As one of the most visited tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, the imposing Castillo San Felipe El Morro has played an key role in the island’s history and defences for hundreds of years. Positioned on the islet of San Juan and facing out over San Juan Bay, the fortress was named in honour of King Felipe II of Spain, who once described San Juan as “the key to the Indies” due to its significant location as supply port for trade ships travelling the Caribbean. The words El Morro are Spanish for a headland or promontory overlooking the sea, describing perfectly the location of the fortress. Over the centuries, this magnificent structure – the oldest European fort in the Americas – was never defeated in attack by sea, and only once overwhelmed when attacked overland.
Constructing El Morro
The history of El Morro began when the settlers of the Puerto Rico moved from their original town of Caparra to the more salubrious islet of (Old) San Juan. In 1537, La Fortaleza was built to house the island’s governor and armoury, but it quickly became clear that the building would provide inadequate protection to the growing population of the island. In 1539, permission was received from King Charles V of Spain to begin work on a fortress called El Morro – a small tower which housed four cannons and just enough space for their operators to work.
Between 1587 and 1589, work continued to expand El Morro, making it more recognisable as the structure which still dominates San Juan Bay today. Juan de Tejada, a military expert, and Juan Bautista Antonelli, an Italian engineer, were responsible for planning expansions to the architecture of El Morro including the distinctive horn work and dry moats. The pair also worked on similar fortresses elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Attack on El Morro by Francis Drake
The importance of El Morro and its role as guardian over San Juan Bay first became clear in 1595. Sir Francis Drake had been granted permission to serve as a privateer – a pirate under the service of Queen Elizabeth of England. The queen was known for her animosity towards Spain, as she was of the Protestant faith, while the Spanish were staunch Catholics. Elizabeth did not wish to engage in direct battle with the Spanish but sent Drake on an aggressive mission to intercept trade ships belonging to the country and claim whatever they carried. By this time, Drake was well known for his prowess on the seas and had been nicknamed “The Dragon” after defeating the so-called Invincible Spanish Armada in 1588.
In November 1595, Drake and co-commander John Hawkins set out on what would become the Dragon’s final voyage. According to a journal kept by one of the crew members of The Defiance, Drake was unhappy at having to share command with Hawkins from the outset, however this did not prevent them from making a successful attack on the Canary Islands. On the heels of that victory, when Drake spotted a damaged galleon(which was carrying 2,000,000 ducats, an enormous sum) trying to seek shelter in San Juan Bay, he followed.
At El Morro, Governor Pedro Suarez was wary of Drake’s plans and prepared 1,500 men to fight. Drake’s men were ill-prepared for the reception that they would receive when they tried to break through the defences of the island under the cover of darkness on November 22. The route which they followed passed directly through the water battery cannons of El Morro, sparking a battle which lasted just an hour before the English were forced to retreat. A further attempt to enter the harbour was also blocked, and Drake left Puerto Rico a failure. Drake went on to attempt an attack on Panama, which also failed, and just a few months later died at sea, with most historians attributing his death to dysentery.
Attack on El Morro by George Clifford
Francis Drake’s failed attempt to attack El Morro in Puerto Rico did not end the Queen of England’s obsession with Spain’s overseas colonies. On June 16 1589, George Clifford, Third Earl of Cumberland, landed with troops in Condada, to the east of San Juan. Clifford had learnt from Drake’s mistakes and knew it would be impossible to penetrate El Morro from the bay.
Accompanied by 1,400 men, some of whom had sailed with Drake on the previous attack on El Morro, Clifford led an attack on San Antonio Bridge. This was the only entrance to San Juan islet at the time, but Clifford’s progress was slowed by battery from the canons at El Boqueron for two days. However, Clifford and his men were soon able to lay siege on El Morro. The Spaniards held their ground until July 1, when they were forced to surrender due to infection by dysentery and lack of artillery.
The English were to rule over El Morro and San Juan for a period of three months, but during this time, the Spanish did not rest easy. Plans to fight back were under way, and reinforcements were on route to El Morro when the English suddenly decided to retreat. Historians suggest that the main reason for this retreat was dysentery amongst the men, with 400 deaths and 400 weakened by the illness, Clifford knew that he was no longer able to keep a firm grasp on San Juan. As they left the city, Clifford and his remaining men looted and burned, leaving a wake of destruction behind them.
Attack on El Morro by Boudewin Hendricksz
The third attack on El Morro came not from the English, but from another foreign power – the Dutch. Often referred to as the Battle of San Juan 1625, the attack was led by General Boudewin Hendricksz and was an engagement of the 80 Year War. With 17 ships and 2,000 men, the Dutch wished to gain control of El Morro in order to build their own military base.
Hendricksz began his attempt on San Juan on September 24 1625, when he sent a message to the island’s governor, in which he asked that the Spanish surrender. Although Governor Juan de Haro refused to give in easily, the Dutch moved into land at La Puntilla and took control over the governor’s house, La Fortaleza.
The Dutch were not, however, destined to gain control over El Morro. A group of around 50 civilians, organised by Puerto Rico born Juan de Amezquita attacked the Dutch. Many Dutch were killed or wounded, and Amezquita is credited with stabbing Hendricksz in the throat with a sword. On October 24, the Dutch retreated, setting fire to the city as they left. Amezquita’s role in defending Puerto Rico was rewarded and he later became the Governor of Cuba, while a monument to him stands in the grounds of El Morro.
Increasing the Defences of El Morro
After the Dutch attack on San Juan, Governor Enrique Enriquez de Sotomayer gave permission for the defences of El Morro to be fortified. In 1630, work began on the huge walls which would encircle the city. With the construction work spanning 48 years, the thick walls were broken only by five entry gates, with the main gate located near La Fortaleza. Further reforms to the city walls continued in 1765 after a British attack on Havana made the Spanish wary of new threats from their enemies. The walls grew to be 5 metres thick at their widest points, and 42 metres high in some places, which would serve to protect El Morro efficiently in future attacks. El Canuelo Fort was also built during this period.
Attack on El Morro by Abercromby & Harvey
On 17 April 1797, a new attack was launched on El Morro by the English. Captain’s Abercromby and Harvey led a flotilla of 68 ships carrying 13,000 men in an attempt to capture San Juan Bay once and for all. Abercromby and Harvey had learnt from their predecessors mistakes and were far better prepared for the battle ahead. The Spanish Infantry Regiment and Royal Artillery Company were joined by Puerto Rican civilians and locally organised groups of volunteers, making this attack one of the largest battles ever seen in Puerto Rico. Although the situation looked bleak for Puerto Rico, on May 2 1797, Abercromby and Harvey gave orders to retreat. Legend has it that lights were seen moving through Old San Juan, and the English leaders believed that Spanish reinforcements had arrived. According to folklore, those lights were actually carried by women and children participating in a religious procession known as la Rogativa. This popular story is remembered with a sculpture in Old San Juan.
Bombardment of El Morro During Spain/US War
In 1898, El Morro would see its final active battle when it was bombarded by US forces as part of the Spain/US War. A fleet of battleships, cruisers, torpedo ships and other boats, led by Rear Admiral William T Sampson had been sent on a mission to intercept the Spanish Admiral Pascaul Cervera y Topete as he navigated between Cape Verde Island and the Antilles. After preparing to attack, Sampson received no further information and instead moved into position in San Juan Bay. The US fired a first shot at El Morro and so the Battle of San Juan began. Rough seas meant that both sides had rounds blown off target, and despite the battle lasting only hours, much damage was done to El Morro and San Juan. In total the US used 1362 shells during the battle, while the Spanish used 411. The war between the United States and Spain was brought to a conclusion by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, in which Puerto Rico and several other Spanish overseas colonies were ceded to the US.
El Morro Under US Rule
When the United States gained control of Puerto Rico, El Morro was made into part of the military base Fort Brooke. Named after Puerto Rico’s first American governor, Fort Brooke provided accommodation and recreational area for the US military and baseball diamond, palm trees, a hospital and even a golf course were set up for their use.
In 1915, during the First World War, the US fired their first shots of the war – at a German supply ship, Odenwald, the ship being forced into the bay, where the goods it was carrying were confiscated. During the Second World War, the military added concrete artillery posts to be used for tracking the movement of German submarines in the Caribbean Sea, as well as an underground bunker.
Fort Brooke was closed in 1961, and in 1983, El Morro became officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visiting El Morro
More than 2 million visitors travel from all corners of the globe to visit El Morro each year. For a small entry fee, visitors can watch a short video presentation about the history of the fort as well as attending an orientation talk by knowledgeable park rangers. Both the video presentation and orientation talks are available in both Spanish and English. Visitors also receive a map, allowing them to take a self-guided tour of the historical site at their own pace.
El Morro has six levels, and is approached by land across a green which is now commonly used for kite-flying and is popular with families as a picnic area. The dry moat which surrounds the walls was designed to make attack from land more difficult while protecting the lower walls of the city. Inside El Morro visitors will find the attractive main plaza with its yellow walls and white arches. Surrounded by rooms which once would have been used for storage, living space, prisoners quarters and even a chapel, the main plaza also houses a well with a capacity of over 200,000 gallons of water – enough to last for a year in case of siege.
At the upper levels of the fort, an interesting feature is the sentry boxes where soldiers would once have stood guard. Called garritas, these sentry boxes have become a symbol of Puerto Rico and are often seen on postcards, car stickers and other memorablia. One garrita in particular has an folklore tale attached to it. Known as the Garrita del Diablo – the Sentry Box of the Devil – it is said that a soldier once disappeared from the box leaving only his rifle behind, and his companions believing that the place was haunted. A more romantic story suggests that the soldier had fallen in love with a local girl, and used his shift at the sentry box as an excuse to escape and run away with her.
Another sight not to miss while wandering around the upper levels is the lighthouse. With breath-taking views to the east towards San Juan Cemetary, and to the west to El Caňelo Fort and San Juan Bay, the lighthouse was first constructed in 1846, and reformed in 1878. The lighthouse suffered a direct hit during the 1898 bombardment of El Morro by the US, however they rebuilt it in 1906, using the original brick foundations.
The three flags that can be seen flying in El Morro are the Puerto Rico flag, the United States Flag and the flag of Burgundy, which has a white field and jagged red cross and was flown in the fort from the 16th to 18thCentury.
In the lower levels of El Morro, visitors can find Torre Antigua, which is what remains of the original fort built in 1539. Be sure not to miss the piece of shrapnel which has been lodged in the domed ceiling of the building since the US bombardment of 1898. At sea-level visitors will observe the Santa Barbara Battery, the most powerful canon battery named for the patron saint of those who work with fire and explosions.