A Brief History of Cartagena de Indias

The history of Cartagena de Indias and the surrounding area have always been aligned with civilisation – ancient ceramics dating back to 4,000 BC have been found here and give an insight into the  important geography and natural riches that sustained human settlements.

Indigenous Ancestry

The area where Cartagena stands today was originally inhabited by the Calamari people that dominated the Caribbean coast of Colombia from the borders of Panama up into La Guajira. When the Spanish conquistadores in 1502, led by the famed Conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas (founder of Santa Marta), they simply shortened the name to ‘Calamar’ or ‘Land of Crabs’. The various tribes and peoples of the Caribbean were named by the Spanish as ‘Caribes’, after ‘Karib – the local dialect. The word Caribbean it seems, owes its linguistic history to these people.

‘San Sebastian de Cartagena’

The area was eventually seen fit for the founding of the city Cartagena on the 1st of June, 1533. It was originally named San Sebastian de Cartagena in honour of the troops that accompanied its founding father and conquistador – Don Pedro de Heredia – who all hailed from Cartagena in Spain. It may not be an accident that the tight channels and various inlets and islets that make up the area were perfect from a militarily. Nonetheless, Cartagena de Indias (as it was later called) would have much more than its fair share of defending to do over the coming centuries.

A Golden beginning

After its founding, Cartagena became one of the most important ports in the whole of South America, if not the most important. Through it, the gold and silver both plundered and mined from the colonial territories (principally Peru)  left via great fleets of Spanish galleons towards the motherland across the Atlantic Ocean. Cartagena de Indias soon became the focal point for many attacks by pirates and buccaneers, trying to make off with some of the vast amounts of wealth that left the continent through the port.

Defences Against the Pirates

One attack in particular by England’s Sir Francis Drake in 1586 in which he ransacked the city, destroying one part of it and holding it to ransom, spurred the Spanish crown to invest heavily in its defences against these swashbuckling invaders.They built the largest fortifications in the Americas. Cartagena’s walls and castle are considered a masterpiece of Spanish military engineering.

The Flourishing Port of South America

Cartagena’s port went from strength to strength, with weapons, slaves and goods all traded there, giving it great economic wealth and importance. It continued largely unchanged until the independence wars against the Spanish crown in 1815 in which Cartagena, paradoxically, became the scene of a a siege by the Spanish forces. The city held out, giving it the nickname of ‘La Heroica’ – attributable, in part, to its grand defences.

Life after the Spanish and Modern Cartagena

After the end of Spanish colonisation and rule, Cartagena was relatively forgotten about for over 100 years until a long-term restoration project commenced in the 1950s, culminating in the breathtaking city that can be seen today, fully restored in all of its glory.

Interested in visiting and experiencing the history of Cartagena de Indias first-hand?

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