“Puerto Rico was the first major island with fresh water that the ships encountered as they sailed west from Europe in the 1500s. The nation that controlled the harbor could protect their merchant ships and send warships out to control shipping to and from the Carribean.” (U.S. National Park Service signage)
Once the Spanish explorers found their “rich port,” they knew they would have to defend it.
On our second trip into Old San Juan, we visited two major forts, Fort San Cristóbal and “El Morro.” (The city of Old San Juan is surrounded by a gated wall, which unfortunately we did not see or have time to explore.)
Fort San Cristóbal
Begun in 1634 and now administered and maintained by the U.S. National Park Service,
San Cristóbal is one of the largest fortresses ever built in the Americas by Spain. A huge complex system of tunnels and dry moats connects the center of the fort to its “outworks” over a 27-acre site. (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010)
San Cristóbal worked as a partner to the fort El Morro
that was within view from the windows.
El Morro, located at the entrance to the harbor, guarded the bay. San Cristóbal protected San Juan against attackers coming by land from across the island.
Initially a Spanish fort, San Cristóbal became a U.S. Army fort in 1898.
The fort includes features dating back as far as the 1760s when it was built by Spain. It includes modifications made by the U.S. Army that was here from 1898 through 1960. A grass-roofed building on one of the lower levels of the fort was built in 1942 as a WWII command post and now houses park visitor facilities and offices.
When it was built in 1769, this was a gunport for a canon aimed at the moat. In 1942 the U.S. Army converted it to a doorway leading to the longest of six hidden passages, or tunnels, in the fortress.
The tunnels, sometimes called galleries, were built to protect soldiers from enemy fire and to move large numbers of troops unseen.
The large rooms, or casements lining the walls on the interior of the fort are found in most Spanish fortifications. The arched ceiling provides strength and added protection against attacks. These rooms were bombproof vaults designed with gun ports for cannon,
and functioned as troops’ quarters, kitchens, and latrines.
All the floors and roofs were designed to catch rain and drain it into five huge cisterns below ground. Together the cisterns held a total of 870,000 gallons of fresh water.
To keep the drinking water supply clean, animals were banned from the fortresses and the cistern tanks were lined with limestone.
The fort also contained a chapel, probably added in the mid-1800s for daily mass. “Catholic faith permeated all of life in Spain’s colonies; church and state were inseparable. One of the goals of Spanish colonization was to spread Catholicism.” Park signage.
Unfortunately my photograph did not turn out well.
The dark gray sky in one of the earlier photos, resulted in a rainfall (thank you, Isaac) and we started moving a little more quickly, uncomfortable in our newly purchased clear plastic rain ponchos.
Regardless of Spain’s religious agenda, the fortifications were all built to defend San Juan
and its precious harbor.
In 1586 the English were raiding Spain’s treasure fleets from, and cities of, the New World. King Philip decided to fortify the Carribean at 10 key sites. One of those was the harbor of Old San Juan.
Perched on a rock promotory at the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro was begun in 1540 as a round tower that is still visible deep inside the lower levels of the castle. Yet another thing we missed.
Walking up and down the steps of the many levels, along the walls, and through the tunnels of these forts was not a task for the faint of heart or weak of knees. We did not go “deep” inside this castle. Maybe next time.
The complex fortification seen today was finished by 1787 and was attacked repeatedly by the English and the Dutch.
Connected to San Cristobal by ancient tunnels,
El Morro is “an intriguing labyrinth of dungeons, barracks, vaults,
lookouts, and ramps.” (Frommers)
A lighthouse was added to the fortress in 1846 to guide ships into and out of San Juan harbor. This is the fourth one, built in 1908 by the U.S. and replacing the one built in 1899 by the U.S. The first two built in 1846 and 1876 were built by Spain.
Santa Barbara Battery is the main gun deck. The deck that is visible today was completed about 1780.
“This main firing battery looks pretty much as it did when Spain built it in the mid-1700s, but it also features artillery emplacements from the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War II (1941-45).” (Park signage)
From here the fort could fire cannons at enemy ships in the harbor entrance or ocean. Shots were fired against the British in 1797 and against the Americans during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
An earlier version of the main gun deck fired cannon at English ships in 1595 and 1598, and Dutch ships in 1625.
If you look closely at the left top corner of the higher wall, you will see a small black structure with horizontal slits. That is a coastal artillery observation post that the U.S. Army built here during WWII. The U.S. soldiers looked for German submarines or other warships.
The Spanish were looking for English, French, or Dutch sails on wooden ships. (Park signage)
Part of Spain’s defensive strategy to guard the port was to build a tiny sister fort San Juan de la Cruz, known as “El Cañuelo” across the bay from El Morro to keep ships from slipping in along the far side, and setting up a deadly cross-fire for enemies. If you click to enlarge the picture you might be able to see the stone structure at the end of the line of palm trees.
The Spanish knew that “to control the harbor was to control the entrance to the Carribean and access to the riches of the New World. Spain defended San Juan and its harbor for almost 400 years.” (Park signage)
“The fortifications of Old San Juan, together have been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.” Frommers
See more posts about Puerto Rico.