Prince Charles in Strange Cartagena Commemoration: the oft-sacked city of a uniquely Hispanic character

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.

The unveiling of the plaque was not well received in Colombia
The unveiling of the plaque was not well received in Colombia

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).

Las Casas showed little restraint in his indictment of the Spanish treatment of the native Amerindians
Las Casas showed little restraint in his indictment of the Spanish treatment of the native Amerindians

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?

Cartagena retains much colonial architecture despite its frequent sacking
Cartagena retains much colonial architecture despite its frequent sacking

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.

Source

De las Casas, B., A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1992)

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50 Years of Pointless Bloodshed: Farc vows to fight on

In May 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) was established by a group of Marxist rebels intent on creating a communist state in South America. In the intervening half-century some 220,000 people have been killed in the armed struggle between the criminal/terrorist group and government forces.

Manuel Marulanda (Sureshot) was one of Farc's founders and died in 2008 without ever being caught
Manuel Marulanda (Sureshot) was one of the Farc’s founders and died in 2008 without ever being caught

Like many left-wing guerrilla groups that formed with a strong ideological premise, the Farc has descended into a militant criminal gang, operating in the realm of narco-trafficking, political assassination and abduction more characteristic of the big Colombian drug cartels or the Mafia.

Whilst some progress has been made in the ongoing Havana peace talks between representatives of the Colombian government and the Farc (including agreements on land reform, political participation and the drug trade), a lasting concord appears unlikely. Quite simply, the Farc cannot be trusted. The organisation is no longer a coherent body and militant criminals acting under the Farc banner will quickly discredit any move towards reconciliation.

After sustained efforts by the Colombian government - with US support - Farc's national coordination has been irreparably damaged
After sustained efforts by the Colombian government – with US support – the Farc’s national coordination has been irreparably damaged

The failure to completely eradicate the Farc (which had seen its numbers decline from approximately 20,000 to 7,500 in the first decade of this century) is part of the reason President Juan Manuel Santos has lost the first round of his re-election campaign to right-wing candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.

Zuluaga, quite reasonably, sees the peace talks in Havana as a delaying tactic by the Farc, allowing it to rebuild whilst simultaneously drawing concessions from the government.

Because of Colombia’s geography – vast swathes of forest and rural highlands – wiping out every last vestige of the Farc is likely to prove extremely difficult. Just as the Maoist Shining Path group in Peru causes periodic instability, the Farc is likely to continue do the same thing. Indeed, its nominal leader, ‘Timochenko’, has promised just that:

We promised to win and will win…after 50 years of incorruptible battle, we will continue to fight as long as it takes if the oligarchy insists on impeding peace.

Farc maintains most of its territorial control - and popular support - in remote rural villages
The Farc maintains most of its territorial control – and popular support – in remote rural villages

Timochenko dreams of an ‘effective peace’ and refuses unconditional surrender. What concessions he really expects from a country terrorised by his group’s activities for half-a-century is hard to fathom. And the notion that the Farc would willingly uphold any signed agreement, given its history, seems faintly ludicrous.