Thoughts for Today
From the real world sublime and challenging
Colombia’s Gateway – Cartagena, Getsemani…
Defending what you have…it’s just an Ash Wednesday fort…
This was to be a very colourful Ash Wednesday in Cartagena (pronounced Cartaheena), the largest port of Columbia and where the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans meet. The sight of the school children filing out of the local church of the district of Getsemani freshly clay ashed was very moving as they gave us a smiling penitent thumbs-up. This was the revolutionary district of Cartagena, a poor area which has now become the ‘hippest art village’ with many ‘spray can’ street art masterpieces. Umbrella alley is a splendid sight and shields the domino players from the hot sun. We are a long way from the peoples’ revolt against the Spanish royal rulers which began in Getsemani in 1809 led by a blacksmith named Pedro Romero. Independence was attained in Cartagena on 7 August 1819 and later the whole of Colombia (named after Columbus). Romero cast church bells and cannons, and he was brave enough to petition the King of Spain to request (unsuccessfully) that his son be given permission to study law in Bogata. At that time non-whites were banned from studying at colonial universities.
The sunrise this day was stunning and silhouetted the huge cranes of the port. We spotted the huge fort built after the insurgency of gold pirate Sir Francis Drake in April 1586. He had 23 ships, 3,000 men and destroyed over 200 houses in Cartegena inflicting fire damage on the Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria. Drake was bought off within the month with a ransom of one million pesos (£34,000 today) and sent packing. Such was the piracy of those times.
The work on the walled city began in 1596 and on completion was 11 kilometres in length. The fort became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 and as can be seen from the photograph is enormous. To this day it has never been overcome. It is called the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress after its commissioner King Philip IV of Spain. The defences were important from the time of pirates and again from the British in the siege of Cartagena in 1741. The Spanish troops of 2,800 saw off the British fleet and armies of 23,600 which were part of the wider conflict of ‘Jenkins Ear’. This lasted 9 years through the Caribbean. The Spanish commander was Don Blas de Lezo who from his previous battle injuries had one eye, one leg and one hand.
Our young guide this day was called ‘Ender’ who proudly told the stories of the place via his portable amplifier, and enthused about the national sports of Boxing, Football and above all Baseball. We saw establishments of ‘Fish and Chips’ next to Taco Bars. There was an entrepreneurial place called ‘Beer and Laundry’ next to the man selling melons from his street cart. A whirlwind tour of the Emerald Museum ended up with us in the Cathedral, still bearing some of the scars of Drake’s incursion. It has marbled floors and a large gilded high altar contrasting the simplicity of style of high arches and cupola. This third cathedral was completed in the early 1700’s.
At the beginning of the 20th century Colombia was generally peaceful and the economy developed. Exports of coffee increased, but in 1948 another civil war La Violencia broke out. Colombia had always been dangerously divided into liberals and conservatives, but the assassination of liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on 9 April 1948 was the spark that lit the fire. The army was on the side of the conservatives and in 1953 General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla became dictator.
However, in 1957 Pinilla stepped down and the two parties, Liberal and Conservative agreed to share power. Between 1957 and 1974 the presidency alternated between them. In the 1960s left wing guerrillas began operating in Colombia. The 1970s saw the production of cocaine increase and it continued to increase in the 1980s leading to a great deal of violence. Meanwhile, in the early 1980s Colombia was hit by a severe recession.
Yet in the early 21st century the situation in Colombia improved, and violence declined. Furthermore, the Colombian economy grew rapidly. Colombia, like the rest of the world suffered in the recession of 2009, but the economy soon recovered. It also suffered severe floods in 2010. However today, tourism in the country is growing, and is developing steadily. In 2020 the population is 50 million.
We will remember the colourful city of Cartagena, with its large wooden balconies on the well worn colonial buildings and the vibrancy of the costumed street sellers. Also, because it was the one and only port we visited with its own Eco-Park called Port Oasis. You could handle a sloth for $10 and see the hosts of parrots, toucan and pink flamingoes.