Tour Of The Caribbean – Cartagena Harbour

SOME twenty-two hours suffice for the passage from Colon to Cartagena, the most wonderful and picturesque city on the Spanish Main. As first seen, when approached from the south, it may be a city fashioned by enchantment. A ridge of low hills comes down to the sea, to a point far out from the land, where they glide imperceptibly into the deep. Beyond the spot at which the land seems to have ended is a faint white city floating on the water, illusive and ineffable, a place of ghostly walls and towers as unsubstantial as a cloud. The whole fabric is colourless, and such is the glamour of the sea that the unreal city seems to be almost transparent.

Cartagena cannot be approached directly from the ocean, owing to the rocks along the shore and the heavy surf which runs perpetually upon the ness. It is reached by a great lagoon, or inland sea, lying to the south of it. There are two entrances into this lagoon : the one nearer to the town is the Boca Grande, but it is too shallow for any but small boats ; the other entrance is the Boca Chica, which is far away from the city to the very south of the inland sea. Between the two Bocas is the island of Tierra Bomba, which forms a sea barrier over four miles in length. Between the Boca Grande and the city is a narrow spit of land which Drake has made famous. (See Map.)

The sheet of water thus separated from the open sea by the island and the strip of land is eight miles long, and is divided naturally into three harbours : the Outer, which occupies the major part of the lagoon ; the Middle, which is the modern harbour ; and the Inner, a small, shallow basin under the walls of the town.

At the entrance of the Boca Chica is a massive and grizzled fort of white stone—the Fort San Fernando. It is on the end of Tierra Bomba island and is much overgrown by bushes, for it is of great age. Its dignified water gate, its many gun embrasures and its stone sentry boxes give it a brave look as the haven is entered. On the opposite side of the channel, on a small island, is the ancient Fort of San Jose. Happily these defences were not in existence in Drake’s time, when he entered the harbour in open boats, captured a frigate, and towed her away out of sheer bravado and light-heartedness.

The wide, land-locked bay, or Outer Harbour, with its palm-covered islands, its many capes and its blue-green water, is very beautiful. At the end is the town, still eight miles off, but more clearly to be viewed. It lies on a flat seemingly in the sea, with only the sky behind it, a fantastic fabric of brown-grey walls, of domes and steeples, of towers and chocolate-coloured roofs. Where the town joins to the land is a conical hill of rock—a kind of acropolis—on the summit of which is a black fort of forbidding aspect, overgrown with green and showing ruinous breaches in its walls. This is Fort Lazar, which successfully resisted an attack of the English during the siege of 1739. Some way further landwards is another hill, also conical and bare, but precipitous and of immense size, reaching indeed to the height of 510 feet. This is La Popa, on the summit of which is a venerable convent.

Before reaching the Middle Harbour the Boca Grande is passed, lying away to the left. The opening into the Middle Harbour is narrow, being wedged between Castillo Grande Point on the left or west side and a spur of Manzanilla Island on the right. The Spaniards in times of panic were apt to sink vessels in this entrance, the keels and ribs of which rotting deep in the mud may well have added to the present straitness of the way. The Inner Harbour is so small and so shallow—having a depth of no more than from one to two fathoms—as to be available only for minor craft. It was defended at its entrance by the Pastelillo Fort, the fine ruins of which are still to be seen. The steamer comes along-side a pier at the city end of the Middle Harbour. This haven, as already stated, is separated from the open sea by a spit of low land, which stretches from the town walls to the Boca Grande. From the part it played in the year 1586 it may well be called Drake’s Spit. A railway now runs along it from the steamer pier to the city, so that passengers must needs pass over that part which separates the Inner Harbour from the Caribbean Sea.

Drake’s Spit is made up of a rough beach, a thick growth of mangroves, and a number of cocoa-nut palms. The story of Drake’s Spit is as follows. After the capture of San Domingo in 1586 (page 251) Drake made his way to Cartagena. He entered the great harbour through the Boca Chica (i.e. through the present steamer entrance) “without any resistance of ordnance or other impeachment.” This was at four in the afternoon. He made his way up the harbour as far as the Boca Grande. When night came on he sent off a party of sailors under Martin Frobisher to attack Fort Pastelillo, which then stood, as it still stands, at the mouth of the Inner Harbour. The fort was very strong and the attack failed, as Drake assumed it would, for this was a mere feint in order to withdraw the attention of the Spaniards from the real assault on the town.

This assault was led by Carleil, who had so distinguished himself at San Domingo. Carleil landed his soldiers at the end of the spit where it abuts on the Boca Grande. This narrow strip of beach and bush is about two and a quarter miles in length. The men advanced along the shore in silence, under the cover of the trees and the darkness of the night. The last half mile of the spit, where it comes between the Inner Harbour and the sea, and where the railway from the pier now runs in peace, is very narrow. As the English neared this point they were discovered by some mounted scouts, who promptly galloped off to alarm the garrison. Across the narrow part the buccaneers found that a wall had been built, with a staked ditch in front of it. There was a gap in the wall to allow the horsemen to pass in, but the entry was already blocked by gabions in the form of wine butts filled with earth. Behind the wall were six demi-culverins and sakers, and a force of 300 men armed with muskets and pikes, Moreover, two great galleys, drawn up on the harbour beach, were manned by a company of soldiers who-could command the passage with their firearms. Every gun was trained upon the spit.

As Carleil advanced, the Spaniards poured a torrent of shot upon the narrow way. The British kept silence and never fired. They crawled along the water’s edge so as to be out of range until they were close under the wall. Then, at a given signal, they made a rush for the gap through the blizzard of bullets. Down went the wine butts like ninepins. A volley was fired in the very face of the horrified defenders of the breach, and with a yell the English fell upon them with pike and cutlass. Carleil with his own hand cut down the standard-bearer. The Spaniards without more ado turned heel and fled, helter-skelter, for the city. As Thomas Cates, who wrote a chronicle of the fight, modestly explains, ” our pikes were longer than theirs.”

The British tore after them like a pack of baying wolves. The flying crowd made an attempt to stand but were swept down, so that the men of the long pikes had to leap over their bodies.

We gave them no leisure to breathe,” says Master Cates with great relish. In a moment the market-place was gained, but every street leading from it was blocked with earthworks. Over these mounds went the Spaniards and the buccaneers after them, as if it were a hurdle-race. Behind each barricade Indians were posted with poisoned arrows, but Drake’s men jumped on their backs or their heads as they crouched, and gave them a taste of the long pikes if they had the heart to stand. Poisoned stakes had been driven into the ground “to run into one’s feet,” but as the Spaniards stumbled over them in their terror the pursuers had something soft to tread upon.

Women hurled stones, pots, and jugs out of windows ; a musket would blaze through a loophole in a gate ; figures in night attire crouched in archways or fled into the gloom shrieking wildly. Every dog in the town was barking as if possessed, while drums beat the alarm without ceasing, Whenever a stand was made by the garrison the pikes charged, and the breathless Cartagenians, scattered and bleeding, bolted down dark alleys or hid under carts. In one of these street fights the Spanish commander was taken by Captain Goring, “after the said captain had first hurt him with his sword.” This is gently put, for the captain, being no weakling, may be assumed to have well-nigh cleft the commander in two when he ” hurt him.”

The town was taken and taken handsomely ; the fort that had defied Frobisher was seized and blown up, and, after a pleasant stay in Cartagena of six weeks—during which time Drake entertained the governor and bishop at dinner—that officer departed with 100,000 ducats in his pocket.

Another interesting attack upon Cartagena was made in 1741 by Admiral Vernon, otherwise known as ” Old Grog,” or the Hero of Porto Bello. The admiral, after he had sufficiently enjoyed his triumph at Porto Bello (page 342), proceeded to Cartagena, but found that city by no means in a yielding mood. The Boca Chica was blocked by a heavy boom, anchored across the channel between Fort San Fernando and Fort San Jose. Moored behind the boom were four very solid ships of the line. On either side of the entrance numerous entrenchments had been thrown up to withstand a landing.

The land forces were under the command of General Went-worth. The general and the admiral spent a considerable part of each day in quarrelling. Wentworth wanted to do things in his own way, and when he was thwarted he was apt to sulk. Vernon, on the other hand, used ” unbecoming language ” to Wentworth, and was generally ” boisterous and overbearing,” as became the hero of Porto Bello. In spite of this war of words the outposts on either side of the Boca Chica were taken very gallantly, and then the bombardment of Fort San Fernando began. This stronghold, which mounted no less than eighty-two cannons and three mortars, was finally breached. A force was landed and the fortress captured, with the loss of only one man on the side of the English. The Spanish scuttled three of the ships which were anchored behind the boom, while the invaders seized the fourth. The boom was broken up and the fleet sailed into the harbour.

On April 1 (a somewhat appropriate date) Admiral Vernon wrote home to announce that he had captured Fort San Fernando. Once more the people of England went mad with excitement. It was Porto Bello all over again. Ballads were composed, and sung in the streets, with the refrain ” Vernon the Scourge of Spain.” More medals were struck. One of these shows the Scourge in a kind of garden-party dress, strolling boldly in front of the city. On the rim of the medal is the inscription ” Admiral Vernon viewing the town of Carthagena.” I There was an unrealised amount of truth in this posy, for the admiral did little more than view the city during his sojourn. He never captured it.

The fleet moved up into the Middle Harbour. The Spaniards had abandoned the Castillo Grande, had blown up the fort on Manzanilla point, and had sunk two ships in the channel, according to their custom on these occasions. The siege of the town went on very slowly, as Vernon and Wentworth were so much engaged in fighting between themselves that they had little time to devote to the Spaniards.

One month after the fleet had appeared off the Boca Chica a force of 1500 men was landed to attack Fort San Lazar—the fort on the rocky acropolis. The assault was made just before day-break, but affairs at headquarters were so mismanaged that the English were repulsed with the loss of 179 killed, 459 wounded and 16 taken prisoners. During the progress of these events yellow fever broke out in the fleet, with the result that no less than 500 men died, while over 1000 were lying sick.

A final council of war was held on the flag-ship, which ended in the usual manner. Vernon, after more ” unbecoming language,” dashed out of the cabin in a rage, slamming the door after him. The land forces were withdrawn as useless, and then the Scourge of Spain proceeded to show the world—and especially Wentworth —what the Navy could do, unaided and alone. The perverse old gentleman warped a prize, the Galicia, as near to the town as he could. She carried sixteen guns and was fortified with earth and sand. The Galicia fired fretfully at the city for seven long hours by the cathedral clock. The city, of course, replied, and with such effect that the poor earth-laden ship was riddled with holes, so that she had to cut her cables and be abandoned. In this fatuous attempt the admiral lost sixty-two stout mariners.

After these various exhibitions of strength the Scourge of Spain pulled up his anchors and sailed out into the Caribbean Sea.