El Morro: The Great 16th Century Fort That Saved Puerto Rico from British and Dutch Invasions
Castillo de San Felipe del Morro is a fort that sits majestically on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico in the capital city of San Juan. In 1983, the fort was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations for its historical significance and for its astounding military engineering of “stout walls, carefully planned steps, and ramps for moving men and artillery.” Millions of tourists converge on this site annually to learn about its historical importance in the region; but, some of these tourists also visit because they have heard about the alleged hauntings that occur at the fort.
History of San Juan and Its Fort
When explorers arrived in the Americas from Spain, they would settle an area, claiming it for the Spanish empire. Puerto Rico was one of the first islands discovered in the New World by Genoese captain, Christopher Columbus in 1493. It was later settled in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Leon who enslaved the native population of Taino Indians under the repartimiento system in order to extract the gold from the area and establish a gold mining colony. Disease and famine caused the native population to dwindle drastically and as a result, in 1513 enslaved Africans were brought to the colony to mine and extract the gold under a new less repressive system known as the encomienda system.
Reconstruction of Taino village, Puerto Rico. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Within a few decades, Puerto Rico became one of the wealthiest seaports in the Americas making it a target for other European nations exploring the New World. Not only was it a rich seaport, its strategic location in the Caribbean made it a sought-after piece of land because whoever owned this position could gain a foothold in the entire western world. The Spanish were aware of this vulnerability and thus made Puerto Rico’s coast one of the most densely fortified in the region.
Work began on Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in the late 1530s to protect the Spanish conquistadors’ lands from attacks by seafaring enemies and the threat of pirates. The fort was named in honor of Philip II of Spain, but it is Charles V of Spain who ordered engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli to design the fort. Once it was complete, the fort would prove its worth when Britain challenged its stronghold in 1595 under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake. Spanish settlers staved off his attack by shooting a cannonball into Drake’s ship causing his retreat.
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Charles V in Armour by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1600 ( Public Domain )
The British Crown’s desire to acquire Spanish lands did not end with Drake’s defeat. George Clifford, the 3 rd Earl of Cumberland, invaded Puerto Rico but instead of invading through the islet of Old San Juan as Drake had unsuccessfully done, he staged a land attack in which he was successful in overtaking the city.
Earl of Cumberland’s Successful Takeover and His Ultimate Demise
It would seem that the Earl of Cumberland’s successful invasion in 1598 would spell victory for the British in the newly discovered territory. Unfortunately, the food that they had relied on to survive was contaminated by Puerto Rico’s ravaging summer heat. George, along with many of his soldiers fell victim to a foodborne illness which triggered dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes fever, abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea. This forced George and his crew to leave the island and return to Britain; however, they didn’t leave empty-handed. Before heading back to Britain, they sacked the city and took anything of value that they could.
View of El Morro ( Castillo de San Felipe del Morro), San Juan ( Public Domain )
The Dutch Invasion of San Juan
As if the looming threat of the British wasn’t enough, the Spanish found themselves facing a new threat from the Dutch a few decades after the Earl of Cumberland’s invasion. Boudewijn Hendricksz decided to use George’s military action of overland invasion to achieve his aim of taking San Juan from the Spanish. Boudewijn may have assumed that this would be an easy defeat, but to his dismay, his strategy failed. His military forces sacked the city, but they weren’t able to capture it as he had planned.