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 Karib language family, more precisely the Mocanae sub-family, including:
- In the downtown island: Kalamarí Tribe
- In the
Tierrabomba island: Carex Tribe
- In the
Barú island, then peninsula: Bahaire Tribe
- In the eastern coast of the exterior bay: Cospique Tribe
- In the suburban area of
Turbaco: Yurbaco Tribe
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
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
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 discovered 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
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.
Monasterio de San Pedro Cláver. The temple is part of a set of religious buildings as the Cloister of San Pedro Cláver and the archaeological museum. It was built between 1580 and 1654. The body of Saint
is located in its main altar.
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
Cartagena, Spain, where most of Heredia's sailors had resided.
 The city first was settled by 200 Spanish immigrants in 1533, and during the remainder of the 16th century there was rapid population growth. A major attraction was the gold found in the tombs of the
Sinú Culture. After those tombs were completely plundered, the inhabitants began to scatter to the countryside and to establish themselves as farmers, and the population of the city decreased.
A little later, the city had fewer than 2000 inhabitants and one church; the dramatically increasing fame and wealth of the prosperous city turned it into an attractive plunder site for pirates and
corsairs–French and English privateers licensed by their king. Thirty years after its founding, the city was pillaged by the French nobleman
Jean-François Roberval. The city set about strengthening its defenses and surrounding itself with walled compounds and castles.
 Pirate Martin Cote attacked years later. 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 by opening a foreign fair in the city to sell goods, which would have allowed Hawkins to ravage the port afterwards; the governor declined. Hawkins besieged the city, but failed to level it.
Map of the city recently established and without walls (c.1550)
After this disaster,Francisco de Murga's planning of the walls and forts; this practice was called
Situado. The magnitude of this subsidy is shown by comparison: between 1751 and 1810, the city received the sum of 20,912,677
 The city recovered quickly from Drake's attack and subsequent occupation, and continued its growth and hence its inevitable attraction for predators, including a
large group of pirates who attacked in late 1683. Nonetheless, trade began to increase, continuing into the 17th century. The city reached the peak of its development in 1698 before the arrival of the
Baron de Pointis.
Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection, beginning with Gov.
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 1697 by Sir
Bernard Desjean, Baron de Pointis and
Jean Baptiste Ducasse was an all-out invasion that was politically motivated. Absent a male successor to the
Spanish Habsburg throne, King
Louis XIV wanted his grandson
Felipe V to assert the right of succession, and conquering Cartagena could help significantly. The political purpose behind the invasion was somewhat undermined by Ducasse, the governor of
Haiti), who brought his soldiers with an intent on thievery, but the invasions ended with pirates and thieves destroying the city. Entry to the city was hindered by the recently finished first stage of walls and forts, and the invasion was costly. While Desjean had asked for 250,000 Spanish reales in ransom, Ducasse stayed but a few months and did not honor the baron's promise to respect the churches and holy places. Ducasse left the inhabitants with nothing.
During the 17th century, the
Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct fortresses; today these are Cartagena's most significant identifiable features. Engineering works took well over 200 years, and ended with some 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of walls surrounding the city, including the
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
 named in honor of Spain's King
Philip IV. The Castillo was built during the governorship of
Pedro Zapata de Mendoza, Marquis of Barajas and was constructed to repel land attacks: it included buildings for food and weapons storage, and was equipped with sentry boxes and underground tunnels connecting the fortifications. The original fort was constructed between 1639 and 1657 on top of San Lazaro Hill; in 1762 extensive expansion was undertaken, and the final result is the current bastion. Numerous attempts to storm the reinforced fort were mounted, but it was never penetrated.
Cartagena was a major trading port, especially for precious metals. Gold and silver from the mines in the
New Granada and
Peru were loaded in Cartagena on the
galleons bound for Spain via
Havana. Cartagena was also a
slave port; Cartagena and
Veracruz, (Mexico), were the only cities authorized to trade African slaves. The first slaves were transported by
Pedro de Heredia, and were used as cane cutters (allowing the new inhabitants to open roads), as laborers to destroy the tombs of the aboriginal population of
Sinú, and to construct buildings and fortresses. The agents of the Portuguese company Cacheu sold slaves from Cartagena for working in mines in
West Indies, the
Nuevo Reino de Granada and the
Viceroyalty of Perú.
On February 5, 1610, the
Catholic Monarchs established a
Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena by a royal decree issued by King
Philip II; with Lima in Peru, it was one of the three seats of the Inquisition in the Americas. The
Palace of Inquisition, finished in 1770, preserves its original features of colonial times. When Cartagena declared its complete independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, the inquisitors were urged to leave the city. The Inquisition operated again after the Reconquest in 1815, but it disappeared entirely when Spain surrendered six years later to the troops led by
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
The census conducted by the mayor's office in 1712 reflected the damage wrought on the city by
Jean Baptiste Ducasse and his forces: a major portion of the population of the city had emigrated.
Viceregal era: 1717–1811
Although the 18th century began very badly for the city, soon things began to improve. The pro-trade economic policies of the new dynasty in
Madrid bolstered the economics of Cartagena, and the establishment of the
Viceroyalty of the New Granada in 1717 placed the city in the position of being the greatest beneficiary of the colony. The 18th century brought the
Bourbon dynasty and its pro-trade policies, and these benefited the city, returning it to prosperity again. During this period, the city passed the psychological barrier of 18,000 inhabitants, which was at the time the population cap of the
Viceroyalty of New Granada.
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 March 1741, the city endured a large-scale attack by British and American colonial troops led by Admiral
Edward Vernon (1684–1757), who arrived at Cartagena with a massive fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men, including 12,000 infantry, against six Spanish ships and fewer than 3,000 men, in an action known as the
Battle of Cartagena, part of the
War of Jenkin's Ear. The siege was broken off due to the start of the tropical rainy season, after weeks of intense fighting in which the Spanish and native forces successfully repelled the British landing party. Commander General
Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta, a
Basque from the
Guipuzcoa province in northern Spain led the Spanish forces, but died in the aftermath of the battle.
Heavy British casualties were compounded by diseases such as yellow fever. This victory prolonged Spain's control of the Caribbean waters, which helped secure its large
Empire until the 19th century. Admiral Vernon was accompanied by American Colonial troops, including
George Washington's brother,
Lawrence Washington, who was so impressed with Vernon that he named his
Mount Vernon estate and plantation after him.
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.
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. On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence. It had been the biggest city of the Viceroyalty until 1811, when the
Peninsular War, which became
Wars of Independence and Piñeres's Revolts, marked the beginning of a dramatic decline in all aspects for what had become the virtual capital of New Granada. In 1815 the city was almost destroyed. No census information exists for that time. There are accounts of how the city became a
ghost town. Around 500 impoverished freed slaves dwelt the city, whose palaces and public buildings became ruins, many with collapsed walls.
By mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary fleet under
Pablo Morillo had arrived in New Granada and forces besieged Cartagena. After a five-month siege the fortified city fell on December 1815. By 1816, the combined efforts of Spanish and colonial forces, marching south from Cartagena and north from royalist strongholds in Quito, Pasto, and Popayán, completed the reconquest of New Granada, taking Bogotá on May 6, 1816.
In 1821 the general
Mariano Montilla conducted the pivotal siege of Cartagena assisted by naval forces under
José Prudencio Padilla. The city fell on October 10, 1821 after a siege lasting 159 days. Among the defenders who surrendered was Brigadier Gabriel Torres, commander of the royalist forces. The patriots captured large stores of gunpowder, lead, rifles and field pieces.