Fort of Castillo San Cristóbal: Built to Defend Against the English, Dutch and Marauding Pirates
Puerto Rico is a unique island with stunning scenery as well as a complex history and fascinating culture. It was part of the Spanish Empire for approximately 400 years and there are many reminders of the long Spanish occupation of the island, the most impressive of which is the fort of San Cristóbal, located in the capital of San Juan. This is regarded as the biggest military fortress in all the Americas and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Spanish History of Castillo San Cristóbal
In 1521, the Spanish founded the present-day city of San Juan, not long after Columbus reached the Americas, and they established a series of fortifications to protect their new settlement. It was originally known as Puerto Rico and ultimately it gave its name to the entire island.
Over time the settlement became known as San Juan. Its population grew and it prospered which attracted the attention of pirates. In 1595, the English under Sir Francis Drake attacked San Juan and destroyed some of its fortifications. Not long after, in 1598, the town was occupied and sacked by the English once again. The Spanish garrison was besieged in the local fort and they were eventually forced to surrender. Later, in 1628 the Dutch attacked San Juan from the landward side and the town was once again badly damaged. After this attack the Spanish colonial government decided that San Juan needed to be better defended and Castillo San Cristóbal was established.
The Construction of Castillo San Cristóbal
The entire construction took place over a period of 150 years. The Spanish governor built a small redoubt or fort on the hill known as San Cristóbal (Saint Christopher). Along with the fort San Felipe del Morro , it was designed to protect San Juan.
In the 1760s, San Cristóbal was greatly expanded to protect the growing city. The chief engineers of the project were Tomás O’Daly and Juan Francisco Mestre. The construction, a vast undertaking, took place between 1766 and 1783.
The fortification of San Cristobel’s immense walls (Labar / CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Not long after it was completed, the stronghold was badly damaged by an earthquake but was quickly repaired. The fort was key to the successful defense of San Juan in 1787 when the Spanish and Puerto Rican garrison repelled another English attack.
During the Spanish American War, the fortress came under attack from US warships. San Cristóbal’s guns fought a day-long battle with the USS Yale before surrendering, and Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898. It was later occupied by the American army during WWI and they built observation towers at the site during WWII.
What to See at Castillo San Cristóbal?
A steep ramp leads to the gates of the historic fortress as San Cristóbal overlooks the sea and San Juan. The site is a large one and it stretches over several hectares. It was modeled on the European forts designed by Vauban, a French military engineer who’s considered to be a genius.
San Cristóbal, like other Vauban-inspired forts, is in the form of a hexagon, with a bastion or stronghold at every corner. This was to create dead-zones around the fortress so that the gunners on the walls had a clean line of fire.
- El Morro: The Great 16th Century Fort That Saved Puerto Rico from British and Dutch Invasions
- The Last Traces of the Taino: Puerto Rican Ceremonial Sites Stand as Testament of a Rich Culture
- Juan Ponce de León and his Search for the Fountain of Youth
The old gate at the east end of Castillo de San Cristobal (CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The walls of the fortress are still intact and there are many observation posts, known as guerites, along the walls. They hang over the walls of the fortress and the oldest one dates from 1634. One of the posts, known as the Devils guerites, is believed to be haunted.
Other features of the fortress are cannons, a moat, and various bunkers. There is an impressive square at the heart of the fortress. The fortress also has some well-preserved examples of 19 th century coastal artillery.
A portion of the tunnel system that runs beneath San Cristóbal ( CC BY 2.0 )
The original builders installed a vast cistern in the fortress which is used to irrigate the surrounding area which is a national park. A large maze-like tunnel complex under the stronghold, built to make it more difficult for attackers to seize the site, was used for storage and communications.
Getting to Castillo San Cristóbal
San Cristóbal is not far from San Juan. An entrance fee is required to visit, and organized tours are available. While some areas of the walls are not open to the public, nearly all the complex can be visited. There is a small museum with exhibitions from the long and dramatic history of San Cristóbal which is situated in beautiful parklands. A range of accommodation is available nearby.
Top image: Stockpile at Castillo San Cristóbal. Source: CC BY 2.0
By Ed Whelan
Jacob, J. M., & Cavallo, G. J. (1992). Masonry mortars in the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico: a method for categorization . Studies in Conservation, 37(1), 72-75
López, A. (1980). The Puerto Ricans: Their History, Culture, and Society . Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc: Cambridge
Available at: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED204457
Wells, J.C., 2004. History and Characterization of Mortars in Spanish New World Fortifications: A Case Study on El Castillo de San Cristóbal, San Juan, Puerto Rico . Theses (Historic Preservation), p.62