Thanks to an insatiable lust for gold by the Spanish Crown, a prime location along Colombia’s northeast coast, and a shameful distinction as one of Spain’s slave trading centers, Cartagena might never have risen to prominence as an important New World city. But those factors, along with the aspirations of ambitious men, enabled Cartagena to grow and prosper. Today they are ingredients that make up a recipe for a vibrant history and lifestyle of a beautiful city on the bay.
As far back as 4000 BC, the region that today comprises Cartagena was inhabited by a group of pre-Columbian tribes who were likely attracted to the region based on the warm climate and abundance of game and seafood. Spanish conquistadors were drawn to the area because of gold that the tribes crafted into jewelry and art. One of them would go on to establish Cartagena.
Pedro de Heredia was a conquistador born into a wealthy Spanish family in 1505. Characterized as quarrelsome and hot-tempered, on a dark night in a Madrid alley six men attacked Heredia; they mauled him and left him with a badly disfigured nose. Determined to get revenge, he killed three of his attackers, but fled Spain for the New World in order to evade justice. He left behind his wife and children. In the early 1530s, now wealthy and successful in his own right, Heredia sailed back to Spain and convinced queen Juana de Castile (Joanna the Mad) to grant him control of what is now Colombia and about half of Ecuador. He arrived in Colombia in January 1533.
Earlier Spanish attempts to colonize the area had failed. In June 1533 Heredia named the area Cartagena de Indias, after Cartagena, Spain. He battled some of the native tribes and signed peace treaties with others, and Heredia and his cohort set about looting pre-Colombian gravesites, robbing them of gold jewelry and art. One purloined piece was a gold porcupine that weighed more than 130 pounds. Heredia amassed an incredible fortune and paid his fellow looter-soldiers handsomely.
Understandably, Cartagena’s reputation for gold and wealth attracted pirates and looters. The city was invaded a number of times over the years, including five sieges during the 16th Century. Pirates extracted ransoms from the city, stole gold and set fire to homes and buildings. In the 1600s the Spanish Crown invested in fortifications and walls to protect the city and new houses and buildings were built of stone. The fortifications and building with stone helped preserve Cartagena’s character and Spanish Colonial attracts modern visitors to the city.
Aside from the looting and plundering of gold, Cartagena’s other sinister history is its role in the slave trade. Estimates suggest more than one million slaves of African descent were sold and moved through Cartagena. While it was illegal to enslave pre-Colombian peoples, a slave trade of Africans in Cartagena had begun within a few years of the city’s founding. And in the early 1600s the Spanish Crown granted concessions to trade African slaves. Cartagena, along with Veracruz, Mexico, became centers of Spanish colonial slave trading. By the early 1800s three decades of active opposition resulted in the abolishment of slave trading in 1852. However, even today, Afro-Colombians continue to be disadvantaged and suffer disproportionately than do Spanish Colombians. Cartagena has one of Colombia’s largest Afro Colombian populations.
Another significant moment in Cartagena’s history is November 11, 1811 when the city was the first in Colombia to declare independence from Spanish rule. It would take approximately 10 years for the city, and Colombia to finally gain independence. Simon Bolivar, the great hero of South American independence was a leader in the liberation movement.
Cartagena’s climate, location on the Caribbean Sea, and as Colombia’s largest port city has helped to ensure its current success. It is a city of nearly one million people sprawling over 220 square miles. It is part of the diversity that enriches Colombia and helps to give it a unique character.
Visitors will find plenty to choose from. Sandy beaches and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, an historic Old Town filled with colorful Spanish Colonial buildings, some of the best preserved fortresses in the New World, a range of shopping, from boutique to high end, a cuisine that merges South America with Caribbean, an active night life and friendly people who welcome you to their city.
Cartagena – Old World charm in a New World city, an energetic mix of native, Spanish and Afro Colombians, where South America blends with a casual Caribbean pace of life – this is a city accepting its history as it shapes itself in a modern world.
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