Forts and Fortifications, Spanish America

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Forts and Fortifications, Spanish America

Almost from the outset of the Spanish occupation of the Americas, raids by English, French, Dutch, North African, and other competitors made the construction of coastal and port defenses essential. By the 1540s, certain strategic ports had become fortified centers: Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, and San Juan, Puerto Rico—the centers of Spanish power in the islands; Cartagena—guardian of northern South America and the approaches to the Isthmus of Panama; Nombre de Dios and later Portobelo at the isthmus; San Juan De Ulúa at Veracruz—the key and entry to Mexico; and Havana—the strategic center and rendezvous point for the convoys returning to Spain. Additional secondary fortifications in Yucatán, Florida, Central America, and the islands were designed to deter raiders and foreign settlers. The early defenses were quite simple—keep and bailey forts armed with a few iron or bronze culverins and smaller cannon. But the capture of Havana by French raiders in 1555 underscored the need for stronger fortifications and garrisons. In the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, beginning with Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation (1577–1580), English, French, Dutch, and buccaneer raiders plundered Spanish commerce and ports along the Pacific coasts and forced Spain to fortify Callao, Panama City, Acapulco, and other towns.

In the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, the construction of massive fortifications designed by Spanish and Italian military engineers incorporated revolutionary architectural changes stemming from European advances. In 1563 the engineer Francisco Calona began the redesign of Havana's fortifications to incorporate modern bastions, gun platforms, thick vaults, and a dry moat. These improvements gave defenders the best possible field of fire against enemy attackers as well as protection against the intense cannonades of besieging forces. The capture of the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa and the town of Veracruz (1568) by John Hawkins, and Drake's Caribbean raid (1585–1586), during which he took Santo Domingo and Cartagena, caused Philip II to dispatch the well-known Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antoneli to design modern fortifications at San Juan de Ulúa and to survey the defenses of the Caribbean. Antoneli's proposals led to the construction of an expensive but fairly effective system of fortifications that in the case of Havana resisted capture for nearly 200 years until 1762. Indeed, renewed assaults by Drake and Hawkins in 1595 against improved fortifications failed at San Juan, Puerto Rico, and at Cartagena, where yellow fever, ma-laria, dysentery, and other tropical diseases forced the besieging force to desist. Drake went on to devastate Nombre de Dios at the isthmus, after which the town was abandoned permanently in favor of Portobelo.

After the Treaty of London in 1604, European competitors occupied vacant American territories that were excellent staging points for more serious attacks. Also, small forces of marauding buccaneers, often supported by European allies, plundered Spanish fortified ports. They massacred the garrison of Portobelo in 1668 and managed to capture many Spanish port towns and fortifications. On several occasions, buccaneer forces crossed the isthmus, captured Spanish shipping, and attacked the poorly fortified Pacific ports of Central America, Mexico, and Peru. Although the major Caribbean fortifications should have been impregnable against such raiders, problems with manpower in the garrisons and failures to maintain expensive works, artillery, and magazines presented opportunities for successful lightning attacks.

With the decline in revenues during the seventeenth century, hastily recruited Spanish American militiamen lacked the resolve to defend fortifications against the implacable buccaneers. Campeche fell in 1672, and in 1683 a buccaneer force assaulted the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa and captured Veracruz. They pillaged the town, killed 300 of the 6,000 inhabitants, and even threatened to massacre the entire populace if a ransom was not paid. With the arrival of the annual Spanish fleet, Mexican militia forces from Puebla, Orizaba, Jalapa, and Córdoba reoccupied the town to find buildings gutted and the corpses of people and animals rotting in the streets. In the aftermath of this disaster, the Mexican authorities convened special tribunals to investigate and punish military officers who had failed to defend the fortifications.

Although international treaties gradually brought the buccaneers under control, the Spaniards were slow to improve their defensive fortifications. In April 1697, a French force of seven warships escorted by frigates and bomb vessels—more than 4,000 soldiers and seamen—surprised Cartagena, which was considered to be impregnable. Spanish cannons mounted on weak cedar-wood carriages proved no match for the effective artillery fire of the attackers. The undermanned forts capitulated on 3 May, and the French sacked the city, holding wealthy residents for ransom. Fortunately for the defense of Spanish American possessions, the nadir had been reached. Compelled by the increasing ability of enemies to mount larger amphibious attacks against fortified ports, the eighteenth-century Spanish Bourbons invested heavily to upgrade and modernize the fortifications at Havana, Cartagena, Veracruz, Panama, and elsewhere. Critics argued that a defensive strategy centered upon a few major strongholds provoked enemies to direct their attacks against weaker secondary targets. But Spain improved its defenses to the point that would-be opponents no longer challenged fortifications without significant planning and much larger forces. Beyond looking after its own defensive works, the Viceroyalty of New Spain provided situados (financial subsidies) to improve and maintain Havana, Santo Domingo, and the Florida fortifications.

Spanish preoccupation with the upgrading of Caribbean defenses coincided with the possibility of large amphibious attacks by Britain during the succession of eighteenth-century wars. In the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739–1748), a major assault in 1741 by forces commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon and Brigadier-General Thomas Wentworth failed to capture Cartagena, which had been upgraded and modernized by the engineer Juan de Herrera y Sotomayor. Despite successful attacks upon outlying forts, the 14,000 British regulars, Anglo-American militiamen, and some companies of black troops succumbed to tropical diseases as the siege progressed. Finally, Vernon abandoned Cartagena to attack Santiago de Cuba and the isthmus, but the expedition found no easy targets. In the end British forces lost more than 10,000 troops and many seamen. Spain's best defensive use of fortifications was to hold besiegers in place until yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery took hold. While Vernon misjudged the strength of improved Spanish fortifications, it was also obvious that Britain now possessed the logistical and marine strength to assault coastal defenses and even to undertake invasions inland against Spanish American provinces.

In 1762, during the Seven Years' War, Britain used its marine ascendancy to dispatch a force of thirty-five ships and an army of 14,000 troops—regular infantry, American provincials, black companies, and slaves. Arriving at Havana in June, the British caught the Spaniards completely off guard. On this occasion, the formidable fortifications of El Morro and the almost impenetrable seaward and landward defenses of Havana were insufficient to deter invasion. Striking quickly against disorganized defenders, the British stormed El Morro, which had been weakened by heavy fire from siege batteries set up ashore and by cannonades from the warships. The Spaniards hoped to prolong the siege until tropical diseases and the advancing hurricane season forced the British to desist, but full cooperation between the besieging army and navy units corrected earlier weaknesses from Vernon's day. Havana surrendered and was occupied for ten months until the Peace of Paris.

The fall of Havana, the strategic key to the Spanish Caribbean, caused repercussions that altered all aspects of defense planning. Not only were fortifications strengthened, but Spain introduced a military reform program designed to overcome deficiencies in the garrisons. Aware that Britain might contemplate an invasion of Mexico, the Spaniards spent five years (1770–1775) constructing a new fortress at Perote, inland from Veracruz, to protect against a surprise coup de main. Situated in the healthy uplands, this fortress was designed to impede the march of an enemy army on unfortified Mexico City. An invader would require heavy siege artillery, munitions, supplies, and sufficient troops to besiege a fortress distant from the coast. While Perote was not tested in the colonial period, its existence permitted Mexican viceroys to remove un-acclimatized soldiers from garrison duty in the fortifications of Veracruz. According to most plans, potential invaders were to be bottled up on the coast until yellow fever destroyed their capacity to fight.

During the late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century wars against Britain, Spanish forces and fortifications helped to defeat British attacks at San Juan, Puerto Rico (1797), and deterred invasion plans for Mexico in the period from 1805 to 1807. While the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa remained the last bastion of Spanish power in Mexico until 1825, it did not help Spain to reoccupy the viceroyalty. Through the nineteenth century, many of the fortifications became infamous prisons and penitentiaries rather than serving as sentinels to protect strategic ports against foreign intrusions.

See alsoArmed Forces; Militias: Colonial Spanish America.


The best study on the early period in English is Paul E. Hoffman, The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean, 1535–1585: Precedent, Patrimonialism, and Royal Parsimony (1980). John H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (1966), presents a good general survey, as does Arthur P. Newton, The European Nations in the West Indies, 1493–1688 (1933). For maritime attacks on Spanish possessions in the Pacific, see Peter T. Bradley, The Lure of Peru: Maritime Intrusion into the South Sea, 1598–1701 (1989). Clarence H. Haring, The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the Seventeenth Century (1910), provides a good survey of their raids on Spanish fortifications, as does the more recent work by Juan Juárez Moreno, Corsarios y piratas en Veracruz y Campeche (1972). For the eighteenth century, British attacks on Spanish fortifications are examined in Richard Pares, War and Trade in the West Indies, 1739–1763 (1936); David Syrett, comp., The Siege and Capture of Havana, 1762 (1970); and Richard Harding, Amphibious Warfare in the Eighteenth Century: The British Expedition to the West Indies, 1740–1742 (1991). For specific studies on the histories of fortifications see José Antonio Calderón Quijano, Historia de las fortificaciones en Nueva España (1953), and Guillermo Lohmann Villena, Las defensas militares de Lima y Callao (1964).

Additional Bibliography

Blanes Martín, Tamara. Fortificaciones del Caribe. La Habana, Cuba: Letras cubanas, 2001.

Marchena Fernández, Juan. Ejército y milicias en el mundo colonial americano. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

Serrano Alvarez, José Manuel. Fortificaciones y tropas: El gasto militar en tierra firme, 1700–1788. Sevilla: Diputación de Sevilla, 2004.

                                      Christon I. Archer