Greetings! How is everyone? My goodness, can you all believe there are only 14 days until Christmas? How the days do fly by.
Friends, today I would like to share something a little different with you. The day after Thanksgiving, Mr. C and I along with his parents, took a Holland America cruise to the Eastern Caribbean. It was a new experience for me on two counts. First, because I had never been on a cruise. Second, because I had never traveled farther south than Houston, Texas or the Florida Panhandle.
Our journey began in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where we embarked on our seven-day sea adventure. We sailed first to Turks & Caicos, then to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and finally, to the Bahamas where we spent a day on the cruise line’s gorgeous private island, Half Moon Cay. Then it was back to port in Florida, another great vacation in the books.
One of the greatest highlights from our trip was our stop in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had done a little research beforehand and knew that if I only had time to see one thing while I was there that it would be the 16th century fort, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (or simply, El Morro). After all, you guys know I’d never let a good castle go to waste!
A short taxi ride delivered us from our ship to the fort and the four of us spent the next few hours exploring this massive fortification. It may not have been a castle in Scotland, but it was every bit as incredible!
In order to more deeply appreciate everything we saw, I spent some time upon our return home learning about Puerto Rico’s and El Morro’s history. Why I was never interested in history as a student I will never know!
To grasp the significance of the great El Morro, one has to first understand Puerto Rico’s place in the history of the New World. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, sits at the gateway to the Caribbean from Europe. Because of its position on the rocky seacoast, its port was a secure base from which to control shipping into the Caribbean and to the shores of Mexico and South America.
In its early years, however, Puerto Rico had no fortifications to protect itself from unwanted invaders or to serve as a refuge in times of danger. The island, which was explored and colonized by the Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon in the early 1500’s, was vulnerable to attacks, in particular from an indigenous tribe of the Caribbean – the Taínos – as well as
from others, such as the Caribs (a fierce tribe of South American Indians) and the French, who sacked and burned San Germán on Puerto Rico’s west coast in 1528. The island’s waters were a free-for-all and security of the island was nil.
In 1537, construction of the island’s first fort, La Fortaleza, began. But because everyone’s a critic, people complained that the structure had been built in the wrong place. Many felt that it should have been constructed as a watchtower on ‘el morro’ – the headland at the port entrance where the land slopes steeply down to the sea. Fortunately for the critics, within two years the Spanish Crown had approved funding for a second defense location and a vaulted masonry tower and water battery were constructed on the newly proposed site.
In 1589, after a decree from Philip II of Spain to secure the Caribbean, El Morro received funding for improvements that included the hornwork (two half-bastions connected by a single wall designed to shelter 3,000 people). Its worth was proved in November 1595 when Sir Frances Drake and his fleet (sent by Queen Elizabeth I of England) invaded the island. After fierce fighting between the Spanish and English rivals, Drake eventually retreated.
Unfortunately, for the people of San Juan, there was to be no rest for the weary. Another great English fleet arrived in 1598, this time led by Sir George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland. Again, Queen Elizabeth I was after Puerto Rico for her own. She desired to make the island an English military station where her ships could threaten Spanish interests. After some initial fierce fighting, the invaders made it onto land. However, this time instead of finding a formidable opposition at El Morro, the English found only a small garrison ready to defend the fort. Much of the population was sick and starving and San Juan was perhaps as vulnerable as it had ever been. Deserters informed Cumberland how to stop supplies from reaching the fort and for several days, Cumberland and his army bombarded El Morro. In the end, the governor of Puerto Rico and his war council agreed to negotiate. By the summer, Cumberland’s men had also been consumed by illness, leaving him without much of a garrison. He decided to leave Puerto Rico – but not before pillaging and burning the town.
The next great attack took place in 1625 when Boudewijn Hendricksz and his seventeen-ship armada showed up from Holland and marched into San Juan. Discovering that everyone had already fled, Hendricksz was able to set up his base at La Fortaleza. From there he planned his attack on El Morro. By this point, El Morro’s hornwork had been completely rebuilt. The Spanish garrison did a fine job of holding their own against their Dutch invaders, capturing and killing many. Hendricksz eventually retreated but San Juan was once again left in ashes.
After such attacks, the leaders of Puerto Rico knew that if the island was going to be preserved for Spain that there would have to be more defenses built. Philip IV regarded Puerto Rico as his most coveted possession and felt that it must be protected. In the years that followed, the city and El Morro were rebuilt and strengthened and two new forts were erected – San Cristóbal to protect the city from the east and La Perla (which no longer remains).
A great wall was also built around the city (though much of it was removed in the nineteenth century to allow for growth and expansion).
By the beginning of the 18th century, San Juan was one of the better fortified places in the West Indies.
Though Puerto Rico had finally entered a period of relative peace, a few more battles ensued over the coming years, such as when the British attempted once again to take San Juan in 1797 and in 1898 when the United States showed up following their declaration of war upon Spain (in support of the Cuban struggle for independence). Led by Admiral William T. Sampson, the United States bombarded the city for three hours, during which time a shell pierced the wall of the Santa Bárbara Battery. It remains there to this day!
In the end, the two countries negotiated a cease-fire. Spain agreed to give Cuba the independence it desired and to cede Puerto Rico to the United States.
El Morro remained an important structure throughout the 20th century, as a military outpost during WWI and as a command center during WWII.
Today, Puerto Rico’s citizens no longer live in fear of invaders (well, unless you want to count the thousands of tourists that get off of the cruise ships every day-ha!) and El Morro’s job is no longer to serve as a main defense of the city. It does, however, continue on as a reminder of Spain’s impressive role in the history of the New World and of the courage and resiliency of the people of Puerto Rico.
I know this was a long one today, guys. If you managed to stick with me to the end, then kudos to you. You’re the real deal and I appreciate you more than you know.
Have a terrific week, Friends.