El Morro: The Great 16th Century Fort That Saved Puerto Rico from British and Dutch Invasions

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro is a fort that sits majestically on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico in the capital city of San Juan.  In 1983, the fort was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations for its historical significance and for its astounding military engineering of “stout walls, carefully planned steps, and ramps for moving men and artillery.”    Millions of tourists converge on this site annually to learn about its historical importance in the region; but, some of these tourists also visit because they have heard about the alleged hauntings that occur at the fort. 

History of San Juan and Its Fort

When explorers arrived in the Americas from Spain, they would settle an area, claiming it for the Spanish empire.  Puerto Rico was one of the first islands discovered in the New World by Genoese captain, Christopher Columbus in 1493.   It was later settled in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Leon who enslaved the native population of Taino Indians under the repartimiento system in order to extract the gold from the area and establish a gold mining colony.  Disease and famine caused the native population to dwindle drastically and as a result, in 1513 enslaved Africans were brought to the colony to mine and extract the gold under a new less repressive system known as the encomienda system.

Reconstruction of Taino village, Puerto Rico

Within a few decades, Puerto Rico became one of the wealthiest seaports in the Americas making it a target for other European nations exploring the New World.  Not only was it a rich seaport, its strategic location in the Caribbean made it a sought-after piece of land because whoever owned this position could gain a foothold in the entire western world.  The Spanish were aware of this vulnerability and thus made Puerto Rico’s coast one of the most densely fortified in the region.

Work began on Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in the late 1530s to protect the Spanish conquistadors’ lands from attacks by seafaring enemies and the threat of pirates.  The fort was named in honor of Philip II of Spain, but it is Charles V of Spain who ordered engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli to design the fort.  Once it was complete, the fort would prove its worth when Britain challenged its stronghold in 1595 under the leadership of Sir Francis Drake. Spanish settlers staved off his attack by shooting a cannonball into Drake’s ship causing his retreat.

Charles V in Armour by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1600

The British Crown’s desire to acquire Spanish lands did not end with Drake’s defeat.  George Clifford, the 3 rd Earl of Cumberland, invaded Puerto Rico but instead of invading through the islet of Old San Juan as Drake had unsuccessfully done, he staged a land attack in which he was successful in overtaking the city.

Earl of Cumberland’s Successful Takeover and His Ultimate Demise

It would seem that the Earl of Cumberland’s successful invasion in 1598 would spell victory for the British in the newly discovered territory.  Unfortunately, the food that they had relied on to survive was contaminated by Puerto Rico’s ravaging summer heat.  George, along with many of his soldiers fell victim to a foodborne illness which triggered dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes fever, abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea.    This forced George and his crew to leave the island and return to Britain; however, they didn’t leave empty-handed.  Before heading back to Britain, they sacked the city and took anything of value that they could.   

View of El Morro ( Castillo de San Felipe del Morro), San Juan

The Dutch Invasion of San Juan

As if the looming threat of the British wasn’t enough, the Spanish found themselves facing a new threat from the Dutch a few decades after the Earl of Cumberland’s invasion.  Boudewijn Hendricksz decided to use George’s military action of overland invasion to achieve his aim of taking San Juan from the Spanish.  Boudewijn may have assumed that this would be an easy defeat, but to his dismay, his strategy failed.  His military forces sacked the city, but they weren’t able to capture it as he had planned. 

The United States’ Takeover

Since the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they were able to stave off an invasion from the British and the Dutch who coveted this land for its strategic location in the Caribbean and its gold.  Although the British and the Dutch weren’t successful, the United States would become the only foreign invader to successfully take over the fort and the entire country during the Spanish-American War.   The war ended with the Treaty of Paris turning Puerto Rico and several other islands over to the United States.

Photo from 5th level of El Morro looking out into the harbor.

Ghosts Invade El Morro

The US may have been the only successful invader to take over El Morro Fort in Puerto Rico.  However, according to legend, several ghosts have made the fort their home, also.  One such ghost that seems to be famous at the fort is the ghost known as the lady in white.  This apparition is usually seen near a lighthouse known as La Garita del Diablo or the Devil’s Watchtower. Her apparition is usually seen floating along the ramparts.

View of a corner turret from one of the ramparts (La Garita del Diablo)

Another legend is the legend of the ghost soldier that vanished .  When Spanish soldiers manned the fort, they would call out the words “Alerta” or “Alert” which was their way of making sure that the soldiers were awake and watching over the fort.  When one soldier didn’t hear a response, he went into the Garita (watchtower) to check on the soldier that was supposed to be stationed there.  Upon arrival, the room was empty.  The missing ghost soldier still haunts the fort. 

Aside from a ghost sighting or two, some say that they can hear footsteps of soldiers, yellow orbs floating around, or wailing sounds.  Some have even reported feeling dizzy or queasy in certain areas near the fort.  Whether visiting for historical reasons or to explore the paranormal, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro remains one of the marvels of the Americas linking the architecture of old medieval Spain to the modern world.

Ramparts of El Morro

INTERESTING FACTS:

Lieutenant Colonel Teófilo Marxuach

Lieutenant Colonel Teófilo Marxuach, (July 28, 1877 – November 8, 1939), was the person who ordered the first shots fired in World War I (From El Morro) on behalf of the United States on an armed German supply ship trying to force its way out of the San Juan Bay  on March 21, 1915.

Fort of Castillo San Cristóbal: Built to Defend Against the English, Dutch and Marauding Pirates

Puerto Rico is a unique island with stunning scenery as well as a complex history and fascinating culture. It was part of the Spanish Empire for approximately 400 years and there are many reminders of the long Spanish occupation of the island, the most impressive of which is the fort of San Cristóbal, located in the capital of San Juan. This is regarded as the biggest military fortress in all the Americas and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Spanish History of Castillo San Cristóbal

In 1521, the Spanish founded the present-day city of San Juan, not long after Columbus reached the Americas, and they established a series of fortifications to protect their new settlement. It was originally known as Puerto Rico and ultimately it gave its name to the entire island.

Over time the settlement became known as San Juan. Its population grew and it prospered which attracted the attention of pirates. In 1595, the English under Sir Francis Drake attacked San Juan and destroyed some of its fortifications. Not long after, in 1598, the town was occupied and sacked by the English once again. The Spanish garrison was besieged in the local fort and they were eventually forced to surrender. Later, in 1628 the Dutch attacked San Juan from the landward side and the town was once again badly damaged. After this attack the Spanish colonial government decided that San Juan needed to be better defended and Castillo San Cristóbal was established.

The Construction of Castillo San Cristóbal

The entire construction took place over a period of 150 years. The Spanish governor built a small redoubt or fort on the hill known as San Cristóbal (Saint Christopher). Along with the fort San Felipe del Morro , it was designed to protect San Juan.

In the 1760s, San Cristóbal was greatly expanded to protect the growing city. The chief engineers of the project were Tomás O’Daly and Juan Francisco Mestre. The construction, a vast undertaking, took place between 1766 and 1783.

The fortification of San Cristobal’s immense walls

Not long after it was completed, the stronghold was badly damaged by an earthquake but was quickly repaired. The fort was key to the successful defense of San Juan in 1787 when the Spanish and Puerto Rican garrison repelled another English attack.

During the Spanish American War, the fortress came under attack from US warships. San Cristóbal’s guns fought a day-long battle with the USS Yale before surrendering, and Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898. It was later occupied by the American army during WWI and they built observation towers at the site during WWII.

What to See at Castillo San Cristóbal?

A steep ramp leads to the gates of the historic fortress as San Cristóbal overlooks the sea and San Juan. The site is a large one and it stretches over several hectares. It was modeled on the European forts designed by Vauban, a French military engineer who’s considered to be a genius.

San Cristóbal, like other Vauban-inspired forts, is in the form of a hexagon, with a bastion or stronghold at every corner. This was to create dead-zones around the fortress so that the gunners on the walls had a clean line of fire.

The old gate at the east end of Castillo de San Cristobal 

The walls of the fortress are still intact and there are many observation posts, known as guerites, along the walls. They hang over the walls of the fortress and the oldest one dates from 1634. One of the posts, known as the Devils guerites, is believed to be haunted.

Other features of the fortress are cannons, a moat, and various bunkers. There is an impressive square at the heart of the fortress. The fortress also has some well-preserved examples of 19th century coastal artillery.

A portion of the tunnel system that runs beneath San Cristóbal 

The original builders installed a vast cistern in the fortress which is used to irrigate the surrounding area which is a national park. A large maze-like tunnel complex under the stronghold, built to make it more difficult for attackers to seize the site, was used for storage and communications.  

Getting to Castillo San Cristóbal

San Cristóbal is not far from San Juan. An entrance fee is required to visit, and organized tours are available. While some areas of the walls are not open to the public, nearly all the complex can be visited. There is a small museum with exhibitions from the long and dramatic history of San Cristóbal which is situated in beautiful parklands. A range of accommodation is available nearby.