The History of the City of Cartagena, Colombia

Periods of History

The Pre-Conquest Period of Cartagena

In the bay of Cartagena several villages of aborigine Indians existed. One of them was called Carex, on the present day island of Tierrabomba; another was named Bahaire, on the island of Baru; yet another in the area known today as Mamonal, called Cospique; and in the innermost fold of the bay, on a sandy island facing the ocean, stood the most important one called Calamari. All these villages, and many others in the area were inhabited by the Maconaaes Indians, of the Caribe race, who lived in round thatched huts with roofs nearly reaching the ground. These huts were protected by large trees and by a palisade of wooden stakes on which were displayed the skulls of enemies killed in the wars waged against other tribes.


The Caribes

The Caribes were good navigators and valiant warriors. They fought with poisoned arrows, and many of their women fought shoulder to shoulder along with their men. The Chiefs were called caciques, and their priests or witch doctors, mohanes.   The Caribes believed in the existence of the spirit and rendered homage to their dead whom they buried together with their jewels and personal belongings.  (courtesy: Eduardo Lemaitre, "A Brief History of Cartagena")

The Conquest of Cartagena

The City Name

The name “Cartagena” that was given to our bay is probably owed to the famous navigator and cosmographer Juan de la Cosa, who had been one of Colombus’ companions during the voyage of discovery. When Juan de la Cosa and his cohorts entered this bay with their vessels, it reminded them of Cartagena,  Spain, and because of this baptized the site with the name: Cartagena Bay.


Founder of Cartagena

The city of Cartagena took its name from that of the bay, and is founder was Pedro de Heredia. Heredia was born in Madrid and, during his youth he fought a duel against six adversaries, which left him badly wounded in the nose and disfigured for life. When his wounds healed, Heredia avenged himself in subsequent duels, killing three of his aggressors. Evading justice, he fled to America where he became established, first on the island of Santo Domingo, and later in Santa Marta. Finally in 1532, he celebrated a “Capitulation”, or contact, with the queen of Spain, Juana la Loca (Crazy Joan), wherein he agreed to explore, conquer, and colonize the area around the bay of Cartagena, and to found there a city that would be the capital of a vast Province, extending from the Magdalena River to the gulf of Urabá.


The founding of the city of Cartagena took place officially on June 1, 1533, in the same place where Calamári stood (the indian village on shore of Cartagena bay). Pedro Heredia ritually defied all who opposed his purpose of founding a city. He had streets and plazas drawn up and surveyed, lots apportioned for the Church, for the Cabildo (City Hall), and for the first European settlers, and carried out all the formalities required by Spanish law. So it was that Cartagena was founded, and to differentiate it from the other Cartagena of Spain, it was called Cartagena de Indias (Cartagena of the Indies).


The Conquests of the Founder of Cartagena

Pedro de Heredia was governor of Cartagena for 22 years, from the founding of the city until his death. One of the first undertakings was to lead an expedition inland in search of gold. The sortie took him toward the Sinú River, to a province the Indians called Finzenú, in which lands he discovered tombs containing extraordinary wealth. It was a sacred place, where the Indians buried their dead together with their golden jewels. Furthermore, there was a temple with idols inlaid with the precious metal, hammocks filled with jewels bequeathed by the faithful, and gold bells adorning the branches of the trees. Heredia took possession of all those treasures, and then exploited the tombs as if they were a mine, and made off with immense plunder. Later on, he expeditioned farther inland, ever seeking the mother lode from whence came so much gold, and thus reached the proximities of Antioquia, then called Zenufana by the local Indians; but for lack of provisions and the Indians’ hostility, he found it necessary to return to Cartagena. In later attempts, Heredia and his brother Alonso twice failed to penetrate the mountains of Antioquia. Success was reserved for his loyal lieutenant, Francisco César, who finally managed to prevail and conquer the province after decisively defeating the cacique Nutibara. (courtesy: Eduardo Lemaitre, "A Brief History of Cartagena")

The Colony

Cartagena was, no doubt, from a military and commercial point of view, the most important port of the New World during the 17th century. From its very founding, the city prospered rapidly, progressing from a thatched village to a super city of stone masonry, embellished with great civic and religious edifices, and protected by a formidable and complex system of military fortresses.


This was due, above all, to the fact that is bay, deep and secure, transformed this point over the years into the navigation terminal of the, so called “Fleet of Galleons”. These vessels formed a large convoy of merchant ships, protected by warships that came to America twice a year from Spain. The fleet brought all types of goods to the colonies, and then returned loaded with products from the New World, but most of all, with gold and silver. The galleons remained at times for several months in our port stocking provisions and awaiting for the shipments coming from Panama, Quito, Peru and Chile; and also favorable winds to return to Europe, via Havana. It was not surprising, then, that Cartagena should become a prosperous city. While the fleet was here, port activity was feverish; however, when it sailed, everything came to a standstill, and life went on with calmness and tranquility. It was the so called “dead time”.


During the colonial days, there existed complete and rigid racial segregation; whites, Indians, and blacks lived in separate classes, each one with its rank, customs, and dress. At the bottom of the scale were the slaves. However, in practice, some classes mixed with others, including slaves, and so began the miscegenation that today characterizes our city. (courtesy: Eduardo Lemaitre, "A Brief History of Cartagena")

The Independence of Cartagena

After Caracas, the second city in South America to declare its independence from Spain was Cartagena de Indias, on November 11th of 1811, starting with a series of events of great importance and by which would pay the audacity of standing up to the Spanish empire.

During ten years there would be victories and defeats. It was a time of vital importance where the liberty and emancipation destiny of american provinces would be forged.

The Republic Period

During the Republic, Cartagena de Indias was slowly decaying and as years went by it would lose its vitality and superiority it held during the Colony. From a powerful and well protected commercial port it became a simple villa whose forts, bulwarks, and walls were silent witnesses of the decline of the city. They would only be relics, memories of a glorious past that would not repeat and stay forgotten.

In the XXth century the city would be reborn from among the ashes to reaffirm as one of the most influential in the future of Colombia, converted in an industrial, commercial and touristic port, among the best in the Caribbean.