Old buildings in Cartagena and the wall that makes the city famous

There is a preamble-post that sets the stage for pirate attacks on Cartagena by looking at the relationships of the people in Europe who are making the decisions for the colonies. For the back story, read this post.

There is a second post about the early pirate attacks on Cartagena to set the context leading up to the building of a wall. For that post go here.

I just jump into the post… because it’s a continuation of the other two.

Ok. Let’s pull all this together…

Casa Drake

The English spent nearly two-months negotiating a $110,000 ransom and supplies from the city’s leaders during the English siege on the city. Drake set up his base of operations in what is now known as “Casa Drake.”

However, the residence is not really Drake’s house at all. In 1586, it belonged to one of the Spanish military captains who defended the city during the English attack: Alonso Bravo Hidalgo de Montemayor.

Bravo is mentioned sporadically throughout English records and in more detail in Spanish records. He was a gentleman and the nephew of conquistador Alvaro de Mendoza. In some capacity, Bravo was involved in the negotiations for the release of Cartagena during Drake’s siege. The paid ransom was $107,000 plus whatever the English got from private individuals who were willing to pay to save their house from destruction.

Bravo himself paid $5000 to protect Casa Drake and the priory of Saint Frauncsco because of his wife. During the negotiations, Bravo’s wife became sick with a fever that quickly killed her; Bravo requested to immediately have her buried in the priory.

The 7th day there was a court kept at the Vuead, where divers matters were heard but none of any Importance. this day Alonso [wrote] vnto the generall of the death of his wyffe with the request that she might be peaceabley buryed in the priory of Saint Frauncisco, the which the generall graunted. – Sir Francis Drake’s West Indian Voyage, 1585-86

It’s likely that the sickness came with the English; 100-sailors died while in port including George Fortescue who dyed abourd the barke Bonner, who was long sicke of the infection of Saint Iacamo and, being once recouered fell sicke agayne at Cartagena, and was throwne ouer bourd without any other solemnety.

Bravo’s wife was buried the day after her death; and, during the negotiations, Drake is said to have paused to send a volley of cannon fire into the air in her honour.

<pause>This seems like a strange thing to do considering it was the English ships that brought sickness to Cartagena, Drake was occupying her house, and her husband paid an extra portion of the random to Drake… to keep the church where she was to be buried safe from destruction. I suspect after reading both the English and Spanish accounts of the story that most of the retelling is historical propaganda.</unpause>

As a final coup de grâce to the locals, the ransom was mostly paid in March using silver bars that were seen as belonging to the Spanish crown; the citizens of Cartagena were on the hook to pay it back to the crown and had until Christmas to do so.

The true impact of this would have been felt by slaves and aboriginals. Drake was stealing from a “system” that was already exploiting other peoples.

Cartagena Cathedral

To “motivate” people to speed up the ransom payment, Drake burnt down two hundred houses and threatened to do more damage.

Shortly after, he was shown a dispatch from Philip II in which Drake was referred to as a corsair. Being sensitive to his poor upbringing and the lack of respect that he received from the nobility in Europe (or perhaps due to personal reasons), Drake flew into a rage and made good on his threat to do more damage.

this night the generall shewed a letter to the Spaniards which was founde in the towne, in which was a Declaration of the warres betwene England and Spayne in the most severest manner that might be, in which was no mercy but fyer and sworde. – Sir Francis Drake’s West Indian Voyage, 1585-86

In his rage, Drake fired cannons at the Cartagena Cathedral, which was under construction (on the third evolution of the building). The nearly finished structure sustained damage but was not destroyed; and, when the English left, construction continued until the building was complete in 1612.

Today, the cathedral is known as Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Yep… Finally… the Wall

The story for Drake ends a decade later in January 1596 when, after famously defeating the Spanish Armada (1588) and continuing his pillage of the colonies for England, Drake died of dysentery off the coast of Panama. His body was reportedly placed in an iron casket and buried at sea; people have been trying to find it ever since.

However, for Cartagena, the story continues for many centuries. After Drake’s siege, the citizens were done with paying ransoms and wanted to build a wall around the city to protect it from future attacks. But rather than design it on their own, they brought in Italian architects who specialized in fortification and repelling pirates: Cristóbal de Roda Antonelli and his cousin Bautista Antonelli.

Construction began almost immediately in 1586 and took hundreds of years to complete. The architecture was Roman but the mixture uniquely Colombian: quarried coral stone, lime mortar (calcium hydroxide), and sand as a binder.

We heard many times from locals that the wall was not built by Spaniards; it was built by slaves. And, the pressure to complete the wall quickly was so great that these slaves worked gruelling hours… sometimes to their death.

The local lore is that when a person died while working on the wall, rather than stop the construction, their body was simply incorporated into the materials.

The exact number of deaths will never be known, but some locals say no bodies are in the wall (that it’s a myth)… and others claim there are 1000s. If you do the math on the second number, it means that if the wall was originally 14km long (it’s now 11km long), there are roughly 70+ bodies for every kilometre.

As a forensic anthropologist, I can’t even comment on the impact that that many bodies would have had on the integrity of the wall (actually, all I can think of is the impact it would have on the community).

The only thing I do know is that the chemical composition of the wall materials would have prevented putrefaction, odour and the spread of disease in the intense Colombian heat. It would have also preserved or mummified the bodies… so these people wouldn’t just disappear over time.

If people were buried in the wall, they are likely still there… and wouldn’t some have been found when 3km was torn down? Has anyone else ever stumbled upon a story or report of human remains found in Cartagena’s wall?

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