a situation which had a tonic effect on the rest of the economy)?but Cartagena was well-fortified and Cartageneros lived through a long and rare period of peace which ended abruptly in 1697 with the entry of the royal Frenchman, Jean Bernard de Jeans, the Baron de Pointis,  who  put siege to and later sacked the city.

The attack of De Pointis was carried out in order to pressure Spain so that Spain would accept the Bourbons on the Spanish  throne since the Hapsburg King Charles II, the “Spellbound”, had  no  heir. De Pointis was the only one ever to take the Castle of San   Felipe. Its capture occurred forty years after the first phase of its construction was completed. Clearly, what De Pointis took was not the imposing fortress that we see today in Cartagena de Indias but rather the small bonnet – Fort which was the original construction.  A small defense work at a salient angle; or a part of a parapet elevated to screen the other part from enfilade fire -  on the summit of the Hill of San Lázaro.

The French pirate remained for one month in Cartagena lodged in  a building known at the  time as La Casa de la Isla (Island House) in la Plaza de la Aduana which is in present day the site of the  Andean Building – a  disaster in its own way (mute violence – architectonic misfit)  and which lamentably, as distinct from De Pointis, has stayed around a  long   time.

De Pointis took away from the Convent of Saint Augustin (today the building of the University of Cartagena)   as part of his copious booty, an intricately worked sepulcher of solid silver which weighed approximately two hundred and fifty kilos. The Señora from Cartagena who had had the generosity to donate the sepulcher wrote to Louis Catorze, King of France, denouncing the robbery as a sacrilege,  a  brazen  offense   against  the  Faith  that  they   both  shared,  and   moreover  demanding  that  the  king  himself  should  rectify  the  injustice.

Louis responded to her petition personally, sending Baron de Pointis to trial and ordering   that the  disputed sepulcher should be sent back to  its home in  the donor’s church in the Convent of San Augustine (today the University of Cartagena).  But a little less than one hundred years later at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the  contested  treasure, donated in  pious devotion, was melted down by Cartagena’s own citizens in order to help finance  the  war  of   independence.

Decades later, in 1741, came the celebrated War of Jenkin’s Ear which provided the pretext for an all-out attack by the British against  Cartagena. It was lead by a politician turned admiral named Sir Edward  Vernon. 

Commanding the defense of the city was the illustrious Spaniard Don Blas de Lezo, a supremely intrepid veteran of  many  previous campaigns, most of which were victorious but  had nevertheles cost him dearly; lost an eye, an arm, and  a leg (but, as is said here,  with  both  his  testicles   intact). This time, though again triumphant, the commander would lose his life as a result of wounds  received in combat.

His British opponent Vernon carried the nickname “Old Grog” for the style of cloak that he was accustomed to wearing. While he was making prepartions for the invasion of South America Vernon took the innovative step of distributing among his men a mixture of rum in water, one to five parts, as a prophylactic measure against tropical diseases. Though popular it was a measure that failed miserably in its purpose.  The micro-organismic forces traveling in the air with mosquitos to sow death by malaria and yellow fever took a heavy toll among the English as the months wore on with their fleet at anchor underneath the sun.
Vernon’s military campaign against Cartagena was part of a greater personal design. He was a member of parliament whose ardent ambition was to become   Prime Minister of England. In those days – mid-18thcentury - the most coveted region in the Weastern hemisphere was the Caribbean. The Admiral had already scored a victory – taking the Panamenian port of Chagres – and on arrival off the coasts near  Cartagena he was so   completely  sure  of  success that he sent     an emissary to Jamaica and from there to England with news of the victory. His friends immediately  had  minted a series of commemorative coins picturing the surrender of the city by Blas de Lezo to the British Crown in the person of Admiral Vernon.  However, in the scene pictured on the coins the figure of the  Spanish commander – perhaps to enable him to kneel and  submit with the corporal grace appropriate to the occasion – has miraculously become whole again.  

Accompanying Vernon was Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, then a young lieutenant in Her Majesty’s Navy, whose admiration for his commanding officer was undiminished by the titanic failure of this expedition.

He had inherited a home on a hilltop in Virginia from his great grand father, John Washington. After having returned from Cartagena, he called it Mount Vernon.  It later came into the possession of George Washington at the death of Lawrence’s widow.

Despite all, Vernon’s opinion of himself also remained very high.  On the way back to England he got it into his head to attack La Habana where he was once again repulsed.

El Dorado 

The Spaniards were killed by their insatiable thirst, their fatal fever for gold, "but they died rich man". De Las Casas

In Spanish el dorado means "The Golden One” or “The Golden Man” The word comes from the past participle of dorar meaning to gild.

It originally refered  to a golden Indian tribal chief who was the principal figure in an elaborate ritual celebrated on the occassion of the appointment of himself as a new ruler his people, the Muisca tribe, who inhabited the highland interior of the land now known as Colombia, in the region near present-day Bogotá in the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. 

Before receiving the mantle of power the new leader was kept isolated in a cave out of all contact with women, where he was forbidden to eat salt and where he could come out only  at night. On the day of his investiture he proceeded to the great lagoon of Guatavita to take his place on a great royal raft  made of rushes which was ample enough to accomodate the four principal subordinate chiefs and other men and women of the court, who would accompany him in the ceremony.

Naked and anointed with a sticky earthen substance, the monarch-to-be was then  bathed in a shower of gold dust which adhered is body giving it the radiant aspect of a body of light. The appropriate sacrifices  and offerings  were made before the raft set out upon the large, deep lagoon.

Once in  the centre of the lagoon they raised a banner to signal for silence.

The gilded one and the chiefs who accompanied him who were also naked except for the headdresses, crowns, bracelets, pendants and ear rings which they were wearing, then cast all the treasures of gold - - and emeralds into the depths of the lake as offerrings. The  new sovereign himself then plunged into the cool of the pool. 

Finally the banner was then lowered and   the celebrants of the ritual returned to the shore where they were received in an atmoshere of jubilation by groups his subjects singing and dancing to the music of pipes and flutes.

The obsessive quest for gold in the minds - the legendary avidity and codicious delusion of the first Europeans to invade and explore this region easily gave rise to rumors of epic proportions which became the great  fascinación among the troops that accompanied conquistadores like Francisco Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro. Nicolás de Federman,  Sebastián de Belalcázar

Stimulated by the revelations of the wealth of the Aztec and Inca empires, El Dorado was imagined to be a mythic city,  the gilded capital of yet another fabulously rich kingdom.

The Muisca towns and their treasures fell quickly to the conquistadores. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada first found the Muiscas, a nation, in 1537, but the Spanish cavaliers “found no spot of ground  that looked like El Dorado,” no golden city and no inexaustable rich mines, because the Muiscas had obtained all their gold in trade.

Undaunted, then they imagined that the mythical city lay farther inland in the the Amazon jungle. But a medida que los conquistadores avanzaban hacia el interior del continente El Dorado inalcanzable se alejaba. 

At Guatavita today there remains evidence – in the form of a curious massive notch in its cliffside - of an attempt that was said to have been made by the Spanish to drain the lake in 1580.

Some of the gold looted from the Incas is lying not far out of the port of Cartagena in the galleon San Jose which was sunk in 17-- in waters so deep as to up to this point at least all, prohibit their retrieval. It is not that adequate technology does not exist to do the job, it is rather a matter of cost, the old question of how to divide up the spoils.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote a famous poem El Dorado in which the cavalier - the gallant knight -  grows old (not often in the cards for a warrior) but keeps his illusions intact never realizing that still looks outside of himself for a little place while the real gold is inside and so he is hence a more quixotic figure, willing to carry on until “the mountains of the moon.”
This metaphorical frame of mind was also cultivated by the Alchemists whose pre-scientific or proto-scientific attempts of the transmutation of base metals into gold was also understood in psychological terms, that is, as a transformation of consciousness to the consciousness of a “seer” of the gold.  It’s a metaphor for a state of mind and is not to be found on any “spot of ground.” “For the Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.”   (Words of Christ in the Gnostic Gospel according to Thomas).

"La Heroica", the fight for independence from Spain.

Cartagena, Colombia, fue nombrada La Ciudad  Heroica,  por Simón Bolívar debido a la resistencia  que ofrecieron sus habitantes a la Reconquista española en 1815.

Cartagena was the very first city in the land which is today known as Colombia to declare its total and absolute independence from Spain on November 11th 1811.  The initial period of independence would not last for long. Cartagena was too important for the Spaniards who reconquered the city four  years later under the brutal command of general Pablo Morillo who came to be known (with the supreme irony reserved for so many of history’s great criminals) as “El Pacificador,” the Pacifier.  Morillo  did not dare to take the city by force. He knew that he would not stand much of a chance getting past the ingenious system of defenses that the Spaniards had constucted to ward off their enemies. Instead he subjected Cartagena to a siege in which a third of the population died of starvation, leaving the gaunt survivors to surrender the Spaniards after three months. “The Pacifier” was responsible for the wanton masacre of thousands of Cartageneros  who participated directly or indirectly on the fight for their freedom.

Finally in 1821 Cartagena was free forever.

Tour in Cartagena with Marelvy Peña-Hall © 2009
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