According to descriptions that survive, the homes of the
inhabitants of the city may have looked very similar to these
culture huts in
Pre-Columbian era: 4000 BC – 1500 AD
Puerto Hormiga Culture, found in the Caribbean coast region, particularly in the area from the
Sinú River Delta to the Cartagena Bay, appears to be the first documented human community in what is now Colombia.
Archaeologists estimate that around 4000 BC, the formative culture was located near the boundary between the present-day departments of
Sucre. In this area, archaeologists have found the most ancient ceramic objects of the Americas, dating from around 4000 BC. The primary reason for the proliferation of primitive societies in this area is thought to have been the relative mildness of climate and the abundance of wildlife, which allowed the hunting inhabitants a comfortable life.
Archaeological investigations date the decline of the Puerto Hormiga culture and its related settlements to around 3000 BC. The rise of a much more developed culture, the Monsú, who lived at the end of the
Dique Canal near today's Cartagena neighborhoods Pasacaballos and Ciénaga Honda at the northernmost part of Barú Island, has been hypothesized. The Monsú culture appears to have inherited the Puerto Hormiga culture's use of the art of pottery and also to have developed a mixed economy of agriculture and basic manufacture. The Monsú people's diet was based mostly on shellfish and fresh and salt-water fish.
The development of the Sinú society in what is today the departments of Córdoba and Sucre, eclipsed these first developments around the Cartagena Bay area. Until the
Spanish colonization, many cultures derived from the
language families lived along the Colombian Caribbean coast. In the late pre-Columbian era, the
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was home to the
Tayrona people, whose language was closely related to the
Chibcha language family.
Around 1500 the area was inhabited by different tribes of the
Carib language family, more precisely the Mocanae sub-family.
Mocana villages of the
Carib people around the Bay of Cartagena included:
- on sandy island facing the ocean in what is present-day downtown: Kalamarí (Calamari)
- on the island of
Isla Barú, then a peninsula: Bahaire
- on present-day Mamonal, the eastern coast of the exterior bay: Cospique
- in the suburban area of
Turbaco: Yurbaco Tribe
Heredia found these settlements, "...largely surrounded with the heads of dead men placed on stakes."
Some subsidiary tribes of the Kalamari lived in today's neighborhood of Pie de la Popa, and other subsidiaries from the Cospique lived in the
Pasacaballos areas. Among these, according to the earliest documents available, the
Kalamari had preeminence. These tribes, though physically and administratively separated, shared a common architecture, such as hut structures consisting of circular rooms with tall roofs, which were surrounded by defensive wooden palisades.
First sightings by Europeans: 1500–1533
Rodrigo de Bastidas traveled to the Pearl Coast and the Gulf of Uraba in 1500–01. On 14 February 1504,
Ferdinand V contracted
Juan de la Cosa's voyage to Uraba. However, Juan de la Cosa died in 1510 along with 300 of Alonso de Ojeda's men, after an armed confrontation with indigenous people, and before Juan de la Cosa could get possession of the
Gulf of Urabá area. Similar contracts were signed in 1508 with Diego de Nicuesa for the settlement of
Veragua and with Alonso de Ojeda for the settlement of Uraba, "where gold had already been obtained on earlier voyages," according to Floyd.
After the failed effort to find
Antigua del Darién in 1506 by
Alonso de Ojeda and the subsequent unsuccessful founding of
San Sebastián de Urabá in 1517 by
Diego de Nicuesa, the southern Caribbean coast became unattractive to colonizers. They preferred the better known
Although the royal control point for trade, the
Casa de Contratación gave permission to
Rodrigo de Bastidas (1460–1527) to again conduct an expedition as
adelantado to this area, Bastidas explored the coast and sighted the
Magdalena River Delta in his first journey from
Guajira to the south in 1527, a trip that ended in the
Gulf of Urabá, the location of the failed first settlements. De Nicuesa and De Ojeda noted the existence of a big bay on the way from
Santo Domingo to
Urabá and the
Panama isthmus, and that encouraged Bastidas to investigate.
Colonial era: 1533–1717
Map of the city recently established and without walls (c.1550)
The historic center is surrounded by 11 kilometers of defensive walls. These were complemented by fortifications along the coast, making Cartagena a militarily impregnable city. The walls, made in several stages, were designed to protect the city from continual pirate attacks, with construction beginning in 1586.
The Convento de Santo Domingo, founded in 1551, is the oldest church in Cartagena. In 1588, two years after
's assault on the city, the church was granted 500 pesos by a royal decree to proceed with repairs of the building, which was not affected by the English attacks. It was occupied by the
Dominican religious order
until the 19th century.
San Pedro Cláver
. The church is part of a set of religious buildings as the Cloister of San Pedro Claver and the archaeological museum. It was built between 1580 and 1654. The body of Saint
is located in its main altar.
Under contract to Queen
Joanna of Castile,
Pedro de Heredia entered the Bay of Cartagena with three ships, a
lighter, 150 men, and 22 horses, on 14 January 1533. He soon found the village of Calamari abandoned. Proceeding onwards to Turbaco, where Juan de la Cosa had been mortally wounded 13 years earlier, Heredia fought an all-day battle before claiming victory. Using
India Catalina as a guide, Heredia embarked on a three-month exploration expedition. He returned to Calamari in April 1533 with gold pieces, including a solid gold porcupine weighing 132 pounds. In later expeditions, Heredia raided the
Sinú tombs and temples of gold. His rule as governor of Cartagena lasted 22 years, before perishing on his return to Spain in 1544.
Cartagena was founded on June 1, 1533 by the Spanish commander,
Pedro de Heredia, in the former location of the indigenous Caribbean
Calamarí village. The town was named after the port city of
Murcia in southwest Spain, where most of Heredia's sailors had resided.
Philip II gave Cartagena the title of "city" (ciudad) in 1574, adding "most noble and loyal" in 1575.
The city's increasing importance as a port for the export of Peruvian silver from
Potosí to Spain, made it an obvious target for pirates and
corsairs, encouraged by France, England, and Holland. In 1544, the city was pillaged by 5 ships and 1000 men under the command of the French pirate
Jean-François Roberval, who took advantage of the city still without walls. Heredia was forced to retreat to Turbaco until a ransom was paid. A defensive tower, San Felipe del Boqueron, was built in 1566 by Governor Anton Davalos. It was supposed to protect the anchorage and the Bahia de las Animas, a water lane into Plaza de lar Mar (current day Plaze de la Aduana), but the fort's battery had limited range. Then the French pirate Martin Cote struck in 1569 with 1000 men, ransacking the city.
A few months after the disaster of the invasion of Cote, a fire destroyed the city and forced the creation of a firefighting squad, the first in the Americas.
In 1568, Sir
John Hawkins of England tried to trick Governor
Martín de las Alas into violating Spanish law, which forbade trade with foreigners, by opening a trade fair in the city to sell goods. This would have allowed Hawkins to ravage the port afterwards; the governor declined. Hawkins bombarded the city for 8 days, but failed to level it.
Francis Drake attacked in April 1586 with 23 ships and 3,000 men. Drake burned 200 houses and the cathedral, departing only after a ransom was paid a month later.
Spain then commissioned
Bautista Antonelli in 1586 to design a master scheme for defending its Caribbean ports. This included a second visit to Cartagena in 1594 when he drew up plans for a walled city.
In 1610, the
Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Cartagena and The
Palace of Inquisition was completed in 1770. Sentences were pronounced in the main city plaza, today's Plaza de Bolivar, during the Autos de Fe ceremonies. Crimes under its jurisdiction included those of
witchcraft. A total of 767 persons were punished, which ranged from fines, wearing a
Sanbenito, life imprisonment, or even death for five unlucky souls. The Inquisition was abolished with independence in 1811.
contract signed by Britain and Spain in 1713. The contract granted exclusive rights to
in the Spanish West Indies.
The first slaves were brought by
Pedro de Heredia to work as "macheteros", clearing the underbrush. By the 17th Century, Cartagena had become an important New World slave market, centered about the Plaza de los Coches. Europeans began to bring
slaves from Africa. Spain was the only European power that could not establish
factories in Africa to purchase slaves and therefore the Spanish empire relied on the
asiento system, awarding merchants (mostly from
England and the
Dutch Empire) the license to trade enslaved people to their overseas territories.
Francisco de Murga made the Inner Bay an "impregnable lagoon", according to Segovia, which included the forts El Boquerón, Castillo Grande, Manzanillo, and Manga. Besides the walls built to defend the historic district of Calamari, Francisco de Murga enclosed Getsemani with protective walls starting in 1631. This included the
battery of Media Luna of San Antonio, located between the
bastions of Santa Teresa and Santa Barbara, which protected the only gate and
causeway to the mainland.
The practice of
Situado, is exemplified in the magnitude of the city's subsidy between 1751 and 1810, when the city received the sum of 20,912,677
Juan Díaz de Torrezar Pimienta as governor was the mastermind of the reconstruction of the city after the destruction of 1697
Raid on Cartagena, in April 1697 during the
Nine Years' War, by Sir
Bernard Desjean, Baron de Pointis and
Jean Baptiste Ducasse was a severe blow to Cartagena. The Baron's forces included 22 large ships, 500 canons, and 4000 troops, while Ducasse's forces consisted of 7 ships and 1,200
buccaneers. They quickly overwhelmed
Sancho Jimeno de Orozco's force of 30 men in the San Luis de Bocachica fortification. Then, San Felipe de Barajas also fell and the city came under bombardment. When the Half Moon Gate was breached and Getsemani occupied, Governor Diego de los Rios capitulated. The Baron left after a month of plunder and Ducasse followed a week later.
Philip II employed the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli to design a master plan of fortifications for Cartagena, construction would actually continue for the next two hundred years. On 17 March 1640, three Portuguese ships under the command of Rodrigo Lobo da Silva, ran aground in the Bocagrande Channel. This accelerated the formation of a
sand bar, which soon connected the Bocagrande Peninsula to the island of Tierrabomba. The defense of the bay then shifted to two forts on either side of Bocachica, San Jose and
San Luis de Bocachica. San Luis was replaced by San Fernando after the 1741 English raid. The next narrow passage was formed by the Island of Manzanillo, where San Juan del Manzanillo was constructed and Santa Cruz O Castillo Grande opposite on Cruz Grande at Punta Judio, both connected by a floating chain. Finally, there was San Felipe del Boqueron, later San Sebastian del Pastelillo. The city itself was circled with a ring of
bastions connected by
curtains. The island of Getsemani was also fortified. Protecting the city on the landward side, atop San Lazaro hill, was the
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
 named in honor of Spain's King
Philip IV and Governor
Pedro Zapata de Mendoza, Marquis of Barajas' father, the Count of Barajas. Completed in 1654, the fort was expanded in the 18th Century, and included underground corridors and galleries.
The final serious attempt to take the city and invade
was made by
, who failed in one of the biggest military expeditions ever sent there
Blas de Lezo
the one-eyed, one-legged, one-handed Spanish mariner was one of those who defended the city in 1741
Viceregal era: 1717–1811
Although the 18th century began poorly for the city economically, when the
Bourbon dynasty discontinued the Carrera de Indias convoys. However, with the establishment of the
Viceroyalty of New Granada and the colonial struggle with England, Cartagena took on the stronghold as the "gateway to the Indies of Peru". By 1777, the city included 13,700 inhabitants with a garrison of 1300. The population reached 17,600 in 1809.
The reconstruction after the
Raid on Cartagena (1697) was initially slow, but with the end of the
War of the Spanish Succession around 1711 and the competent administration of Juan Díaz de Torrezar Pimienta, the walls were rebuilt, the forts reorganized and restored, and the public services and buildings reopened. By 1710, the city was fully recovered. At the same time, the slow but steady reforms of the restricted trade policies in the
Spanish Empire encouraged the establishment of new trade houses and private projects. During the reign of
Philip V of Spain the city had many new public works projects either begun or completed, among them the new fort of San Fernando, the Hospital of the Obra Pía and the full paving of all the streets and the opening of new roads.
In 1731, Juan de Herrera y Sotomayor founded the Military Academy of Mathematics and Practice of Fortifications in Cartagena. He is also known for designing the
Puerta del Reloj starting in 1704.
Starting in mid-April 1741, the city endured a siege by a large English armada under the command of Admiral
Edward Vernon. The engagement, referred to as
Battle of Cartagena de Indias, was part of the larger
War of Jenkin's Ear. The English armada included 50 warships, 130 transport ships, and 25,600 men, including 2,000 North American colonial infantry. The Spanish defense was under the command of
Sebastián de Eslava and Don
Blas de Lezo. The British were able to take the Castillo de San Luis at Bocachica and land marines on the island of Tierrabomba and Manzanillo. The North Americans then took La Popa hill.
Following a failed attack on San Felipe Barajas on 20 April 1741, which left 800 British dead and another 1,000 taken prisoner, Vernon lifted the siege. By that time he had many sick men from tropical diseases. An interesting footnote to the battle, was the inclusion of
George Washington's half brother,
Lawrence Washington, amongst the British colonial troops. Lawrence later named his
Mount Vernon estate in honor of his commander.
Silver Age (1750–1808)
Mestiza of Cartagena de Indias
by Antonio Rodríguez Onofre, circa 1799.
Criollo of Cartagena de Indias
by Antonio Rodríguez Onofre, circa 1796.
In 1762, Antonio de Arebalo published his Defense Plan, the Report on the estate of defense on the avenues of Cartagena de Indias. This engineer continued the work to make Cartagena impregnable, including the construction from 1771 to 1778, of an 3400 yards long underwater
jetty across the Bocagrande called the Escollera. Arebalo had earlier completed San Fernando, and the fort-battery of San Jose in 1759, then added El Angel San Rafael on El Horno hill as added protection across the Bocachica.
After Vernon, what is called the 'Silver Age' of the city (1750–1808) began. This time was one of permanent expansion of the existing buildings, massive immigration from all the other cities of the
Viceroyalty, increase of the economic and political power of the city and a population growth spurt not equaled since that time. Political power that was already shifting from
Bogotá to the coast completed its relocation, and the Viceroys decided to reside in Cartagena permanently. The inhabitants of the city were the richest of the colony, the
aristocracy erected noble houses on their lands to form great estates, libraries and printing establishments were opened, and the first café in New Granada was even established. The good times of steady progress and advancement in the second half of the 18th century came to an abrupt end in 1808 with the general crisis of the Spanish Empire that came from the
Mutiny of Aranjuez and all its consequences.
Among the censuses of the 18th century was the special Census of 1778, imposed by the governor of the time, D.
Juan de Torrezar Diaz Pimienta – later
Viceroy of New Granada – by order of the
Marquis of Ensenada, Minister of Finance – so that he would be provided numbers for his
Catastro tax project, which imposed a universal property tax he believed would contribute to the economy while at the same time increasing royal revenues dramatically. The Census of 1778, besides having significance for economic history, is interesting because each house had to be described in detail and its occupants enumerated, making the census an important tool
 The census revealed what Ensenada had hoped. However, his enemies in the court convinced King
Charles III to oppose the tax plan.
1811 to the 21st century
Postal showing the Dock of los Pegasos and the Torre del Reloj Público, in Cartagena de Indias, circa 1910.
For more than 275 years, Cartagena was under Spanish rule. With
Napoleon's imprisonment of
Charles IV and
Ferdinand VII, and the start of the
Peninsular War, the
Latin American wars of independence soon followed. In Cartagena, on 4 June 1810, Royal Commissioner
Antonio Villavicencio and the Cartagena City Council banished the Spanish Governor Francisco de Montes on suspicions of sympathy for the French emperor and the French occupation forces which overthrew the king. A Supreme Junta was formed, along with two political parties, one led by
Jose Maria Garcia de Toledo representing the aristocrats, and a second led by Gabriel and German Piñeres representing the common people of Getsemani. Finally on 11 November, a Declaration of Independence was signed proclaiming "a free state, sovereign and independent of all domination and servitude to any power on Earth".
Spain's reaction was to send a "pacifying expedition" under the command of
Pablo Morillo, The Pacifier, and Pascual de Enrile, which included 59 ships, and 10,612 men. The city was placed under siege on 22 August 1815. The city was defended by 3000 men, 360 cannons, and 8 ships plus ancillary small watercraft, under the command of Manuel del Castillo y Rada and Juan N. Enslava. However, by that time, the city was under the rule of the Garcia de Toledo Party, having exiled German and Gabriel Pineres, and
Simon Bolivar. By 5 December, about 300 people per day died from hunger or disease, forcing 2000 to flee on vessels provided by the French
mercenary Louis Aury. By that time, 6000 had died. Morillo, in retaliation after entering the city, shot nine of the rebel leaders on 24 February 1816, at what is now known as the Camellon de los Martires. These included
José María García de Toledo and Manuel del Castillo y Rada.
Finally, a patriot army led by General
Mariano Montilla, supported by Admiral
José Prudencio Padilla, laid siege to the city from August 1820 until October 1821. A key engagement was the destruction of almost all of the royalist ships anchored on Getsemani Island on 24 June 1821. After Governor Gabriel Torres surrendered, Simon Bolivar the Liberator, bestowed the title "Heroic City" onto Cartagena. The Liberator spent 18 days in the city from 20–28 July 1827, staying in the Government Palace in Proclamation Square and the guest of a banquet hosted by Jose Padilla at his residence on Calle Larga.