The Fortification of Havana

Havana harbor, circa 1602

Havana harbor, circa 1602

 

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A bohio – or thatched hut – that a Taino would inhabit. The Tainos were the indigenous peoples who populated Cuba before the conquest of Velázquez.

According to an enlightening 1554 census, and compared to other colonial cities at the time, Havana was a ghost town. The census, issued by Havana’s Cabildo, proclaimed that 5,000 Tainos, 800 African slaves, and 660 Spaniards composed the total number of inhabitants living within the scant city.

Before this time, only a mere chain of thatched huts dotted the perimeter of Havana harbor, with absolutely no existing defensive installations, such as palisades, ramparts, parapets, guard towers, and certainly no fortresses, castles, or blockhouses. These houses were vulnerable to more than unexpected attempts at pillage and plunder, as Spanish settlers followed the Taino tradition of constructing their dwellings – or bohios – out of dried dung and palm leaves. Numerous fires, and an increasing threat of them as more settlers and slaves congregated in Havana, would eventually convince the Cabildo to create a requirement that all houses and buildings be made out of stone. This declaration, unfortunately, would not manifest until the entire city burned in 1540 from several vengeful expeditions by French corsairs.

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The Tierra Firme Fleet, which left a million pesos in Havana harbor before returning to Seville in Spain. Nothing more could be wedged into the holds of the 28 ships!

The Tierra Firme Fleet, which left a million pesos in Havana harbor before returning to Seville in Spain. Nothing more could be wedged into the holds of the 28 ships!

From the 1492 expedition of Christopher Colombus, well past the founding of the city by Diego Velázquez in 1515, Havana always remained an international target of conquest. European expeditions – notably from Spain, Portugal, and later, France – ventured more and more to attain the momentous wealth promised by fantastical tales and accounts of the New World, tales of abundant riches, gold, and fortune. Havana was a place of such stories. The first fortress built on the island of Cuba (the Fuerza Vieja), and indeed in the New World, was not constructed to protect the city from piracy, but rather to shelter the mountains of gold, silver, and currency brought and stored in Havana. In 1583, for example, the Spanish Tierra Firme fleet left one million pesos in the city after they could not wedge any more in their ships’ holds.

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Dutch watercolorist Johannes Vingboons completed this landscape painting in 1639, nine years after fortresses El Morro and Castillo San Salvador de la Punta were finished

Dutch watercolorist Johannes Vingboons completed this landscape painting in 1639, nine years after fortresses El Morro and Castillo San Salvador de la Punta were finished

Yet from the dawn of the corsair attacks of the early sixteenth century, an architectural revolution was underway in Havana, with the sudden construction of multiple defensive structures. The dominating fortress of Real Fuerza was constructed in 1558 by a royal decree from King Phillip II of Spain. The Viceroyalty of New Spain also contributed 30,000 pesos for its creation. In the same year, furthermore, Phillip II also ordered the construction of El Morro, an imposing castle that has become a long-lasting symbol of Havana. Both Real Fuerza and El Morro served to protect Havana harbor from pirate attacks throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Another fortress, by the name of Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, was erected by Italian architect Juan Bautista Antonelli to mirror El Morro. Like El Morro, the fortress was finished in 1630. As Alfredo José Estrada claims in his book, Havana: An Autobigraophy, piracy no doubt strengthened Havana.

Catalog of Fortresses in Havana Harbor:

  • Fuerza Vieja – name of the initial fortress during the corsair attacks, completed in 1540, before being reconstructed into Real Fuerza
  • Real Fuerza

  • El Morro

  • Castillo San Salvador de la Punta