“We never travel to the past, the buildings take us there…”
-Arleen Pabón, Architectural Historian
It’s been almost a month since I started my internship at San Juan National Historic site and it’s been a process full of discovery and learning. I have been working on simultaneous projects at a time, but I will talk about those in a later post. I will now take you into a brief tour about the centuries of history of the park:
The history of San Juan National Historic site takes you back to the year 1508, when Spain, under Juan Ponce de Leon’s regimen, displaced native Taíno Indians of Puerto Rico to control the island. In order to do so, Spain decided to build an impregnable system of defense here. By that time, wealth from the Americas made Spain a world power. In 1521 the city of San Juan was founded. Spain wanted to conquer and build an empire upon this island because it was the main “gate” to the Americas. From here, they could control everything on this side of the world.
One of the characteristics that make this island suitable for conquering is the direction of the wind. It blew sailing ships here from Europe, helped by ocean currents. Also, Puerto Rico was the first major island with water, shelter, and supplies that sailing ships came to en route to the Americas from Europe via Africa’s west coast. San Juan’s bay is very deep and it serves as an excellent port.
In 1533, the construction of La Fortaleza started; the first fortification that Spain built. In the present, this structure serves as the house for Puerto Rico’s governors. The complete set of the two main structures, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, “El Moro”, and Castillo San Cristóbal, along with the city walls, was built for over 250 years. This system was an imposing barrier to the wealth behind the Caribbean. Gold, Silver, Gems, Spices, and furs from Mexico and Central and South America were protected from here.
The system of defense fortified the San Juan Islet with three lines of defense. The first, second and third lines of defense were directed at protecting the mouth of San Juan Bay against enemy entry. Many of the original structures of the whole fortification no longer exist. Actually, the first two lines of defense no longer exist. The third line of defense consists of the walls around the city and the two main fortifications (both castles).
In 1539, the construction of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro started. It was built to protect San Juan Bay’s deep harbor from attack by sea. “El Morro” evolved from a promontory with cannon to a massive, six-level fortress. It was worth Spain’s investment: it protected Spain’s access to the New World wealth for over 300 years. “El Morro” has endured as a masterpiece of military engineering from the 1500s to the present. The first level consists of the water battery. The second level is where the original tower was built. The third level is the lower plaza. Level 4 is where Spain held the main firing battery. Level 5 is the main plaza where most of the casemates are. Finally, level 6, the highest level, is where they held the land defense.
The first attack to the fort came in 1595, led by Sir Francis Drake. They tried to attack by land, and afterwards, they tried to enter through the bay, but their ships were burned; “El Morro” survived the attack. Three years later, a second English attack came, this time led by George Clifford. This was the first and only attack made by any country to San Juan that had success. They entered by land until they reached the city and attacked it. They conquered the land only for two months after “El Morro” surrendered. The conquest didn’t last for long since they had to retreat because of a dysentery outbreak.
In 1608, Spain began the construction of the Fortín San Juan de la Cruz, “El Cañuelo”. It is a half-mile across the mouth of the bay at the Atlantic Ocean. It is located right across “El Morro”, so the stretch of water in between could be covered by a deadly crossfire, protecting the harbor and the entrance to Puerto Rico.
After the Dutch attack in 1625, when the city was burned and almost destroyed, Spain decided to build the city walls, along with a massive structure that today holds the title of the biggest European construction in the Americas: Castillo San Cristóbal. During that attack that lasted for 21 days, the Dutch army destroyed “El Cañuelo”, but could not conquer “El Morro”. They decided to retreat, but not without stealing the main church’s bell. “El Cañuelo” was later re-built on 1660. Castillo San Cristóbal started rising from the ground in 1634 and it did not finish until 1783. An interesting detail is that “El Morro” did not finish its construction until 1790, 7 years after Castillo San Cristóbal, although it started in 1539. It is interesting since “El Morro” is smaller and less detailed, but the reason for this is because at the time “El Morro” started its construction, it was a little improvised and Spain did not have enough funds. When they started Castillo San Cristóbal they had more wealth and architectural plans, so they advanced more.
The Castillo San Cristóbal, with its sprawling outer defenses, was built over 150 years to protect “El Morro” and the city from land attack. It was designed by the Irish-born Chief Engineer Thomas O’ Daly. He decided to serve Spain because Spain was an enemy of Ireland’s enemy: England. This fortification is divided in 3, massive levels. The first level is the main plaza, where the historic entrance still survives until these days. The second level is where the main firing battery was. Finally, the third level is the observation area and the highest point of the castle. This fortification holds numerous underground tunnels that served in favor to Spain. If the enemy got into the tunnels, these were designed in such an intelligent and strategic way that Spain always had the advantage to win. The ingenious O’ Daly constructed a monster of the engineering that no one ever could take the Island. Spain decided to cut some of the outworks in 1897 to expand the city of San Juan. One year later, history changed its course and the Spanish Empire would see its last days.
In 1898 the sound of the cannons hit Castillo San Cristóbal. Nonetheless, it was “El Morro” who suffered most of the attack. On May 12 1898, the United States army came to the island, trying to start a battle with Spain in order to gain Cuba. They bombed the island for three hours: from 5 am through 8 am, but no one counterattacked. This is when they realized that Spain was on its way to Cuba, so they also went there. In the midst of the start of the Spanish-American War, Spain returned to Puerto Rico and in the holiday of July 25, when Spain was celebrating its patron saint, United States entered by land from the south of Puerto Rico, through Guánica. From there, they advanced until on mid-August of the same year, American troops raised the U.S. flag over the island. In December, under a peace treaty, the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States.
From that point in history, United States started to rule its militia from San Juan. They established the San Juan Military Reservation in 1899, and in 1943, in honor to the first American governor, Castillo San Cristóbal was renamed into Fort Brooke. Only 6 years later, the San Juan National Historic Site was established under National Park Service system for the purposes of preserving the history of the structures and their value. In 1983 it was declared a World Heritage Site.
San Juan National Historic Site is one of over 417 parks and historic sites in the National Park System.
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