Cartagena de Indias

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Cartagena de Indias

Located on a magnificent bay on the northern coast of present-day Colombia and originally inhabited by Caribs, Cartagena de Indias was founded by the Spaniard Pedro de Heredia in 1533. From there, expeditions were launched to explore the interior of what became the kingdom of New Granada. By 1574 Cartagena had attracted sixteen encomenderos (those granted the right to extract tribute and labor from the native population) and hundreds of adventurers. Progressively eclipsing Santa Marta (founded in 1526), it became the port that monopolized the legal trade of northern South America, through the system of galleons importing Spanish goods and exporting gold and silver. Cartagena also had the monopoly of the slave trade to Spanish South America. Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, some 120,000 African slaves arrived there to be "seasoned" before reaching further destinations. The capital of New Granada's Cartagena province, it had its own governor (appointed by the Spanish king) and bishop, and was home to one of the three Spanish-American headquarters of the Inquisition.

After falling prey to various pirates and buccaneers, Cartagena lastingly attracted English and Dutch contrabandists. In 1697, following a successful attack by Admiral Pointis, it was temporarily occupied by the French, and in 1741 it was besieged by the British. In response, Spain extended Cartagena's system of walls and fortifications and reformed its defense forces (which consisted of a regular army and white, mulatto, and black militia).

By 1778 Cartagena had 13,396 inhabitants: 27 percent were white, 57 percent were free people of color, and 16 percent were slaves (with women outnumbering men except among whites). In 1809 white creoles and free people of color united against Spanish domination, leading to the declaration of independence of November 11, 1811. Internal divisions and war against the royalist Santa Marta weakened Cartagena, however, and it was retaken by the Spaniards after a deadly siege in December 1815—only to be liberated anew by the patriot army in 1821. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Cartagena lost its economic and political preeminence to Barranquilla, another Colombian port city.

see also Buccaneers; Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Slave Trade, Atlantic


Helg, Aline. Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770–1835. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Lemaître, Eduardo. Historia general de Cartagena, 4 vols. Bogotá, Colombia: Banco de la República, 1983.

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Cartagena de Indias

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