Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Havana, Cuba
During the age of the great colonial empires, the European powers battled each other around the globe for political, military and commercial dominance. Nowhere were these wars more frequent or more fierce than in the waters and islands of the Caribbean Sea. The forces of Spain, France, England, Holland and other nations, not to mention innumerable pirates, fought endlessly for control of these rich and strategic territories. Because of this, the islands of the Caribbean sprouted more fortresses than any place outside of Europe. Virtually every Caribbean island now boasts at least one major fort, in varying degrees of condition. Spain was by far the greatest fortress builder in the Caribbean, their legacy including the Forteleza Ozama in the Dominican Republic, Fort San Felipe in Puerto Rico, and the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana in Cuba.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 on the shores of what is now the Dominican Republic signaled the beginning of Spanish Empire in the Americas. The first permanent Spanish settlement was at Santo Domingo, which for a while served for a while as the colonial capital of the New World. By 1600, all of the northern Caribbean’s major islands, Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, were under Spanish dominion, as were many of the minor ones.
Although Dutch, English and French colonies also began to pop up in the New World in the early 1500s, the Caribbean remained by and large a giant Spanish laken throughout the 16th century. In order to secure this phenomenally wealthy dominion from enemies, largely pirates and buccaneers acting on behalf of foreign powers, the Spanish constructed scores of massive fortresses in a great ring that spread around the Caribbean from Cartagena in Columbia to St. Augustine in Florida. Although they these fortifications generally did little to discourage raids on the Spanish towns, they did successfully protect the Spanish New World possessions from all-out assault.
That is, at least until the end of the 16th century. In 1588, the English navy outmaneuvered the vastly superior Spanish armada into a disastrous defeat from which Spain never recovered. With Spain’s navy largely out of the way, the Spanish colonies in the Americas were largely defenseless. In most cases, the massive fortifications did little to protect the Spanish Empire, and one by one their island colonies began to fall into enemy hands. By the year 1700, Spain had lost virtually everything except Cuba, Puerto Rico and the eastern half of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic.
Although severely reduced in power, Spain managed to retain these colonies for another two centuries, thanks in part to the size of the islands which made conquest by foreign powers too difficult, but also due to the more neutral role Spain played during this period. The major threat to the islands in this period were from independent pirates, and against these the great Spanish fortresses were much more formidable. They remained a pivotal part of the Spanish Empire’s military presence in the New World until Spain’s disastrous defeat at the hands of the United States during the Spanish-American War.
The Forteleza Ozama was constructed shortly after the founding of Santo Domingo and is the oldest European fortress in the Americas. Amazingly, despite its age, its relatively modest size, political importance of Santo Domingo and proximity to pirates based in Jamaica and Tortuga, the Forteleza Ozama was never successfully attacked. The main building of Forteleza Ozama is a square-tower keep built of coral rock that looks more like an ancient Roman fortress than colonial or even medieval European castle. The fort backs up against the Ozama River, and two cannons, remnants of the former battery, still face the river approaches. The Forteleza Ozama became famous in the 1500s as the jumping off point for the conquistador expeditions of Pizzaro, Cortez and others.
Fort San Felipe Del Morro is an immense, multi-level citadel built on a strategic outcropping of rock that guards the entrance to San Juan Bay. The top level of the citadel backs up against a plateau on which stands the city of San Juan. Of all of the colonial fortresses in the Americas, Fort Del Morro most resembles a true medieval European castle, and looks as if it had been built by crusaders rather than conquistadors. It now houses a museum with an excellent collection of cultural exhibits. A broad open lawn separates the citadel from the city, so that the city could not be used for cover for advancing enemies. It is now used as a public park.
The Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, also known as La Cabana, was the largest military fortification in the Americas at the time of its completion in 1774. Built to replace the Castillo del Morro, which was damaged beyond usefulness by the British during the Seven Year’s War, La Cabana was also among the very last of the major colonial-era forts to be erected in the Caribbean. Built on high bluffs overlooking the sea, this titanic white fortress is like a traditional gunpowder-era fort on steroids. It is a such a well-built complex that it was in active service in the 1960s, when Cuban revolutionaries fortified La Cabana against potential threats from the United States. Out of tradition, a cannon is fired from the fortress walls every evening.
Fort San Felipe Del Morro is located on the westernmost tip of the City of San Juan. From June to Noevember it is open from 9:00am-5:00pm; and from December to May from 9:00am-6:00pm. Admission is $3.00. As of this writing there was no visitor information available for the Forteleza Ozama or the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. Web: www.godominicanrepublic.com (official website of Fortaleza Ozama); www.nps.gov/saju (official website of Fort San Felipe Del Morro); www.gocuba.ca (official tourism website of Cuba).
The Spanish easily left behind the greatest number of colonial forts in the Caribbean. In addition to the above, some of the other best surviving Spanish forts are Fort San Cristobal which is also located in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and the Castillo del Morro, which is also located in Havana. The Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago protects the eastern end of the island of Cuba; and the Castillo San Carlos Borromeo on the Isla Margarita, just off the coast of Venezuela.