Cartagena History: A City with a Story to Tell
Discover the rich and bloody history of the ‘Pearl of the Caribbean’
Spanish conquistadors, pirates, battles and siege – the City of Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena) has a dark and tumultuous history that involved fighting for Colombia’s independence – there’s so much to see and learn about our beautiful city by the sea!
Established in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena was originally a settlement. It became an important trading destination and one of the main Spanish ports on the Caribbean coast. It became a popular storehouse for treasures plundered by the Spanish from the Indians and, thus, a tempting target for buccaneers and pirates in the region.
Cartagena was sacked repeatedly throughout the 16th century – most famously by Sir Francis Drake, who had to be bribed with 10 million pesos to not razed the town completely.
Despite the attacks, Cartagena continued to flourish and in 1650, the Canal del Dique was built, connecting Cartagena Bay with the Río Magdalena, making the town the main gateway for the transport of merchandise into South America and the most important bastion of the Spanish overseas empire.
The Spanish built up a series of forts around the town for protection and in 1741, famous Spanish officer Blas de Lezo, who had only one arm, one leg and one eye, managed to fend off 25,000 English soldiers and their fleet of 186 ships in the greatest attack in the town’s history. He is now regarded as the savior of Cartagena, with a statue in his honor outside the San Felipe Fortress which was erected in 2009 to honor him.
Another factor with a blemish that accelerated the development of Cartagena was the slave trade, which the King of Spain granted a highly coveted monopoly on this form of commerce and became an official slave-trading center.
Independence from Spain
Cartagena was one of the first cities to declare independence from Spain and is well known for it. Other towns followed their lead and are now known to be part of the same conflict that lasted until 1821 when Simón Bolíva won what is now understood as the Battle of Cartagena. The city is known today as ‘La Heroica’, (the Heroic City) in honor of him.
Cartagena began to flourish once more, attracting myriad foreign immigrants and growing dramatically into what is today Colombia’s largest port and most important industrial center and tourist destination.
The old walled city is still much the same with beautifully preserved stone buildings and a rich architectural heritage dating back to the town’s original settlement.