Monday, September 12, 2011

PRp (Pt. V): El Morro

Puerto Rico promise: In 2002, I was reunited with my cousin Danny after several years. Danny and I share a wealth of memories from our childhood. At that time, I promised him that I would visit him and his family at their home. (They were then living on Guam.) Nine years later, I made good on that promise when Maty and I went to visit Danny and family at their new home in Humacao, Puerto Rico.

Read Part I, Delayed in Dallas, here.
Read Part II, Borinquen, gateway to the Americas, here.
Read Part III, The caves of Camuy, here.
Leer Parte IV, Los gatos del Viejo San Juan, aquí.

El Morro

The actual name of the fortress is El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro.  (Those Spaniards do love their titles, do they not?)  "El Morro," translated into English, means "The Headland."  And it is hard to imagine a more apt name for the old fortress sitting on the headlands overlooking the mouth of San Juan harbor.

In 1519, when the Spaniards established their colony atop the hill that later became the city of San Juan, they were the vanguard of a host of sea-faring colonialist powers on the way to the Americas.  From the Spanish point of view, the need for a military strong point to guard their colony could not be more obvious. The subjugation of the New World, the biggest land grab in human history, was on and there were bound to be some sharp elbows thrown as Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, France and England started laying down stakes.

Seaward ramparts

The value of the headlands, towering over the narrow entrance to San Juan Bay was not lost on Spain's military planners.  They began construction of El Morro in 1539. Over the next two and a half centuries, the fort grew.  Eventually, the outer walls of the fortress were (and are) 18 feet thick, and rose 145 feet above the water.  The fort was (and is) comprised of six different levels, each with its own ports for cannon and mortar; each with a clear view of the narrow channel through which must pass the masted warships seeking moorage in the harbor.  Sentry boxes and well-protected musketeer positions were placed along the walls at intervals.  The landward side of the fort was protected by a dry moat and stone walls.  In the days before air power, this must surely have been a daunting obstacle.

Cannon port

Sir Francis Drake, the famous English naval hero who had distinguished himself by helping to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588 (and who also, let us hasten to add, was a slaver and a pirate and probably not a very nice person) made a run at El Morro in 1595.  He attempted to run his fleet past the fort and enter San Juan Bay.  But the Spaniards had built a companion fortress across the mouth of the bay and the Englishmen were caught in a deadly crossfire.  Further, the Spaniards raised a chain across the harbor entrance, preventing English ships from entering.  According to legend, a cannonball passed clean through Sir Francis Drake's cabin, nearly killing him.  Several ships were sunk; the English were defeated; Sir Francis Drake, himself, developed dysentery and died shortly thereafter.

Sentry tower overlooking the harbor entrance
Three years later, the English made another go at it.  This time, the Earl of Cumberland led a force to attack El Morro from the landward side.  The attack carried and El Morro was taken.  But English blood, apparently, was not well-suited for the tropical climate.  Cumberland was subsequently forced to withdraw as dysentery decimated his troops.

In 1625, Dutch forces made their throw for the fortress, following Cumberland's example and attacking over land. But the Spanish cannons held off the invaders who, in a fit of pique, burned down the township of San Juan as they withdrew.

Musketeer's hidey-hole looks out on the rocky shoreline
The fort saw action as recently as the Spanish-American war in 1898, when United States gunships bombed her.  That war put an end to Spain as a colonial power.  The United States took possession of Puerto Rico and with her, El Morro.  The fort is now a United States national park.

Last of the Old Guard
Which, of course, is how Maty and I and our two cousins came to be there --climbing around the parapets, peering in the stone tunnels, looking out over the emerald water.  Maty spotted a long-tailed iguana sunning itself on the stones.  He eyed us, impassively, while I got him framed in my viewfinder.  He didn't seem much impressed. His ancestors long ago lost any interest in the hairless apes that built the marvelous sun decks.  And he'd already seen plenty himself.

To be continued...

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