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7: Cartagena de las Indias

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Cartagena was founded on January 20, 1533, by the Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Heredia. Because of its convenient location on the Caribbean near Panama, it soon became an important town. Peruvian gold on its way to Spain was transported overland across the Isthmus of Panama, and was stored in Cartagena pending shipment to the mother country by a convoy of Spanish men-of-war. As a result, Cartagena had become prey to the French and British pirates who were at that time ravaging the West Indies. French buccaneers had twice ransacked the town, and prior to that it had suffered destruction at the hands of Sir Francis Drake, who had plundered Cartagena and burned it to the ground.

To prevent further forays, King Philip II undertook to convert Cartagena into an impregnable fortress by building a monumental wall around the town. This wall, thirty feet high, was so thick that four carriages could drive abreast along the top. In addition, a number of forts had been built for its defense at strategically located points.

To digress a moment, one of the many anecdotes about the Cartagena wall tells how, one evening in his palace at Escorial, King Philip II was earnestly gazing westward. The Duke of Alba asked him, "What is Your Majesty looking for?" To which Philip is said to have replied, "1 am looking for the walls of Cartagena—they cost so much, they ought to be visible from here!"

It was against these unassailable forts and encircling medieval ramparts that the British forces, comprising men-of-war and over 10,000 troops, supplemented by 1,200 North Americans from nine of the thirteen colonies, under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon, attempted to capture Cartagena in 1741. After a siege of ten weeks and the loss of half of his men, Vernon realizing the failure of his endeavor, acknowledged defeat and withdrew his remaining forces to Jamaica. One of the members of this ill-fated British expedition was Lawrence Washington (half-brother of George Washington, and fourteen years his senior), who at the age of twenty-three had the rank of captain.

Two curious incidents developed from this defeat. The first was that when Lawrence Washington returned to his estate on the banks of the Potomac in Virginia in 1742, he named it "Mount Vernon" in honor of the British Admiral under whom he had served. Upon the death of Lawrence in 1752, his brother George inherited Mount Vernon; both are interred in a vault there.

The second is of interest at the present time. In Pamplona, Spain, there is an ancestral home, originally owned by the Spanish Viceroy of Santa Fe (Colombia), Don Sebastian Eslava, who successfully defended Cartagena against Admiral Vernon. The descendants of Eslava proudly exhibit, among other trophies of the 1741 siege, a number of medals which had been coined in England to reward the troops after the taking of Cartagena. One of the medals bears the inscription: "The Spanish Arrogance Vanquished by Admiral Vernon"; and another reads: "True British Heroes Took Cartagena". A number of these medals are also on display at the American Numismatic Society in New York City.

In November of 1811, as a result of the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, Cartagena was the first province of Nueva Granada (Colombia) to declare its absolute independence from Spain.

This brings us to the main point of our story—Cartagena and Simón Bolívar. The Liberator, then twenty-nine years of age, arrived at Cartagena in November, 1812, a fugitive, having barely escaped with his life from Venezuela, where Spanish General Domingo Monteverde, then ruling the country, had confiscated all of his properties.

Bolívar came to Cartagena to arouse the recently independent young province of Nueva Granada into assisting him in the Liberation of Venezuela. In a proclamation pleading for their help, the final paragraph said:

Let us hasten to break the chains of those victime who groan in the dungeons, ever hopeful to rescue! Do not betray their trust! Do not be insensible to the cries of your brothers! Fly to avenge the dead, to give life to the dying, to bring Freedom to the oppressed and Liberty to all!

It was from Cartagena that Bolívar, against overwhelming odds, invaded Venezuela with a handful of followers and in six months liberated most of its territory. This occurred in 1813, the so-called "Year of the Admirable Campaign." When Bolívar entered Caracas, scarcely eight months after leaving Cartagena, he is said to have exclaimed:

Cartagenians! If Caracas gave me life, you gave me glory! Hail, Cartagena, the Redeemer!

When the battles won by Bolívar in the "Admirable Campaign of 1813" are more universally known, as well as his swiftness of action, courage, audacity, brilliant strategy and ability to fight against armies ten times stronger than his own, posterity will place the Liberator among the great military commanders of history: Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon—Bolívar.

However, Bolívar's star soon declined. Scarcely two years later we find him again in Cartagena, having had to fleeVenezuela for the second time, defeated but undaunted. Cartagena gave him a hero's reception. A proclamation issued by the local parliament said of him:

The Republic is proud to call the Liberator of Venezuela its own worthy son!

Unfortunately, this time Bolívar found the recently liberated provinces of Nueva Granada torn by internal dissensions. Cartagena refused to be incorporated into Nueva Granada, and preferred to act as an independent republic. The Government of the Central Provinces of the Interior promptly appointed Bolívar as head of its armies to bring Cartagena into the Federation. But the Liberator chose to go into exile rather than lead his troops into a fratricidal civil war against Cartagena. On May 9, 1815, he left for Jamaica. When resigning his command, he addressed the Central Government thus:

. . . . My constant love for the Liberty of the Americas has exacted from me numerous sacrifices, sometimes in peace, sometimes in war (Ya en la paz, ya en la guerra). He who abandons all for the fatherland loses nothing; rather, he gains all to which he has consecrated himself.

And he later addressed his former officers and soldiers:

... From you who have been my comrades in innumerable vicissitudes and combats; from you, I part to go and live in exile and in idleness, instead of dying for my country. But you, who are judges of my grief, can decide if I am not making the sacrifice of my heart, of my fortune, and of my glory when giving up the honor of leading you to victory. The salvation of the army has imposed this duty upon me. I have not hesitated.

Seven months later, on December 6, 1815, a powerful army under General Pablo Morillo, sent by Spain to pacify its colonies in America, succeeded in taking Cartagena, and from there proceeded to re-establish the Spanish Vice-Royalty of Santa Fe, by re-conquering Nueva Granada. However, domination by Spain was to be of short duration. Bolívar, after one year of self-imposed exile in the Caribbean Islands, again returned to Venezuela. It took him five years of alternating military victories and reverses to succeed in finally liberating not only Nueva Granada but also, for the second time and this time forever—Venezuela!

Cartagena was also retaken from the Spaniards by a Bolívar army under General Mariano Montilla,(1) on October 11, 1821. An episode typical of the high patriotic fervor of the Bolívar Generals took place at the surrender. The Spaniards had agreed to deliver the fortresses and allow the patriots to enter the City, but only after the Spanish garrison had evacuated it. Montilla not only rejected these conditions, but insisted that the Spanish troops be present when the patriot army triumphantly paraded into the City, at which time the Spanish flag was to be replaced by that of Colombia. At the moment of the hoisting of the Colombian flag, it was saluted by a cannonade from the enemy. Thus ended forever the Spanish yoke at Cartagena,(2) considered at the time to be the best fortified city of South America.

1. General Montilla was born in 1782 in Caracas and died in 1851 in the same city. In 1800 Bolívar, then seventeen years old, met him in Madrid. Montilla fought during the Wars of Independence on the side of the patriots. In 1833 he was appointed Venezuelan Ambassador to London and Madrid.

2. The reason why Bolívar succeeded in conquering Cartagena, whereas Admiral Vernon had failed, was the strategy he employed: he instructed General Montilla to effectively cut off the food supplies on which Cartagena was so dependent. Moreover, Admiral Vernon lost many of his troops to tropical diseases, as his force consisted of British and North Americans who were unaccustomed to the unhealthy climate which they encountered in their siege of Cartagena.

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