1811-1821: Cartagena’s Struggle for Independence
written by Adam McConnaughhay
In many ways, Cartagena can be seen as the driving force and symbol of the struggle for independence from Spain and it holds a position of incredible importance for the independence of all of present day Colombia.
As the main port and the house of the Spanish Inquisition of the Spanish viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, Cartagena had long been a site of economic and military importance. Goods traveling from much of present day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela to Spain or vice versa would have passed through Cartagena, including the trade in human beings. Cartagena was one of Spanish America’s largest slave ports and over a million slaves were imported into the city. The legacy of the slave trade had helped give rise to a large population of freed blacks, known as pardos, who by the early 1800s made up the majority of the population of the neighborhood of Getsemaní and largely dominated the craft trades in Cartagena. Pardos would go on the play an important role in Cartagena’s declaration of independence as well as the patriot forces led by Simón Bolívar and others in the wars to come.
Desires for independence emerged among the criollos, people of Spanish descent born in the colonies who made up most of the economic elite. Many criollos such as Bolívar studied in Europe and were increasingly exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. They began to construct an identitfy separate from Spain and came to resent Spain’s insistence to appoint peninsulares, people born in Spain, to positions of power in the colonies. This nascent nationalism and frustration with colonial authority along with the impact of United States’ independence and the events of the French Revolution led some criollos to call for their own independence.
In 1808, when the King Charles IV abdicated, Napoleon, whose armies had occupied Spain, made his brother Joseph the king rather than Charles’s son Fernando VII. In addition to setting off a prolonged guerilla war in Spain, this action helped spark the movements for independence in Spanish America. Much of the Spanish American colonies declared themselves autonomous and only willing to submit to Spain’s rule once Fernando VII was restored. Among those places was Santa Fe de Bogotá, the capital of Nueva Granada, where on July 20, 1810, leaders of the governing council declared they would submit only to the rule of Fernando VII.
The first city in present day Colombia to declare absolute independence was the city of Mompox, the site of an important river port to the south of Cartagena, in August of 19101810. Mompox had been under the control of Cartagena and in part hoped to escape its dominance with the declaration of independence. Indicative of the division over those who were calling for independence and those who were not ready and the internecine conflict that characterized much of the first moves for independence and arguably much of Colombia’s history, a force from Cartagena brought Mompox back under control in January of 1811. In July 1811, Caracas in Venezuela would declare absolute independence as well.
November 11, 1811
By late 1811, calls for a move for absolute independence by the faction of Cartagena’s politicians led by the Guitiérrez de Piñeres brothers had grown. With a meeting of the city’s governing council planned, the brothers enlisted the help of Pedro Romero, a charismatic pardo and popular and influential leader in Getsemaní. Romero helped drum up support for independence and led a militia group known as the Lancers of Getsemaní outside the meeting to pressure a vote in favor of independence.
The leading role of Pedro Romero and the working class population marks Cartagena’s independence as unique compared to the rest of Colombia. Other cities counted on popular support for their declarations of independence but only in Cartagena was it the working class, and a largely black working class, that forced the criollo elites’ hand. While the criollos would go on to dominate politics during the independence period and beyond and in many ways further entrench a racist and classist status quo, the popular class’s participation and the importance of Getsemaní to Cartagena’s cultural and historic identity were of extraordinary significance and have largely gone unrecognized and underappreciated. The fact that Cartagena, an overwhelmingly black city, has only had one black mayor speaks to the reverberations of this under-appreciation.
The Free State of Cartagena and the Patria Boba
Upon declaring itself independent, Cartagena organized it and the area under its jurisdiction as the Free State of Cartagena, which included much of the present day provinces of Bolívar, Atlántico, Sucre, and Córdoba. It wrote a constitution and adopted the present day flag and seal. It would remain a sovereign state until recaptured by the Spanish in 1815.
During this period, the area that would make up Colombia remained largely fragmented and divided. Bogotá, as the former colonial capital, favored a centralized government with authority over the rest of the territory, while much of the rest of the areas that declared independence, including Cartagena, favored a federal system that gave them authority over their own local affairs. Some areas, such as Santa Marta to the north of Cartagena, remained loyal to Spain. This division resulted in infighting and what amounted essentially to civil war and contributed to the successful reconquering of Nueva Granada in 1815.
In an episode indicative of the period, in early 1815, Simón Bolívar was to lead an army to defeat royalist Santa Marta, which had been warring with Cartagena since 1811. On the way to Santa Marta, Bolívar was to acquire more men and arms in Cartagena. However, the governor of Cartagena, Manuel de Castillo y Rada, a rival of Bolívar’s, refused. In response, Bolívar laid siege to Cartagena from la Popa hill for a month and a half. All the while, royalist forces captured the nearby cities of Barranquilla and Mompós and an expeditionary force from Spain had landed in Venezuela and would shortly be on its way to retake Cartagena and the rest of Nueva Granada. This type of refusal to set aside political disagreements and personal rivalries and unite behind the common cause of independence led to the downfall of this first attempt at independence and this period being remembered as the Patria Boba, or “Foolish Fatherland.”
The Reconquista and La Heróica’s Resistance
The French had been driven out of Spain and Fernando VII restored to the throne by the end of 1813. In addition to reinstituting an absolute monarchy, he also looked to reassert Spanish control in the Americas and the profitable trade that came with it. In early 1815, a force of 15,000 men and 65 ships left Spain for South America under the command of Pablo Morillo; Morillo landed on the Venezuelan coast in April 1815.
With the news of Morillo’s arrival, Bolívar, still camped outside Cartagena, ultimately decided taking Cartagena by force was both unlikely and undesirable. He negotiated a truce and broke his siege in early May. He passed through Cartagena on his way to exile in Jamaica and then Haiti, leaving Cartagena to face the coming Spanish attack.
With the patriot forces divided and distracted, Morillo reestablished full colonial control in Venezuela and began marching towards Cartagena via Santa Marta. By early August, Morillo’s forces had encircled Cartagena and by the end of August, his naval forces had successfully blockaded the city. Cartagena was now cut off forom all outside supplies or communication.
The final words of Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence in 1811 had vowed to defend the city’s liberty to the last drop of blood. With a defending force of 2,600 regular soldiers and another 1,000 militia against Morillo’s approximately 11,000, that vow would be put to the test. Despite Morillo’s advantage in numbers, the city was well fortified and its walls made a successful assault unlikely if not impossible. Morillo chose instead to starve the city into submission.
Cartagena refused to capitulate and withstood a siege of over 100 days. Its leaders and patriot forces preferred to flee rather than surrender and attempted to pass the blockade and join Bolívar in exile in early December. Most were captured or lost at sea.
Morillo finally occupied the city on December 6. Cartagena’s perseverance had come at a high cost: its citizens had been reduced to eating dogs, cats, horses, rats, and even leather. Starvation began to take its toll and under siege and weak from hunger, the citizens of Cartagena were unable to bury their dead, causing disease to spread rapidly. As many as 6,000, a third of the city’s population, are thought to have died. Morillo and the Spanish forces described a horrific scene with dead bodies in the streets and many people bedridden or barely able to stand they were so weak from starvation. The city’s valiant and stubborn resistance would cause Bolívar to honor it with the nickname La Heróica.
Morillo’s forces would go on the retake Bogotá and the rest of Nueva Granada with little resistance by mid-1816. Upon doing so, they would take retribution on patriot leaders. A tribunal was set up and supporters of independence were tried and punished. In February 1816, nine independence leaders were publicly executed in Cartagena. Today these “nine martyrs” along with other patriots executed by the Spanish are remembered with statues outside of Cartagena’s clock tower in front of the city’s convention center.
Liberation at Last
The recapture of Nueva Granada was short-lived. Simón Bolívar had returned to Venezuela from exile with new funds and recruits and had been carrying out a guerilla war against the Spanish forces there. Knowing that Bogotá and the interior of Nueva Granada were less well defended, Bolívar devised a daring plan to march across the Venezuelan plains and over the Andes and liberate Nueva Granada, giving him a base of operations to complete the liberation of Venezuela. In mid-1819, his army set off during the rainy season when the royalists believed him to be resting.
Bolívar’s plan was successful as patriot forces surprised the royalists in a series of battles in early August, culminating in the decisive Battle of Boyacá on August 7 when most of the royalist army surrendered. The viceroy and the royalist government in Bogotá immediately fled to Cartagena and Bolívar entered Bogotá on August 10.
In the well-defended Cartagena, the royalist forces would hold out for nearly two more years. In mid-1820, patriot land forces surrounded Cartagena and in January 1821, a patriot fleet under José Prudencio Padilla blockaded the city. On July 24, patriot naval forces under Padilla defeated the Spanish fleet in the bay outside Cartagena’s walls, near the present day site of the city convention center. Finally, on October 10, nearly ten years after its original declaration of independence, the royalist forces surrendered and Cartagena would have its independence, this time to keep.
La Heróica’s Place in Colombian Independence
Cartagena would suffer a long 19th century. The toll of Spanish occupation and war had drastically reduced its population. With free trade opened up and the decline of the Canal del Dique, Barranquilla, with its direct access to the Magdalena river, would surpass it in commercial importance. The loss of the tax paid by the rest of the colony as the seat of Spain’s military power along with a series of epidemics, including the cholera epidemic of 1849, kept it in a state of decline. It would not reach its pre-independence population numbers again until after the turn of the century.
Arguably, Cartagena was the most important city in the struggle for independence. Bogotá’s rejection of French occupied Spain’s authority is celebrated today as Colombia’s independence day and the declaration called the Act of Independence due largely to Bogotá’s preeminence in politics and academics. However, it was no true declaration of independence as it continued to affirm loyalty to a Spanish king.
Undoubtedly, Bogotá’s declaration was an important step, as was Mompós’s declaration of absolute independence. However, it was Cartagena that succeeded in creating the first true functioning independent state in Colombia. It was also its declaration that helped radicalize Nueva Granada’s nascent experiment in self-government to a desire for complete independence. Despite its recapture, its valiant resistance carried enormous symbolic power. Finally, as the last bastion of Spanish power Colombia’s independence was only complete with Cartagena’s re-liberation. Cartagena, la Ciudad Heróica, therefore should rightfully be recognized as the key to all of Colombia’s independence.
Interested in more on Cartagena’s independence struggle? While in Cartagena, visit:
-The Cartagena History Museum/Inquisition Palace (more information here)
-The Naval Museum (more information here)
-The Pedro Romero statue at Plaza de la Trinidad in Getsemaní, located here.