Cartagena – History, Culture and Geology

The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a famous castle on Cartagena’s Hill of San Lázaro, is a 16th century fortress that dominates and reflects the city’s history, culture and strategic importance. Photos courtesy of Mario De Freitas
The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a famous castle on Cartagena’s Hill of San Lázaro, is a 16th century fortress that dominates and reflects the city’s history, culture and strategic importance. Photos courtesy of Mario De Freitas

Beautiful Cartagena, the site of this year’s APG International Conference and Exhibition, is the city where Colombia’s bogotanos flock to enjoy themselves, to see and be seen.

With its massive and well-preserved Spanish-built walls and fortifications – the only walled city in South America – it also is one of the most historically significant cities in the Western Hemisphere.

The city stands on a sand bar at the northeast end of the Bay of Cartagena. So large is this bay that in colonial days it was said that all the fleets in the world could find anchorage there at one time.

Its full name is Cartagena de Indias – to distinguish it from Spain’s ancient city of Cartagena – and it was founded on June 1, 1533, by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia. He landed on a sandy beach of what is now the walled suburb of Getsemani – where the modern Convention Center is located – and established the colony there. It was later moved to the adjacent Island of Calamari, site of an Indian village.

Heredia’s statue can be seen in the Los Coches Square, just across from the main gate of the walled city.

Cartagena began with only 200 Spanish inhabitants, who initially lived in “bohios,” a type of Indian house built of straw and mud. The city grew quickly, fueled by the plundering of gold from the tombs of the Sinu Indians.

The increasing wealth of its inhabitants made it an attractive target for pirates and corsairs, and 10 years after its founding the city was first pillaged by the French.

Other assaults soon followed – including one in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake – and Cartagena began to surround itself with walled compounds and forts, a process that continued for about 200 years.

Coralline limestone, from the Plio-Pleistocene La Popa Formation, was mainly used for these walls. This formation outcrops in the La Popa Hill, crowned by a convent, and in numerous localities around the city.

By the time the defenses were finished in 1756, the city was considered impregnable. Today these fortresses – on which Spain spent the equivalent of trillions of dollars in today’s money – are colonial Cartagena’s most significant feature.

(Legend has it that Spain’s King Phillip II, while in Madrid reviewing the defense expenditures for Havana and Cartagena, remarked, “This is outrageous! For this price those castles should be seen from here!”)

A Prized Possession

Cartagena was Spain’s most important trading port on the coast of South America, especially for gold and silver from the mines of New Granada and Peru. It was so important, in fact, that in 1717 it became the capital of the Viceroyalty of the New Granada.

Precious metals were loaded in Cartagena on the galleons that after the end of the yearly hurricane season first went to Havana, where they were joined by similarly loaded galleons sailing from Mexico, and then continued to Spain. On the return trip the galleons arrived in Cartagena loaded with Spanish merchandise, turning the city into the major South American trading post.

A major attempt to take the city and invade New Granada was made in March and April of 1741 by English Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who arrived at Cartagena with a massive fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 British and American colonial troops. The assault – at the beginning of the rainy season, when mosquitoes return in force after the dry season lull – proved a disaster, as over half of the invading force fell and died from tropical diseases, chiefly yellow fever.

It proved particularly deadly for the American soldiers, 90 percent of which did not return home.

After weeks of intense fighting, the undermanned Spaniards had defeated the British forces and forced them to withdraw. This significant victory allowed Spain to control the Caribbean for the next 70 years, until its hold was weakened by the wars of independence that began in South America in the early 19th century.

One of the American soldiers in Admiral Vernon’s fleet was George Washington’s older half-brother, Lawrence, who was so impressed with the admiral that he named his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia after him.

Cutting the Connection

Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain in 1807 triggered major political changes in the American colonies, and after 278 years of Spanish rule Cartagena declared its independence Nov. 11, 1811.

Cartageneros affectionately called the old city “El Corralito de Piedra” (the Little Stone Corral), because the city is completely enclosed by walls.
Cartageneros affectionately called the old city “El Corralito de Piedra” (the Little Stone Corral), because the city is completely enclosed by walls.

Upon the defeat of the French armies in the Peninsular War in 1814, Spain decided to recover the rebellious territories, and by mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary fleet under the command of General Pablo Morillo arrived in New Granada and besieged Cartagena. After a five-month siege the fortified city fell in December of that year.

Cartagena was devastated and in ruins, with a large segment of its population perishing from hunger and tropical illnesses.

Morillo executed the nine leaders of the rebellion: They are commemorated today with statues that can be seen in front of the Convention Center.

It was Simon Bolivar who declared Cartagena the “Heroic City,” in reference to Morillo’s siege. By 1816, the combined efforts of Spanish and colonial forces, marching south from Cartagena and north from royalist strongholds in Quito, Pasto and Popayan, completed the reconquest of New Granada, taking Bogota on May 6, 1816. Total independence was not gained until 1821.

Independence from Spain meant that its main reason for existence – the trans-shipment of gold and silver from South America to Cuba and Spain – had passed, and the city entered a long period of decline that lasted essentially until the 20th century.

A City of Culture and Geology

A fascinating chapter of Cartagena’s history has to do with the cultural influence that African slaves brought to the city.

Early in its history, Cartagena was the main port of entry of African slaves; their arrival signaled the beginning of an intense process of cultural and racial integration that mixed Europeans, Africans and Indians – influencing the physiognomy, cuisine, music, art and even the accent of the Spanish spoken in the city.

Colombia prides itself on having abolished slavery in 1851 ­– 14 years before it was abolished in the United States.

The La Popa limestones are very malleable and porous and well-suited for facades and as construction stone.

(Malleable comes from the Latin word “malleo,” which means hammer. Remember the motto of geology: Mente et Malleo, or Mind and Hammer – which nowadays seems to go more like Mente et iPAD!)

Beautiful fossils comprising coral heads, bryozoans and algae are visible in most buildings in the old city – something that will add a little lagniappe to your visit to Cartagena!

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Historical Highlights - Miguel Ramirez

Miguel Ramirez is president of the AAPG Latin America Region, 

Historical Highlights

Historical Highlights - Hans Krause

Hans Krause is an AAPG Honorary Member, Distinguished Service Award winner and former chair of the AAPG History of Petroleum Geology Committee.

A History-Based Series, Historical Highlights is an ongoing EXPLORER series that celebrates the "eureka" moments of petroleum geology, the rise of key concepts, the discoveries that made a difference, the perseverance and ingenuity of our colleagues – and/or their luck! – through stories that emphasize the anecdotes, the good yarns and the human interest side of our E&P profession. If you have such a story – and who doesn't? – and you'd like to share it with your fellow AAPG members, contact the editor.

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