History is full of stories about people and places who, unlike the proverbial leopard, have changed their spots without blinking. Today's privateering hub, Cartagena, Columbia, is just such a one.
Known as The Heroic City, The Key to the West Indies and The Fort of the Kingdom, Cartagena was first claimed by Spanish explorer Pedro de Heredia in 1533. Set on a sheltered bay facing the Caribbean and surrounded by fertile land, the place was ideal for both seafaring and settling. In fact, various Caribbean natives had called it home for over 6,000 years. Heredia named his new outpost after the port city in Spain, allegedly because so many of the mariners on his ships hailed from there.
Almost immediately, Cartagena became a hub for transportation of Spanish wealth to and from the New World. Ores from the mines of Grand Granada and Peru made their way to Cartagena and from there went on to Havana and then Spain. By the 1700s, an enormous stipend or subsidy known as the Situado was being paid to Cartagena by Madrid for fortifications in particular. This amounted to millions of modern dollars in any given year. Where there is an abundance of gold and silver, and a handy port to sail into, there are sea raiders. Again almost immediately, Cartagena became a target for the enemies of Spain.
John Hawkins unsuccessfully attempted a sacking of the city in 1568. Twenty years later his nephew, Francis Drake, captured the city and sailed away with 110,000 in Spanish reales. French buccaneers Jean-Francois Roberval and Martin Cote had similar if less lucrative success. Both Francois L'Olonnais and Henry Morgan thought about raiding Cartagena, but chose Maricaibo instead.
By the late 1600s the now burgeoning city of close to 15,000 people was well fortified with thick walls (as shown in the picture above) and heavy guns. She saw her golden age under Spain in the 1700s when she became the capitol of the province of Grand Granada, the seat of the Spanish Inquisition and a center of Spanish art and culture.
As a curious aside, one of the last foreign raids on Cartagena occurred in 1741 and was lead by a British Colonial admiral, Edward Vernon. Along with Vernon was a young army officer named Lawrence Washington. If the names sound familiar here's why: Larry was George's older half-brother. Yes, that George Washington. And, despite the failure of the attempted conquest, he was so impressed by Admiral Edward that he named the Washington homestead in Virginia Mount Vernon.
But the hey day of Cartagena as a Spanish hub was brought to an abrupt end with the appearance of the Great Liberator:
As Simon Bolivar took the reigns of South American revolution from Miranda, Cartagena revolted and kicked Spanish troops, government and the Inquisition out. She was one of the first cities in Grand Granada to proclaim herself an independent state at war with Spain. To that end President and Governor Manuel Rodrigues Torices began handing out letters of marque to the privateers of the Gulf. Let the good times roll.
A couple of Captains who got in line for such commissions are no strangers here at Triple P. One was Dominique Youx and the other was my own Uncle Renato Beluche. Both sailed with Bolivarian commissions from 1810 on, but it was Beluche who became enamoured with not only the cause of South American freedom but Bolivar himself. Later in life Beluche would move from his native New Orleans to Venezuela and rise to the rank of Commodore in Bolivar's navy. During the days of the Laffites' Baratarian operations, however, he supplied the brothers with Cartagenan commissions.
The party ended when Spain came calling in October of 1815. A deplorable 106 day siege that starved out the inhabitants of the city followed. People were reduced to eating horse hides and even hooves. It was the so often maligned privateers led by Louis Aury and again including Youx and Beluche who came to the rescue, ferrying survivors to safety in Haiti under the guns of Spain.
With Spain's grip on South America severely challenged by Bolivar, Cartagena was ignored. She became a haven for run away and liberated African and Native slaves and she fell into disrepair. In 1821 Spain at last surrendered to Bolivar and the work of reconstructing not only cities like Cartagena but half the continent began.
Cartagena again became a welcoming port for privateers as Bolivar continued to issue commissions until the mid-1820s. It was from this port that Jean Laffite sailed as a legitimate privateer for Grand Columbia in the brig General Santander in 1823. He died aboard her and was buried at sea the same year.
Declared a place of significance to the heritage of the world by UNESCO in 1984, Cartagena is indeed impressive. So much history in one place is hard to argue with. It holds a blue pin on my travel map. One day, Cartagena, we will meet in person.