Old San Juan reflects maritime history

SAN JUAN, P.R.—Old San Juan, built on the roughly two-mile long barrier island that protects San Juan’s harbor from the Atlantic Ocean, is the second-oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere.

Discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 and settled by Juan Ponce de León in 1508, only Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, preceded it.

Castillo San Cristobal, located at San Juan National Historical Site, is the largest fortification built by the Spanish, in fact by any European power, during colonial times. Layered defenses made the fort virtually impenetrable to a land attack (Photo by Vincent Daniello).

By the middle of the next century San Juan was the most heavily fortified city of its time. In fact, considering the weapons of the day, Old San Juan boasts among the best defenses ever constructed.

Castillo San Felipe El Morro, the massive fort on the western tip of the island, towers 140 feet above the harbor entrance, its cannon guarding against attack by sea.

Castillo San Cristobal, just half a mile away at the eastern end of Old San Juan, protects against invasion by land. Outside its impenetrable, towering parapetos, a labyrinth of short walls and small fortifications offered the Spanish garrison stationed there many layers of defensive positions from which to ward off approaching armies, yet these same defenses were open to fire from the main fort, if they were overrun.

These two forts, together, were intended to make attackers simply give up before even attempting an assault. It was the 16th century Spanish Crown’s equivalent of film character Dirty Harry saying, “Go ahead; make my day. Punk.”

Yet for all its defenses, San Juan never saw the great treasure fleets that fed Spain’s economy for nearly 300 years. After loading their treasure in Veracruz, in present-day Mexico, and Cartagena, in Colombia, those ships rendezvoused in Havana. From there they would catch the favorable Gulf Stream currents up along Florida’s Coast and then across the Atlantic.

“Puerto Rico was in a pretty interesting location. [Because of] the trade winds, ships coming in or going out of the region would have to sail pretty close by.” said Dr. Victor Vazquez-Hernandez, a history professor at Miami-Dade College. “San Juan was, more than anything, a military outpost. A place to have ships go out to defend the region.”

It wasn’t the fleets returning home, but rather the ships arriving from Spain that necessitated San Juan’s prominent fortifications. As the first major island sailors approached after leaving the coast of Africa and centrally located to many of Spain’s New World ventures, San Juan’s strategic importance was for trade. The gateway to the Caribbean, its busy port was a transshipment point for the goods needed for life in the colonies. While not as glamorous in our modern eyes as gold, silver and emeralds, San Juan’s massive defenses illustrate the importance of ordinary trade to sustain the Spanish Empire.

From this canoñera on the upper levels of the fort, Spanish defenders had a clear line of fire (Photo by Vincent Daniello).

Later, the colonies began exporting as well.

“The first colonies were established for gold and silver, but very early on in the colonization of Latin America the colonials decided to produce leather [for export back to Spain],” Vazquez said. “Not long after the leather, they started producing sugar, coffee and then tobacco.”

The central regions of Puerto Rico and neighboring Hispaniola are mountainous. Farming and grazing require areas of plains, so as production increased it tended to spread out along the coasts. San Juan became a central distribution point for all of these goods.

Spain’s territories were also far too vast to police with the military, so San Juan’s forts became a political statement.

“This fort was designed to send a message,” said Carlos Almodóvar, a National Park Service ranger and interpreter and our guide on an excursion through the outer defenses of San Cristobal. “If you were a Spanish settler, when you came here you felt safe. To an attacker, [this fort] was intimidating. The Spanish wanted to project grandiosity to the eyes of their enemies. They wanted to project arrogance.”

San Juan was an important maritime port long before the Spaniards, too. Taínos, the indigenous people of the island, as well as neighboring Hispanola, Cuba, and Jamaica, were skilled navigators and fishermen.

“[For the Taínos] the island was, like it was for the Spaniards, an important strategic location,” Almodóvar said. “It was the frontier between Taíno and Caribe possessions.”

Starting roughly 100 years before Columbus, the Taínos had been at war with the Caribs and the island offered a buffer for the much larger Taíno-populated Hispaniola to the west.

Inhabiting mostly the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles, east and south from Puerto Rico, it was the fiercely fighting and perhaps cannibalistic Caribs that prompted the Spaniards to give the Caribbean Sea its name. (While there is debate as to whether the Caribs practiced cannibalism in religious ceremonies, the English word cannibal is derived from the word “karibna,” or “person” in the Carib language.)

San Juan is still an important shipping port, ranking in the top 20 and also within the top five cruise ship ports in the world (Photo by Vincent Daniello).

San Juan is still an important port, in fact the busiest in the Caribbean, and behind only to New York and Charleston, S.C., in the entire region. Just as the Spanish and the Taínos found, San Juan’s location makes it a perfect transshipment point for goods traveling between Europe, North America and South America, and on to various locations in the Caribbean.

Today, most of San Juan’s 10 million tons of cargo arriving on more than 2000 ships each year supply Puerto Rico’s four million inhabitants with the things needed to sustain life on the island.

“There is not much manufacturing [in Puerto Rico] anymore, no automobile plants, everything has to come in by ship.” Vazquez said. “San Juan is still a distribution port as well, to other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. It is not all local consumption.”

In addition to this cargo, roughly 600 cruise ships pass through San Juan’s harbor each year, ranking it among the busiest cruise ship ports in the world.

As these cruise ships enter from the sea, they pass beneath the cannon of El Morro just as ships have for half a millennia. Historically, passengers would disembark and enter the city at the San Juan Gate, just past El Morro, when entering the harbor.

Today cruise ships tie up just a few hundred yards from the gates of San Cristobal, in an area that was once within San Cristobal’s layered outer defenses. Much of the southeastern section of these fortifications has been removed as San Juan grew beyond its defensive walls, though the walls are still intact in the rest of the city.

Within the confines of the original massive walls, the old section of the city is roughly a triangle, about a half mile in length on each side, with El Morro, San Cristobal, and the waterfront at the triangle’s three points.

Along the ocean side of the city, between San Cristobal and El Morro and also along the harbor entrance from El Morro to the waterfront, the wall is much as it was at the height of Spanish rule.

San Juan Gate offers visitors access to Passeo del Morro, the walkway outside the city walls that stretches from the waterfront to El Morro (Photo by Vincent Daniello).

Walking along the great bastions thrust toward the sea to allow defense of the wall itself, peering through canoñeras, angled to allow a wide field of fire while still protecting gunners, or entering one of the numerous garitas (guard towers) with narrow openings for muskets, are reminders of the constant threat early settlers faced.

Yet the automobile traffic on the road along this wall and modern commerce across the street show the success this once lonely outpost has become.

Owing to the cruise ship passengers that make up roughly three quarters of Old San Juan’s visitors, the shops along the waterfront are largely t-shirt and souvenir shops, as well as many restaurant chains from the mainland U.S.

While some may lament the modern flavor of the waterfront, there is a certain historic accuracy to it. At any given time over San Juan’s history, arriving soldiers, sailors and colonists, weary from a long voyage, would find familiar food and shops with goods they needed here at the harbor’s edge. And when returning to Spain, they might search those same shops for trinkets to bring home.

While San Juan’s massive defenses are outdated and, in fact, were ineffective against modern weapons not 100 years after finally completed. It is trade and commerce that has always been the lifeblood of this city—just as it is today.

The cemetery Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis was built as the city expanded (Photo by Vincent Daniello).
The cruise ship piers are just yards from Castillo San Cristobal in a part of the harbor that was once inside of the fort’s massive outer defenses (Photo by Vincent Daniello).

Comments are Closed