THE TRAVELLING HISTORIAN -- <i>Fuerte de San Cristobal</i>

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Puerto Rico's

Fuerte de San Cristobal

Christopher Columbus

Caribbean Bound

Departing Palos, 3 August 1492

When Christopher Columbus and company set sail for the New World in 1492, they came in three ships. Two, the Nina and the Pinta, were caravel-type vessels. To carry enough supplies for the long trip, Columbus needed a nao ship, a three-master (fore, main and mizzen), each of which carried one large sail. It was the kind of freighter used by the Portuguese and the Spanish during the 15th century and early 16th centuries.

A seventy-ton nao named La Gallega was chartered by Columbus and when she sailed up the Tinto and dropped anchor off Palos, Christopher re-christened her Santa Maria. This vessel, his flag ship, never made it back to Spain, for on the night of 24 December,1492, she sank off the coast of Hispaniola Island.


Santa Maria
photo by

Columbus Cruising the Caribbean
19th century Spanish painter Brugada.

Contrary to the impression created by the following painting, Santa Maria, sank as a result of negligence, not wild weather. On the night in question, Columbus decided not to anchor but to sail on and took first night watch duty himself. Before long his head began to nod and he ordered a seaman to relieve him and turned in. The sailor also fought fatigue and contrary to naval practice, ordered a boy to assume watch while he took a few winks.

The sinking of the Santa Maria by Adolf Closs

Around midnight the wind rose and a swell broke upon the ship. Terrified the boy frantically hollered for help, but no one reponded. Juan de la Cosa, master and second in command had been assigned that watch, but he failed to appear. The pilotless-ship crashed into a reef and subsequently sank. Columbus, utterly dismayed by the loss of his ship and greatly embarrassed as its captain, blasted Juan de la Cosa and placed the blame squarely on him for causing the catastrophe.

On his second trip to the area in 1493, Christopher Columbus 'discovered' the island of Puerto Rico on St. John's Day and named it San Juan. He named the bay Puerto Rico ["port of riches"] Later the names became switched.

Another version of the first visit to this tiny island was recounted later to the queen's representative by Martin Alonso, captain of the Pinta.

To the frequent frustration and anger of Christopher Columbus, Alonso displayed an annnoying tendency to navigate at variance with the Admiral's orders and more than once they became separated. On one of these occasions, Alonso sailed to the southwest and subsequently reported to Columbus that he had come upon, explored and claimed for the king of Spain, the north coast of what became Puerto Rico.

Columbus "greeted the wayword captain with cold fury and an unholy argument ensued." Columbus refused to recognize Alonso's claim to have taken possession in the king's name of what he called, "a heap of rocks." He angrily reminded Alonso that his powers, Columbus's, were vested by the Crown itself. An unrepentent Alonso indicated they could take the matter up with the court of justice on their return to Spain. Columbus exploded and in a fury, declared he would come and hang Martin Alonso in the doorway of his own home.

After Alonso had returned to his vessel, Columbus calmed down, realized it was not a good time to deal out punishment and grandly offered Alonso his pardon. The two ships set sail for Spain, each man anxious to be first with the news of his discoveries and eager to relate his version of the events.

Columbus's ship, Nina, amidst much rejoicing, made it back to Lisbon first. Not long afterwards, the familiar sails of the Pinta. were sighted. By this time Alonso had become quite ill and was fearful he would not be able to inform the monarchs of his mission. Mistakenly believing Columbus had perished in a storm, Alonso wrote to the sovereigns informing them of "his" discoveries and requesting permission to come directly to court to discuss his mission with Isabella and Ferdinand. He was quickly informed that he should come only in company with the Admiral. Dashed and dismayed Alonso related his tale to the queen's representative. Shortly thereafter the one man, who should have shared with Columbus some of the glory and greatness resulting from their discoveries, died. One historian recorded that Alonso's "unpardonable crime," was that he had the luck or skill to obtain more gold than Columbus.

Statue of Martín Alonso Pinzón in Palos.

In 1508, one of Columbus's lieutenants, Juan Ponce de Leon, returned to Puerto Rioo, declared himself governor and as a result of his leadership and labour is considered largely responsible for its prosperity.

Juan Ponce de Leon
The statue in the plaza of San Jose Church is made from a British cannon captured during British General Ralph Abercromby's attack on San Juan in 1797.

Ponce left the island in 1521 to colonize Florida and supposedly search for the Fountain of Youth. His connection with such a life-giving stream became attached to his name only after his death. He failed to find the fountain and was fatally wounded in an encounter with natives opposing the landing of Spanish settlers. His body was returned to San Juan, where it is interred in the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista.

Tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon

Calling it the "Key to the Indies," King Philip IV of Spain, said Puerto Rico was, "the front and vanguard of all my West Indies, the most important of them all and the most coveted by my enemies." Their coveting had to do with filling their coffers with the gold and silver flowing into Spain from the American mines.

San Juan's extensive fortifications served to keep the island and its port free from the hostile and very hungry hands of Holland, England and France. Their occupation of San Juan would have provided a base from which they could prey on other Spanish settlements and on Spanish ships sailing for Spain.

After the conquest of Mexico and Peru, Spanish ships hastened homeward laden with loot - gold, silver and pearls - plundered from the Aztecs and Incas. To safeguard their "treasure-fleets," bearing wealth beyond belief, an Armadia de la Guardia, [convoy system] was implemented. Mighty fortifications were constructed at key locations along the fleets' routes, all to forestall attempts by pirates to pilfer in turn what the Spanish had pillaged.

Spain declared the Caribbean a mare clausum [closed sea] with all non-Spanish vessels subject to seizure. Such a pronouncement was predicated on the assumption that the Spanish controlled the seas, which they soon found to be faulty, thanks to Elizabeth's seafaring privateers.

El Draque

Among the most notorious of the interlopers on the Spanish Main was Sir Francis Drake, whose Latin name, Franciscus Draco ['Francis the Dragon'], described him to a tee, as far as Spain was concerned. Drake regularly raided Spanish ships, finding therein, fortunes for himself and his queen. The King of Spain is supposed to have offered huge amounts for his hide.

By the middle of the 17th century, Spain's three enemies controlled Martinique, Trinadad and the Virgin Islands in the Lesser Antilles and they cast their eyes northward to the Greater Antilles, their sights fixed firmly on Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola [now Haiti and the Dominican Republic].

In 1595, Drake was dispatched to the Caribbean by Queen Elizabeth. He sailed for Puerto Rico, which he intended to make a permanent English base. He was the first to test the efficacy of the Spanish forts and found them to be tough. Dauntless and with typical daring, Drake anchored his ships within shot of the Spanish cannons. One ball fired from El Morro Castle bashed through his ship, Defiance and shattered the stool on which he sat eating supper. He was unhurt, but despite his bravery and boldness, El Draque lost the Battle of San Juan. [*]

Old San Juan
Yellow Spot on left: El Morro; Yellow Spot in the centre: Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal

Features of a Fortress

Wells - Massive cisterns stored year's supply of rain water;
Embrasures - Openings atop fortress walls
Ramps - provided access between fortress levels
Casemates - were used for storage and quarters

Ravelins - outer defences protecting the walls of the fortress
Loopholes - allowed for protected gunfire
Dry Moats - stopped invaders short of the fortress
Sentry Boxes in which soldiers stood guard
Bastions - Stuck out from the walls so defenders could fire at invaders
Ramparts - high walls around a fort capped with a parapet {extended wall above the roof level].


A number of problems faced the engineers of the forts, one of the most difficult being how to supply sufficient drinking water for thousands of troops with no nearby sources of fresh water. Their solution: build huge cisterns under the main plazas, where thanks to gutters, pipes and gravity, rain flowed from roofs and floors into the cisterns lined with lime to keep the water potable. El Morro's cisterns held 216,000 gallons; San Cristobal's five cisterns held 716,000 gallons. Together the cisterns could store nearly a million gallons, reckoned to be about half of San Juan's annual rainfall.

Fuerte de San Cristóbal [Fort San Cristobal] or Castillo de San Cristobal [Saint Christopher Castle], is the biggest fort in Puerto Rico, rising almost 150 feet above sea level and some 10 feet/3 m higher than El Morro Fort. It is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Constructed above the old city over 150 years, it protected El Morro and guarded against land assault from the east. Completed in 1783, its rambling parts are spread across 27 acres of land and designed to be brilliantly impenetrable. A defense-in-depth architectural model, San Cristóbal has a tiered-network of fortifications that requires an enemy to face and force several defensive barriers before breaching the fort. Known as "Gibraltar of the Caribbean", Fuerte de San Cristobal has five separate units and it has never been breached.

Massive Ramparts of Castillo San Cristobal
photo by
G. Wilson

A fearsome Fuerte indeed
photo by
G. Wilson

Rush this Rampart
photo by
G. Wilson

The fort's engineer's top priority was to build it so that it would withstand a siege that included the impact of a 24-pound cannon ball hurtling homeward at more than 1000-feet per second. They accomplished this by using the sandwich approach, a process whereby they alternated hard-soft-hard materials as depicted below.

Cross-section of Fort's Walls

(1)Terreplein [level space behind the parapet of a rampart where guns are mounted]
(2) Parapet
(3) Storage or Quarters
(4) Inner Wall [masonary]
(5) Mamposteria (fill)
(6) Outer Wall [masonary]
(7) Counterscarp
(8) Moat.

Walled Runway
photo by
G. Wilson

The Heart of San Cristobal - the Courtyard or Main Plaza.
photo by
G. Wilson

This is where the daily events of the fort took place and for more than a century was the busiest place in the fort. Each morning the rat-tat-tat of drums and the high-pitched piercing sound of the fife summoned the soldiers to the plaza d'armes for the daily routine of drills, duty and special squads to render honour to the flag, witness punishments or attend mass in the chapels.

Vaulted rooms around the plaza, known as casemates, served as officers' quarters, barracks, storage areas, the kitchen and the latrine.

Barrack's Beds
A proud private lights the way.
photo by
G. Wilson

photo by
G. Wilson

Bearing the coat of arms of the Spanish sovereign, this cannon sites San Juan through Fort San Cristobal's Embrasure

Rifles at the ready
photo by
G. Wilson

Troops spent hours learning the latest drill techniques from Europe. How to load and fire the flintlock muskets and smoothbore cannons was learned "by the numbers", a sequencoial drill procedure that made mastering blackpowder weapons easier, prompted better teamwork and helped build confidence and discipline in the ranks.

Undaunted Dandies
photo by
G. Wilson

Military engineers considered garitas [sentry boxes] "indispensible for good defence." Always sited strategically at salient locations on a fortress and city walls, garitas provided the sentry therein with unobstructed views of land and sea, making it difficult for anyone to approach undetected. Each garita was one-of-a-kind, its details reflecting the era in which it was built and the military design favoured by the builder.

Soldier in the
"Devil's Sentry Box"
Garita del Diablo
scans the sea for the sight of enemy ships.
photo by
G. Wilson

"The name devil’s guerite or devil’s sentry box comes from a legend that says that soldiers disappeared when they were on guard in that sentry box because they were taken by the devil. The devil’s guerite is isolated from other sentry boxes because it is in the lower level of the fort in close proximity to the ocean. The sound of waves hitting the rocks would create noises that soldiers heard as voices. The soldiers were superstitious and believed the voices were from demons. Therefore, they hated having to stay on guard at the devil’s guerite. One night, a soldier that was on guard there stopped responding to the alert shouts of the other soldiers. They immediately feared the worst, but waited until the sun rose to go look for his friend. The soldier was nowhere to be found, but his uniform, rifle and cartridge belt were inside the sentry box. This led them to think he had been taken away by the devil, and this is when they named the sentry box Devil’s Guerite and how the legend started. However, local stories say that the missing soldier was found years later living in Luquillo, another municipality in Puerto Rico, and that he disappeared because he escaped and ran away with his girlfriend."

photo by
G. Wilson

The tunnels, six hidden passages sometimes called galleries, were an important part of the fortifications. They protected soldiers from enemy fire and permitted movement of troops throughout the fortification unseen by the enemy.

Countermined Tunnel
photo by
G. Wilson

Some tunnels were called countermining galleries, each containing explosives in the grooves in the wall, that could be detonated to collapse on enemy intruders.

In one of the tunnels, five ships have been drawn on the wall. It is thought they are the work of a Spanish captain, who passed the time in this dark hole painting ghostly galleons, while he awaited his execution for mutiny.

photo by
G. Wilson

photo by
G. Wilson


photo by
G. Wilson

photo by
G. Wilson


photo by
G. Wilson


In January 1596 Sir Francis Drake died from dysentry. He had asked to be arrayed in full armour and buried at sea in a lead coffin.


Drake's burial at sea off Portobello.
Bronze plaque at the base of Drake's statue in Tavistock
by Joseph Boehm, 1883,

The coffin and two of his ships were also sunk near Portobelo, a port city in Colón Province, Panama. The lead casket was designed to ensure that no one - especially the Spanish - would ever find his body. They never did but ever since, divers have haunted the site for any sign of the coffin and its illustrious contents. Four hundred years later, remnants were recently found of the two ships, Elizabeth and Delight, discovered off the coast of Panama. Where there are boats, can the body be far away?[*]

The Telegraph 23 March, 2011

Sir Francis Drake's final fleet 'discovered off the coast of Panama'

Treasure hunters claim they have discovered two ships from Sir Francis Drake's fleet off the coast of Panama and believe his coffin could lie on the seabed nearby. His burial at sea in full armour and in a lead casket was designed to ensure that no one - but especially the Spanish - would find his body. Now, more than 400 years after Sir Francis Drake's death in the Caribbean, the great seafarer's watery grave may be close to being discovered. A team of treasure hunters led by an American former basketball team owner claims to have discovered two ships from Drake's fleet lying on the seabed off the coast of Panama. The 195-ton Elizabeth and 50-ton Delight were scuttled shortly after the naval hero's death from dysentery, aged about 55, in 1596. It is thought that Drake's final resting place may be nearby.

Pat Croce, a former president of the Philadelphia 76ers and self-professed "pirate aficionado", embarked on a search for the ships after researching a book on the latter part of Drake's career, as a privateer plundering Spanish ships in the New World. Mr Croce, 56, described the discovery as "pretty wild", saying that after several days of searching in murky waters, the team suddenly got lucky "It's been truly miraculous," Mr Croce told The Daily Telegraph. "You set yourself impossible goals in life, but to find these two ships has been amazing. We are 98 per cent sure of their veracity. The charred wood, the lead on board, the English pottery from that period. And we're confident no crew in its right mind would have deliberately sailed there." Mr Croce said that based on multiple records from the time, including the journal of Thomas Maynard, a member of Drake's entourage who sailed on the Defiance, the coffin was believed to be one league - or just over three miles - away from the wrecks.

Mr Croce described Drake as his "favourite pirate of all time". "Here's a fellow in the 16th century who sailed around the world and single-handedly wreaked havoc in the New World when navigation was still primitive," he said. "Even Queen Elizabeth described him as her pirate. The British members of our crew have been very excited."

Drake fell ill a few weeks after failing to conquer the port of Las Palmas. He died while anchored off the coast of Portobelo and his two badly damaged ships were scuttled to avoid them or their contents falling into Spanish hands. Mr Croce's team, which includes experts and explorers from Britain, France, Australia, Panama and Colombia, used what diving experts have described as the most sophisticated equipment in the world to scan the ocean floor. After locating the two ships, they now hope to find Drake's body, which has long been the target of treasure hunters and historians.

."It's truly a needle in a haystack, but so were the ships. We found them within a week. We just haven't found him, yet," said Mr Croce, the founder of the St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. The Elizabeth and Delight were emptied and torched after Drake died, so no treasure has been recovered, Mr Croce said. The ships will remain in the water because they are the property of Panama. Marine archaeologists were amazed at the find. "We've really, I feel, hit a home run here with what we found with Pat," said James Sinclair, a marine archaeologist. "Finding the Elizabeth and Delight near where Sir Francis Drake is buried is as exciting to me as helping discover Atocha [the Spanish treasure ship] and diving for RMS Titanic." He added: "Finding ship structures from that time period in this temperature water with the type of organisms that exist is a treasure in itself. We have an area that future students of underwater archaeology will be able to use for years to come."

. Drake, one of the key figures of the Elizabethan court, is revered for his defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. One of Britain's greatest adventurers, he became only the second seafarer in history to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580.


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