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Pirates and the Sacking of Cartagena

Cartagena attracts visitors year-round, most of whom journey to this coastal hub to enjoy all that the Caribbean port town has to offer. But long before throngs of vacationers flocked here for the surf, sand and shopping, Cartagena attracted visitors of a different sort: pirates. As one of the great treasure ports of Spain’s colonial conquests, Cartagena saw a fair share of gold, jewelry and gems roll through its port. As such, the city was also one of the prime targets for English, Dutch and French buccaneers of yesteryear. Of course the Spanish did everything they could to deter such attacks, but as Cartagena’s history suggests, they suffered many setbacks before achieving that goal.


One of the first pirate attacks of note involved Robert Baal, a pirate of French descent who in 1551 was able to wrest more than 600 pounds of gold from the governor of Cartagena as ransom for sacking the city. The King of Spain reacted swiftly, commissioning engineers from Europe to construct fortifications around the city – a task that would install some of the city’s most lasting and iconic symbols. Though the fortifications helped, it took nearly 200 years before being completed, and pirates continued to successfully attack Cartagena for decades to come.


The pirates’ standard operating procedure involved calculated sieges of the city followed by demands for ransom. In return, pirates promised to not completely destroy the city. French pirate Martin Cote exacted a large sum of money this way not long after Baal.


Perhaps the most famous swashbuckler to leave his mark on Cartagena, Francis Drake attacked the port in 1572. Spaniards fled the city in droves, leaving the port largely unprotected. According to lore, Drake burned much of the city to the ground, including a nave of the Cathedral. In the end he received a very large ransom, with one report estimating it at more than 100,000 ducats, a large amount of gems and jewels, artillery pieces, and an unknown amount of other assorted goods.


By the 1600s Spanish engineers had improved the city’s fortifications enough to thwart most attempts at the city. The last successful invasion came in 1697, when Baron de Pointis was able to enter the city thanks in large part to a slave rebellion that took place inside the city’s walls. Spain again strengthened fortifications in response, leading to one of the city’s greatest defensive successes in 1741, when Admiral Edward Vernon led the English Navy in an attack against Cartagena. After fierce fighting and some 350 bombs, Cartagena was able to repel the English attack. Cartagena’s success proved a defining moment for the city, as it brought a halt to attacks on the city by foreign entities. Another attack would not take place until the 19th century, when the war for Colombian independence was under way.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Cartagena: Cartagena Highlights, When To Go and Safety.

19 May 2008

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