A rather strange commemoration took place last week in the Colombian port city of Cartagena. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were present to unveil a plaque honouring the failed British siege of the city in 1741, when a flotilla of nearly 25,000 men, led by Admiral Edward Vernon, were seen off by some 3,600 Spanish defenders under the leadership of General Blas de Lezo.
Lezo is also immortalised by a statue in the city. This is unsurprising given that his endeavours were ultimately successful and for the simple fact that he was Spanish and therefore a forefather for many Colombians. Indeed, the decision to build the British plaque has little logic to it and it is perhaps unsurprising that it was vandalised within hours of its unveiling.
Britain has an historic presence in most parts of the world, yet South America is not a continent that ever really came under the influence of the Union Jack. That said, Cartagena was always an ideal place for the British to make a nuisance of themselves.
Founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena was initially very unappealing to the Spanish conquerors due to its tropical, disease-ridden climate. For several decades the Spanish had tried to establish bases along the northern coast of South America from which they could explore for riches in the hinterland. Bartolome de las Casas described the early Spanish presence in the region in typically uncomplimentary terms:
These provinces have been persecuted, ravaged and cleared, and their people slaughtered from 1498 or 1499 right down to the present day…They have witnessed barbaric atrocities and massacres by the Spanish, as well as plunder on the grand scale (1992, p.85).
Having ousted or enslaved many of the indigenous tribes, the Spanish gradually turned Cartagena into a strategically-important trading port. It attracted the attentions of Spain’s enemies and was pillaged by the French in 1563 before being seized, held for ransom and sacked by Sir Francis Drake in 1586.
Because it was a transshipment point for goods exported from Spain’s other burgeoning South American colonies, Cartagena continued to attract attention and was raided by pirates on several occasions during the 17th century. In 1697 the city was captured by the French who, rather than preserving it as a territorial exclave, merely pillaged it again.
Vernon’s failed siege in 1741 was the last major attack on the city during the colonial era. By then, fortifications within the city had been modernised successfully to protect the vast gold and silver deposits travelling in from the hinterland. With the Spanish Empire crumbling in the early 19th century, Cartagena was one of several provinces to declare independence (in 1811), becoming part of the new Colombia in 1821.
It is always encouraging to witness people commemorating events from the past. Yet there has to be some relevance and perspective when choosing which events to commemorate. Surely the history of Cartagena is typified by the cultures of the early indigenous tribes, the resilience of the Spanish colonists and the modernising drive of the Colombians?
Whatever ignoble designs the British (and French) may have once had on Cartagena, their role in the city’s history is very much a supporting one. Colombia’s response to Prince Charles’ plaque makes this quite clear.
De las Casas, B., A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1992)