The crowning glory of the Spanish Empire’s defensive network of Cartagena, work first began on the fortress in 1536, when it was known as San Lázaro castle. Pirates roaming the Caribbean in those days had their eyes fixed on the wealth of Cartagena de Indias, a city rich in profits from the shipping industry and nascent slave trade. Spain needed to defend their prized asset, and they built the defensive walls that today surround the Old Town, as well as several key strategic forts. The most impressive overlooked the city from the top of a 130-foot high hill, perfectly positioned with commanding views of the bay in front of Cartagena.
The castle that still stands today was expanded significantly in 1657, and renamed after Philip IV of Spain. Starting out with just eight cannons, and a small garrison of 20 soldiers and four gunners, the castle was expanded once again in 1763 by Antonio de Arévalo. It was given further repairs and improvements by José de Herrera y Sotomayor in 1739. San Felipe was often in need of repairs due to the unfortunate habit Cartagena had for attracting pirate raids.
The castle first fell to an assault in 1697 by the French privateer Sir Bernard Desjean, Barón de Pointis and Jean Baptiste Ducasse, during the War of the Grand Alliance, a nine-year conflict fought between Louis XIV of France and a European coalition which included the Spanish Empire. Sotomayor’s subsequent repairs included strengthening the defensive capabilities of the fortress, with the addition of extra fortifications and gun turrets. These additions would prove useful in 1741…
In 1741, during another nine-year war known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear – so-called because the seeds of the conflict were sown when a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins lost an ear in a confrontation with the Spanish coastguard – between Britain and Spain, Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon attacked Cartagena. What followed was a crushing loss for Britain, as the Spanish Admiral Blas de Lezo successfully defended the city, helped in no small way by the defensive strength of San Felipe Castle. The British lost around 10,000 men in the battle, – many admittedly to yellow fever – with around 3,000 falling during the assault on the castle. The city was successfully defended from 23,000 British troops and 186 ships with just 3,000 men and six ships.
The castle was attacked once more during the Spanish American Wars of Independence when a Spanish force under the command of Pablo Morillo arrived at the city in 1815. By the end of the year, Cartagena had fallen, and the entirety of New Grenada was under Royalist control by May 1816, emphasising the vital strategic role the city had in protecting the empire.
Nowadays a visit to San Felipe Castle is a decidedly more tranquil affair, with tourists from all around the world visiting to walk the castle walls, explore the network of tunnels running beneath the ramparts, and take photos with one of the San Felipe’s 68 cannons. In 1984 UNESCO listed the castle, along with the Old City of Cartagena, as a World Heritage Site. The castle had, until that point, fallen into disrepair, with vegetation covering the walls. The mighty castle, once the pride of Spanish military architecture in the New World, has been used by the Colombian government as the location for cultural and social events since 1990; it remains as formidable and impressive as ever, towering over the bay of Cartagena.