About five miles from the center of Santiago de Cuba stands the most complete and best-preserved example of Spanish-American military architecture, El Morro Fortress. Its official name is El Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, but locals just refer to it as “El Morro.”
GUARDING AGAINST PIRATES
King Philip II of Spain ordered the construction of El Morro fortress to protect Spain’s richest colony and one of its most important cities, Santiago de Cuba. This imposing structure was designed by the Italian engineer, Giovanni Battista Antonelli in 1638 and finally completed in 1700. At that time European powers contested Spain’s supposed rights over the West Indies and competed for possession of the new territories. The prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness encouraged piracy and smuggling. The characters that sailed past El Morro Fortress during piracy’s heyday are heroes to some, pirates to others…but interesting to all.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
- Francis Drake was active in these waters on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In 1595 he undertook his last voyage to the West Indies where he died.
- Dutchman Piet Heyn battled the Spanish nearby and captured a small flotilla relieving the Spaniards of a small fortune.
- Roc “The Brazilian” was actually a Dutchman who migrated to Dutch controlled Brazil. He led a mutiny and adopted the life of a pirate at which he excelled. He specialized in attacking Spanish cargo ships and was captured many times but always managed to escape. His abrupt disappearance remains a mystery.
- Francis Nou, a Frenchman, wreaked havoc throughout the Caribbean and was perceived as brutal even among other pirates. He also disappeared without a trace.
- Henry Morgan was a Welsh landowner who became Governor of Jamaica from where he raided colonies and attacked Spanish ships carrying precious cargo. His efforts made him wealthy and he used his money to buy sugar plantations in Jamaica.
- Scotsman Alexander Selkirk had been a Royal Navy officer. He spent over four years on a deserted island having been marooned there by his captain. When rescued he appeared to be in good health having survived on captured goats, seafood and by maximizing the resources available to him on the island. The British public became fascinated with his story and he became a minor celebrity. Despite the opportunity to live out his life in relative comfort in London, he returned to the sea where he pursued Spanish ships in the Caribbean and died of a tropical fever in West Africa. It is said his ordeal as a castaway in the South Pacific was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s character Robinson Crusoe.
EARTHQUAKES AND DECLINE
Throughout the 1600s, El Morro Fortress was attacked by French and English privateers and was repeatedly reinforced. In the 1700s it was damaged by major earthquakes and again repaired. By the nineteenth century, advances in the weapons industry rendered El Morro’s defenses relatively obsolete. During Cuba’s wars of Independence against Spain in the late 1800s and the Spanish-American War in 1898 El Morro served as a prison.
Finally, in 1997 El Morro Fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The museum inside the fortress is a treasure trove of pirate era artifacts. Guides are available and the exhibits in the museums are well marked in both Spanish and English.
This is an excellent side trip from Santiago for a morning or afternoon. There are gift shops and cafeterias in the area. A private taxi from Santiago should cost you 15 CUC round trip including waiting time.
Does the idea of pirates in the Caribbean fascinate you? Would you like to have lived in El Morro Fortress during those times?
If you are thinking of going to Cuba, I recommend Airbnb for accommodation. Here is a $40 credit on your first stay with Airbnb.
And don’t forget my new book, The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide, available on Amazon.