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Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca. Source: Photo by ccgocke / Adobe Stock

San Pedro de la Roca Castle and the Military Might of Spain in Cuba


Top quality cigars and contagious rhythm have long been associated with the Caribbean’s largest island. Cuba, though, has also played a significant role in the Caribbean and, indeed, world history. As a result, there are many historic monuments on the island nation. One of the most remarkable of these is San Pedro de la Roca Castle, recognized as being of great historical importance by UNESCO.

The History of Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, Cuba

The castle is located not far from the historic city of Santiago de Cuba. During the colonial period (1500-1898), it was one of the most strategic sites in Spain’s extensive empire and its inhabitants became incredibly wealthy.

As Santiago was raided by both French and English pirates in the 16th and early 17th century, a small fortress had been erected on the rocky promontory at San Pedro to guard the city. In the early 1600s, the governor commissioned an Italian military engineer to design a large fortress to protect the entrance to the bay of Santiago. It was also to protect the city from both pirates and the enemies of Spain

This massive undertaking took more than 60 years to complete since the fortifications had to be cut into the rock. Construction was also often halted because of funding issues. As a result, in 1662 English privateers were able to seize Santiago de Cuba for a period, during which time they sacked and looted the city and some of the fortifications at San Pedro were destroyed.

Military engineering to protect the city of Santiago (Glogg, P / CC BY 3.0)

Military engineering to protect the city of Santiago (Glogg, P / CC BY 3.0)

After the withdrawal of the privateers, the Spanish colonial authorities hastened to complete the fortress. In particular, new artillery platforms were constructed. The new additions helped to protect the city of Santiago from attacks in the 1690s and 1700s until the threat of pirates and privateers receded in the eighteenth century. By the early 19 th century the Spanish colonial authorities used part of the fortress as a prison for political prisoners.

During the Spanish-American war, Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca was embroiled in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in 1898, a decisive American victory. After the withdrawal of the Spanish from Cuba, the fortress was no longer garrisoned, and it fell into a state of disrepair. It was later damaged by two earthquakes but was restored in the 1960s by the government of Fidel Castro.

The Platforms and Many Layers of San Pedro de la Roca Castle

The fortress is built on a rocky head known as El Morro in the southeast of Cuba. Although the design was based on classic Renaissance military architecture principals, it was adapted to local conditions.

The castle was built on a number of levels in a geometric format. The levels are all linked by a series of stairs and the castle is a complex network of batteries and defensive strongholds.

The labyrinth of levels within the fortress (Martin / CC BY ND 2.0)

The labyrinth of levels within the fortress (Martin / CC BY ND 2.0)

At the top of the castle is the bastion or citadel.  At the lowest level near the shore are a fortified gun platform and a guard post. The next level consists of a gun platform from where the quarters of the gunners, a magazine that once stored gun powder, and artillery shells can be seen. Above this platform are another two platforms that once held batteries of cannons. These allowed the garrison to fire on any enemy ships that were threatening Santiago de Cuba.

The main castle is connected to two smaller forts built in the late seventeenth century. A semaphore or telegraph tower used for communication was constructed in the mid-19 th century and a lighthouse was also added at this time. Two more batteries were added just before the Spanish-American war. The site is generally recognized to be one of the best-preserved examples of Spanish Colonial military engineering in all of the Caribbean, and indeed, Latin America.

Getting to San Pedro de la Roca Castle

Santiago de Cuba is a major tourist attraction and there is plenty of accommodation near San Pedro de la Roca Castle. It is possible to hire a taxi to the fortress where admittance is charged, and a permit is needed to take photographs. Be prepared for a steep walk when visiting the old castle which offers visitors incredible views of the sea. It is also possible to walk along the walls.

Top image: Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca                   Source: Photo by ccgocke / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Bethell, L. (Ed.). (1993). Cuba: a short history. Cambridge University Press

Goldstein, Donald M., Katherine V. Dillon, J. Michael Wenger, and Robert J. Cressman: The Spanish–American War: The Story and Photographs. Brassey's 2001, ISBN 978-1-57488-303-9, p. 121-136

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Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Antonelli, Juan". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography

Available at:

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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