San Juan National Historic Site: A Beautiful Place to Recapture the Past

Name: San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico (United States of America).
Location: northern coast of the island of Puerto Rico, in the city of San Juan.
Area: 55 acres.

San Juan National Historic Site

The justification of such a huge deployment of defensive approaches like the ones from these kind of sites is evidenced if we take into account the age when they were built, when Puerto Rico was the key spot in the Caribbean, a sea through which flowed rivers of gold that not even the French or the English were determined to leave exclusively to the Spanish Crown.

A Story of Pirates

Only the fate and the winds were responsible of not leaving Christopher Columbus to step into the island of Puerto Rico, the easterly island of the so-called Antilles, until his second journey in 1493. The first colony was founded in 1521 on an island which closed the San Juan Bay. Its strategic location, keeping the entry point of the Antilles Sea, made the Spanish Crown concerned pretty soon with the necessity of protecting it using huge fortifications for its scarce population.

During the first years, however, Spain was an extraordinary naval power, so powerful that it didn't need to protect its ports. The only threat for the settlers were the Indians, who lacked firearms, therefore no big defense deployments were needed to cope with this threat. So, in the beginning they built an only Fortress, a kind of fortified palace that was used as residence for the colonial authorities, and the imposing Fort of San Felipe del Morro. Although the Fortress was built between the years 1537 and 1540, and San Felipe was initiated in 1539, none of these two counted with heavy artillery until 1555.

At the end of the 16th century, the situation changed dramatically. After the disaster of the "Invincible Army", Spain loses the maritime hegemony and in the Caribbean appeared the French and English corsairs that, during two centuries would be a threat to the finances and to the existence of the Spanish Empire. A vast global plan to protect the colonies in the Caribbean was urgently traced between 1586 and 1589. Its authors were the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli and the "maestre de campo" (a high military rank in the Spanish Army) Juan de Tejeda, who traveled to America to personally oversee the construction of the fortresses. The design of these fortresses were carried out by San Felipe del Morro as a large complex which included houses, warehouses, weapon yards, ammunition dumps, stables and everything necessary to host a military post, achieving the construction of one of the crowning buildings in the American military architecture. The forts of Santa Catalina and San Jeronimo del Boqueron, located in mainland, completed the protection of the bay.

However this powerful defensive system was found to be not as effective as it seemed. Although it resisted pretty well the Drake attack in 1595, was taken by the English three years later, who occupied San Juan for some months. When they retired, defeated by the pests rather than by the Spanish, the Fortress was in ruins.

New Fortresses

Carried out between 1599 and 1619, the reconstruction of San Juan allowed the Spanish to improve their defenses, reinforcing El Morro, increasing the number of fortifications in the eastern side of the island and adding a new fort, El Cañuelo, on an islet close to San Felipe. Despite their efforts, the colony was taken again, this time by the Dutch who couldn't take El Morro, despite the harsh siege to which it was subjected. Before being expelled by Puerto Rican and Spanish troops commanded by Juan de Haro, they set on fire the city and the Fortress, which again had to be reconstructed, this time almost entirely.

The Spanish Crown, always aware of the importance of this spot, didn't spare resources and materials for this new construction phase, which was carried out between 1630 and 1660 and in which they completed the walled space surrounding the city. The danger, always there, of an attack escalated fast because of the fact that the Spanish naval power was everyday weaker and weaker, gradually leaving their colonies without any defense besides their fortifications. The Caribbean, on the other part, was no longer a Spanish dominated sea: the French and the English had set up their camps in different spots in the Antilles and even in the continent, disputing every time, from a closer distance, the Spanish hegemony on the seas.

However, since 1660 no attack on Puerto Rico was developed until the crowning of Charles III in 1759. From that time, and until 1790, the defensive system of San Juan was modified in depth, giving it the looking which nowadays still keeps. In 1765, they started to build the Fort of San Cristobal, until then it was just a simple stronghold. The construction of this building was managed by the military technician Angel Rivero. Towards the interior of the island, the system of fortifications was completed with the construction of the San Carlos and Principe ravelins. The San Jeronimo del Boqueron Fort was substituted by a solid castle and the wall between El Morro and the Fortress (started in the 17th century) was finally completed.

The End of the Empire

At the end of the 18th century, San Juan was basically a large fortress with a population still very undeveloped. The deployments of so many resources, facilities and buildings were not implacable. In 1797 their walls continued to be practically untouched after an English attack which didn't manage to get into the bay. However, the Spanish Empire which back then was very well protected by the Puerto Rican bastions, was starting to dismember. In 1830, only two Spanish colonies were left: Cuba and Puerto Rico. But things started to get worse for the Spanish Empire. In Puerto Rico, for instance, the San Felipe del Morro Castle was used as prison for the Spanish colonial leaders, becoming a symbol of resistance against colonization. The city growth, on the other hand, forced the demolishment of the eastern part of the walls.

The "last act of war" in Puerto rico took place in 1898 when the United States declared war to Spain. The island was under alert status. Everything was prepared for an attack which finally never took place. Peace, fortunately, arrived first. This way, Spain lost its last American possessions, and Puerto Rico became part of the United States, being one of its multiple associated territories.

However, the change of hands didn't mean the deactivation of the fortresses of the old San Juan. Although they would never be tested out again, they preserved their military functions until the end of the Second World War. In 1949, all the complex except the Fortress, which belongs to the Puerto Rican Government, was added to the National Park Service, which nowadays is responsible for its management in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense.

Source: National Park Service

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