Protecting Havana: Visiting the Amazing Fortifications That Once Protected the City

Protecting Havana: Visiting the Amazing Fortifications That Once Protected the City
January 03 10:14 2017 Print This Article

Do you know the exact location of where your town or city started? These days it no doubt sprawls across a large area, perhaps growing in size annually as new suburbs are tacked on to its outskirts. But of course, the beginnings of a place can be traced back to a certain location, the very first settlement from which your town or city grew. In Europe and much of Latin America, this place is known as the old town. This was the village or settlement that was the beginnings of a place that centuries later would be a bustling metropolis. Some of these old towns have been stunningly well-maintained and allow you to see how the city would have looked back in medieval times. Havana’s Old Town (La Habana Vieja) is an artful combination of Spanish-colonial styles of architecture, and was once all there was to the city. Havana was a prized asset in the Spanish Empire, and needed to be protected from those who coveted its beauty and riches… namely the British, some French, various pirates, and the Americans. It was once the most fortified city in the New World, and these protective measures (though no longer in use for their original purposes) offer a fascinating glimpse into the often turbulent history of the city.

An Angry Pirate

Founded as a trading port in 1515, Havana quickly became a logical target for pirates and marauders. It was, after all, the place where Spanish ships were restocked prior to making the journey back to Europe with all the riches of the New World. Defenses were minimal in the founding days of the city, and so the city quickly fell to the French pirate Jacques de Sores when he arranged a well-organised attack on the city in 1555. He utilised several ships to take the city, although his timing could have been better. Whatever riches he expected to find in Havana were simply not there at the time. It would seem that Jacques de Sores had anger management issues, since instead of sailing away he burned much of the developing city to the ground. This was the event that convinced Havana’s Spanish masters that their new outpost needed extensive protection.

The Treasure Fleet

By 1566, the Spanish decreed that all ships travelling to and from the new world would need to travel as part of its navy fleet, which primarily sailed to and from Havana. Cargo ships would join this fleet and carry their wares back to Europe under protection. Though not permanently docked in Havana, this impressively armed fleet (known as the Spanish Treasure Fleet), spent a lot of time in the city, leading to its vastly extended defensive capabilities. When you visit Havana’s harbour, try to imagine it filled with a fleet of tall-masted sailing ships, all armed fo the teeth.

The Old Fortresses

Amazingly, many fortifications from this era can still be seen and have not degraded all that much over the centuries. A full day Havana tour will show you many of the former fortifications of the city. The San Salvador de la Punta Fortress is one such sight. This was always a good vantage point to spot incoming hostile forces, and was used as a lookout back in the 1560s, although construction of the fortress didn’t begin until 1590. The fortress is more or less intact and you can visit it today. On the opposite side of the entrance to the harbour is Morro Castle, which is perhaps better preserved and was built at around the same time. These two defensive posts once had an underwater chain between them which could be raised in times of crisis, essentially erecting a gate to prevent ships from entering the harbour and plundering the city. Havana’s defensives were further bolstered in 1774, when La Cabaña Fortress was completed. At 9pm on the dot, a cannon is fired from this fortress, which was meant to signify a curfew, when the city gates of Havana were closed for the night. The wall surrounding the city was some 5 km (3.1 miles) in length, with 11 closely guarded gates. At 10 metres high, the wall was the city’s final defense against hostile forces, and it was largely successful. This city wall enclosed Old Havana, but it naturally prevented the expansion of the city. By the mid 1800s, attacks on the city were becoming rarer and so the walls of the city were knocked down, beginning in 1863. A few remnants of these walls remain, and the largest section can be found on Ave de Bélgica, not too far from the train station. It’s remarkable to think that Havana was once so heavily fortified, since these days it’s about the most open and easy going city you will ever encounter.

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