By the mid-1500s, the city of Cartagena was the jewel in Spain’s New World crown. The city, which would rival Havana in its cosmopolitan splendor, was awash in wealth of every kind imaginable. As a large port, Cartagena was a destination for goods and raw materials from all over South and Central America. Spices, exotic animals, gold, silver, gems and people, just to name a few, would be loaded onto the infamous treasure galleons for shipment first to Cuba and then on to Spain. It is little wonder that over the course of two hundred and fifty years Cartagena was a consistent target for seadogs, buccaneers and pirates.
Many of the attempted raids were repulsed, or never got off the drawing board at all. Henry Morgan thought about it but decided on Panama instead. Treasure ships were taken as they left Cartagena by men like Woodes Rogers and Laurens de Graff. Then, in 1811, Cartagena turned the tide and declared her freedom from Spain. At that point the Governor began handing out letters of marque to men like my own ancestor Renato Beluche, sending them ironically off to prey on Spanish shipping. But before all that, in 1586, Francis Drake proved that the infamously well fortified city could be taken, emptied of its riches and ransomed by the right leader with the right force.
By January of 1586 Drake, the once and future pirate, was in possession of a letter of marque from Queen Elizabeth I. He commanded a fleet of ships headed by his six hundred ton flagship Elizabeth Bonaventure. 2,300 soldiers accompanied his equally numerous sailors and the air of a naval presence settled upon his flotilla. Having proven that piracy and/or privateering against the Spanish could be both personally profitable and patriotic, Drake was a national hero with no intention of slowing down. England and Spain were at war, and the seadog was bent on doing every damage possible to the enemy. Particularly the enemy’s wallet.
On January 10, Drake and his men landed at Hispaniola, captured and sacked the capital of Santo Domingo. The city was burned, everything not nailed down was loaded into prize ships and sent back to England and Drake was paid a ransom of 2,500 gold ducats. The carnage and rapine ended on February 11, when Drake and his army sailed off to the next golden shore.
That unfortunate harbor was Cartagena. Considered virtually impenetrable until the fateful morning of February 19, 1586, the city’s fall was a combination of excellent strategy on Drake’s part and horrible bad luck on the Spanish side. Cartagena’s Viceroy Pedro Fernandez de Bustos had plenty of warning regarding Drake’s assault on Santo Domingo as some of the wealthier refugees had fled to his city. He had managed to assemble a force of some 500 armed soldiers and enlisted the aid of the well known and mellifluously named Admiral Pedro Vique Manrique who had two large galleons at anchor in the harbor. Unfortunately, the stories of Drake’s massive flotilla seemed to erode the courage of both leaders, and their men grew just as anxious.
Drake sailed right into Cartagena’s outer harbor on the evening of the 19th. He immediately landed 600 soldiers under the veteran Christopher Carleill who took his men north to assault the city from the inland jungle. Meanwhile Drake’s sailors took boats out to scout the fort of Boqueron under cover of darkness. At dawn, Carleill engaged a group of Bustos’ soldiers, causing a break in ranks that scattered the Spanish.
Meanwhile, Admiral Manrique grounded both his galleons and his men, too, left their posts. Jumping ship, they ran for the jungle rather than face the ruthless ladrons. Drake won the day through terror more than muscle. By the 21st the city had officially fallen. Interestingly, only seven Spaniards were killed in the two day engagement while some 30 Englishmen lost their lives. The citizens who could escaped to the jungle. Those left behind were “persuaded” to give up anything of value. Buildings – including the Cathedral – were stripped of all their wealth. Finally Bustos met with Drake and ransomed his unfortunate city for 107,000 gold ducats. Drake, being a businessman, gave Bustos a receipt for his payment.
Drake and his men sailed off with their haul in April, touching at Virginia before returning to England. The unprecedented success of Drake’s cruise brought him further recognition from his monarch and drew the attention of other like-minded men. Privateering became a respected profession in Britain, eventually leading to the establishment of one of the greatest Navies the world has ever seen. Modern scholars estimate that during the period from Drake’s sack of Cartagena to the end of England’s war with Spain in 1603, around 150 privateering ventures were mounted in Britain every year bringing home an average of 200,000 pounds per year in Spanish prizes. And only the Spanish could argue with that.
Header: Chart of Drake’s Raid on Cartagena by Baptista Boazio