The Puerto Hormiga Culture, found in the Caribbean coast region, particularly in the area from the Sinú River Delta to the Cartagena Bay, appears to be the first documented human community in what is now Colombia. Archaeologists estimate that around 4000 BC, the formative culture was located near the boundary between the present-day departments of Bolívar and Sucre. In this area, archaeologists have found the most ancient ceramic objects of the Americas, dating from around 4000 BC. The primary reason for the proliferation of primitive societies in this area is thought to have been the relative mildness of climate and the abundance of wildlife, which allowed the hunting inhabitants a comfortable life.
Archaeological investigations date the decline of the Puerto Hormiga culture and its related settlements to around 3000 BC. The rise of a much more developed culture, the Monsú, who lived at the end of the Dique Canal near today's Cartagena neighborhoods Pasacaballos and Ciénaga Honda at the northernmost part of Barú Island, has been hypothesized. The Monsú culture appears to have inherited the Puerto Hormiga culture's use of the art of pottery and also to have developed a mixed economy of agriculture and basic manufacture. The Monsú people's diet was based mostly on shellfish and fresh and salt-water fish.
The development of the Sinú society in what is today the departments of Córdoba and Sucre, eclipsed these first developments around the Cartagena Bay area. Until the Spanish colonization, many cultures derived from the Karib, Malibu and Arawak language families lived along the Colombian Caribbean coast. In the late pre-Columbian era, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was home to the Tayrona people, whose language was closely related to the Chibcha language family.
Around 1500 the area was inhabited by different tribes of the Karib language family, more precisely the Mocanae sub-family, including:
Some subsidiary tribes of the Kalamari lived in today's neighborhood of Pie de la Popa, and other subsidiaries from the Cospique lived in the Membrillal and Pasacaballos areas. Among these, according to the earliest documents available, the Kalamari had preeminence. These tribes, though physically and administratively separated, shared a common architecture, such as hut structures consisting of circular rooms with tall roofs, which were surrounded by defensive wooden palisades.
After the failed effort to found Antigua del Darién in 1506 by Alonso de Ojeda and the subsequent unsuccessful founding of San Sebastián de Urabá in 1517 by Diego de Nicuesa, the southern Caribbean coast became unattractive to colonizers. They preferred the better known Hispaniola and Cuba.
Though the Casa de Contratación gave permission to Rodrigo de Bastidas (1460–1527) to again conduct an expedition as adelantado to this area, Bastidas explored the coast and discovered the Magdalena River Delta in his first journey from Guajira to the south in 1527, a trip that ended in the Gulf of Urabá, the location of the failed first settlements. De Nicuesa and De Ojeda noted the existence of a big bay on the way from Santo Domingo to Urabá and the Panama isthmus, and that encouraged Bastidas to investigate.
Cartagena was founded on June 1, 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, in the former location of the indigenous Caribbean Calamarí village. The town was named after Cartagena, Spain, where most of Heredia's sailors had resided.
The city began with 200 people in 1533. During the remainder of the 16th century there was rapid growth. A major factor was the gold in the tombs of the Sinú Culture.
After those tombs were completely plundered, the inhabitants began to scatter to the countryside and to establish themselves as farmers, and the population of the city decreased.
A little later, the city had fewer than 2000 inhabitants and one church. The dramatically increasing fame and wealth of the prosperous city turned it into an attractive plunder site for pirates and corsairs – French and English privateers licensed by their king. 30 years after its founding, the city was pillaged by the French nobleman Jean-François Roberval. The city set about strengthening its defences and surrounding itself with walled compounds and castles. Pirate Martin Cote attacked years later. A few months after the disaster of the invasion of Cote, a fire destroyed the city and forced the creation of a firefighting squad, the first in the Americas.
In 1568, Sir John Hawkins of England tried to trick Gov. Martín de las Alas into violating Spanish law by opening a foreign fair in the city to sell goods. Hawkins planned to ravage the port afterwards. The governor declined. Hawkins besieged the city, but failed to level it.
In 1586, Sir Francis Drake, also of England, and nephew of Hawkins, arrived with a powerful fleet and quickly took the city. The governor, Pedro Fernández de Busto, fled with the Archbishop to the neighboring town of Turbaco, and from there negotiated the costly ransom for the city: 107,000 Spanish pesos or "pieces of eight." Drake had destroyed one-quarter of the city, the developing Palace of the Township, and the recently finished cathedral.
After this disaster, Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection, beginning with Gov. Francisco de Murga's planning of the walls and forts; this practice was called Situado. The magnitude of this subsidy is shown by comparison: between 1751 and 1810, the city received the sum of 20,912,677 Spanish reales. The city recovered quickly from Drake's attack and subsequent occupation, and continued its growth and hence its inevitable attraction for predators. Trade began to increase, continuing into the 17th century. The city reached the peak of its development in 1698 before the arrival of the Baron de Pointis.
The Raid on Cartagena in 1697 by Sir Bernard Desjean, Baron de Pointis and Jean Baptiste Ducasse was an all-out invasion that was politically motivated. Absent a male successor to the Spanish Habsburg throne, King Louis XIV wanted his grandson Felipe V to assert the right of succession, and conquering Cartagena could help significantly. The political purpose behind the invasion was somewhat undermined by Ducasse, the governor of Saint-Domingue – today's Haiti – who brought his soldiers with a plan to steal, but ended with pirates and thieves destroying the city. Entry to the city was hindered by the recently finished first stage of walls and forts, and the invasion was costly. While Desjean had asked for 250,000 Spanish reales in ransom, Ducasse stayed but a few months and dishonored the baron's promise to respect the churches and holy places. Ducasse left the inhabitants with nothing.
During the 17th century, the Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct fortresses. Today these are Cartagena's most significant identitifiable features. Engineering works took well over 208 years and ended with some of walls surrounding the city, including the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, named in honor of Spain's King Philip IV. The Castillo was built during the governorship of Pedro Zapata de Mendoza, Marquis of Barajas and was constructed to repel land attacks. It is equipped with sentry boxes, has buildings for food and weapons storage, and contains underground tunnels connecting the fortifications. The original fort was constructed between 1639 and 1657 on top of San Lazaro Hill. In 1762 extensive expansion was undertaken, and the final result is the current bastion. Numerous attempts to storm the reinforced fort were mounted, but it was never penetrated.
Cartagena was a major trading port, especially for precious metals. Gold and silver from the mines in the New Granada and Peru were loaded in Cartagena on the galleons bound for Spain via Havana. Cartagena was also a slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz, (Mexico), were the only cities authorized to trade African slaves. The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia and were used as cane cutters to open roads, as laborers to destroy the tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinú, and to construct buildings and fortresses. The agents of the Portuguese company Cacheu sold slaves from Cartagena for working in mines in Venezuela, the West Indies, the Nuevo Reino de Granada and the Viceroyalty of Perú.
On February 5, 1610, the Catholic Monarchs established the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena by a royal decree issued by King Philip II. With Lima in Peru, it was one of the three seats of the Inquisition in the Americas. The Palace of Inquisition, finished in 1770, preserves its original features of colonial times. When Cartagena declared its complete independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, the inquisitors were urged to leave the city. The Inquisition operated again after the Reconquest in 1815, but it disappeared entirely when Spain surrendered six years later to the troops led by Simón Bolívar.
Although the 18th century began very badly for the city, soon things began to improve. The pro-trade economic policies of the new dynasty in Madrid bolstered the economics of Cartagena, and the establishment of the Viceroyalty of the New Granada in 1717 placed the city in the position of being the greatest beneficiary of the colony. The 18th century brought the Bourbon dynasty and its pro-trade policies, and these benefited the city, returning it to prosperity again. During this period, the city passed the psychological barrier of 18,000 inhabitants, which was at the time the population cap of the Viceroyalty of New Granada.
The reconstruction after the Raid on Cartagena (1697) was initially slow, but with the end of the War of the Spanish Succession around 1711 and the competent administration of Juan Díaz de Torrezar Pimienta, the walls were rebuilt, the forts reorganized and restored, and the public services and buildings reopened. By 1710, the city was fully recovered. At the same time, the slow but steady reforms of the restricted trade policies in the Spanish Empire encouraged the establishment of new trade houses and private projects. During the reign of Philip V of Spain the city had many new public works projects either begun or completed, among them the new fort of San Fernando, the Hospital of the Obra Pía and the full paving of all the streets and the opening of new roads.
In March 1741, the city endured a large-scale attack by British and American colonial troops led by Admiral Edward Vernon (1684–1757), who arrived at Cartagena with a massive fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men, including 12,000 infantry, against six Spanish ships and fewer than 3,000 men, in an action known as the Battle of Cartagena, part of the War of Jenkin's Ear. The siege was broken off due to the start of the tropical rainy season, after weeks of intense fighting in which the British landing party was successfully repelled by the Spanish and native forces led by commander General Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta, a Basque from the Guipuzcoa province in northern Spain. He died in the aftermath of the battle.
Heavy British casualties were compounded by diseases such as yellow fever. This victory prolonged Spain's control of the Caribbean waters, which helped secure its large Empire until the 19th century. Admiral Vernon was accompanied by American Colonial troops, including George Washington's brother, Lawrence Washington, who was so impressed with Vernon that he named his Mount Vernon estate and plantation after him.
After Vernon, what is called the 'Silver Age' of the city (1750–1808) began. This time was one of permanent expansion of the existing buildings, massive immigration from all the other cities of the Viceroyalty, increase of the economic and political power of the city and a population growth spurt not equaled since that time. Political power that was already shifting from Bogotá to the coast completed its relocation, and the Viceroys decided to reside in Cartagena permanently. The inhabitants of the city were the richest of the colony, the aristocracy erected noble houses on their lands to form great estates, libraries and printing establishments were opened, and the first café in New Granada was even established. The good times of steady progress and advancement in the second half of the 18th century came to an abrupt end in 1808 with the general crisis of the Spanish Empire that came from the Mutiny of Aranjuez and all its consequences.
When the defenses were finished in 1756, the city was considered impregnable. Legend has it that Charles III of Spain, while reviewing in Madrid the Spanish defense expenditures for Havana and Cartagena, looked through his spyglass and remarked, "This is outrageous! For this price those castles should be seen from here!"
Among the censuses of the 18th century was the special Census of 1778, imposed by the governor of the time, D. Juan de Torrezar Diaz Pimienta – later Viceroy of New Granada – by order of the Marquis of Ensenada, Minister of Finance – so that he would be provided numbers for his Catastro tax project, which imposed a universal property tax he believed would contribute to the economy while at the same time increasing royal revenues dramatically. The Census of 1778, besides having significance for economic history, is interesting because each house had to be described in detail and its occupants enumerated, making the census an important tool The census revealed what Ensenada had hoped. However, his enemies in the court convinced King Charles III to oppose the tax plan.
For more than 275 years, Cartagena was under Spanish rule. On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence. It had been the biggest city of the Viceroyalty until 1811, when the Peninsular War, which became Wars of Independence and Piñeres's Revolts, marked the beginning of a dramatic decline in all aspects for what had become the virtual capital of New Granada. In 1815 the city was almost destroyed. No census information exists for that time. There are accounts of how the city became a ghost town. Around 500 impoverished freed slaves dwelt the city, whose palaces and public buildings became ruins, many with collapsed walls.
By mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary fleet under Pablo Morillo had arrived in New Granada and forces besieged Cartagena. After a five-month siege the fortified city fell on December 1815. By 1816, the combined efforts of Spanish and colonial forces, marching south from Cartagena and north from royalist strongholds in Quito, Pasto, and Popayán, completed the reconquest of New Granada, taking Bogotá on May 6, 1816.
In 1821 the general Mariano Montilla conducted the pivotal siege of Cartagena assisted by naval forces under José Prudencio Padilla. The city fell on October 1, 1821 after a siege lasting 159 days. Among the defenders who surrendered was Brigadier Gabriel Torres, commander of the royalist forces. The patriots captured large stores of gunpowder, lead, rifles and field pieces.
Recovery, though slow, began. It then stopped as a result of the general economic and political instability of the country at the time. In addition, isolationist economic policy on the part of the Andean elites doomed the areas, with export potential, to poverty.
Several famines and cholera outbreaks in the mid-19th century decimated the city, and it was in danger of disappearing.
After the 1880s the city began to recover from crisis. Progress continued, though somewhat slowly, after the 1929 crash. Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Chinese and other immigrant communities developed in this period of time.
The city used to be served by a railroad with a railroad station near today's "La Matuna" neighborhood. In the late 1950s, with a general trend toward paved roads for mobile traffic, the railroad closed.
Between 1930 and 1970 the city showed population growth at rates higher than the national average. By 1970, the population spurt was over. Yet the population has tripled since the 1980s with a mixture of privatization of the port infrastructure, decentralization of tourism, and the fact that, proportional to its population, Cartagena is the city that has received the most displaced people from the countryside with the escalation of civil war in the 1990s in the Andean regions as refugees looked for safety in the Caribbean capital.
The 6th Summit of the Americas was held in Cartagena on April 14 and 15, 2012. A prostitution scandal involving U.S. President Barack Obama's security detail received international attention and overshadowed the summit.
Centro Historico de Cartagena ...
San Lazaro hill
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