State of the Defenses of San Juan and the Demolition of the Walls
Throughout the 19th Century, the city of San Juan was engaged in two parallel conflicts, one in which the central role was played by the military authorities, who through continuous studies and defense projects for the City were seeking to obtain the authorization and funds to improve the sorry state of their fortifications, and the other, which was centered on the population, with its constant demand for military land for expanding the city.
Numerous studies were submitted to the Spanish authorities to bring the generally neglected defense facilities and obsolete artillery of the fortifications up to date so that the Island would be in a position to offer an effective defense in case of attack. Although these objectives, in a sense, were achieved, they ended up becoming the justification for the long-awaited final result of the demolition of part of the walls.
Gone were the “proud and admirable” fortification works, as described by the chronicler Abbad y Lasierra, in the heyday of the fortifications of Puerto Rico, which, as a result of events such as the British occupation of Havana and Manila in 1762, led King Charles III of Spain to assert that the Caribbean defenses should be reinforced and modernized. Under his orders, soldiers, convicts, civilian workers, and slaves were included in the works. Such was the interest of the Spanish government in improving the state of the Island`s defenses that it turned to the masters of military engineering of the time: Tomas O’Daly, Juan Francisco-Mestre, Felipe Ramírez, and Alejandro O’Reilly. It was an era in which the defensive system underwent significant transformation, to a great degree thanks to the support provided by uninterrupted arrival of the situado, the monetary subsidy, from Mexico. Between 1765 and 1778, the availability of these funds facilitated the works, resulting in the impressive fortified landscape of San Juan, an authentic bastioned city.
The population’s resolve to defend the island against the invaders, along with the “Glorious Deed” performed by Governor Ramón de Castro during the 1797 British attack led by General Sir Ralph Abercromby, marked the closure of the 18th century and confirmed the strength of the island’s defenses, in view of their efficiency in facing enemy forces.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Captain Fernando González-Miyares thus describes the defenses:
“The landside front of the fort having been completed,…the fortification consists of a semi-bastion called Norte, a flat bastion, and another called Santiago. Facing the curtains arising from the three bastions, two ravelins have been built; one between the Norte semi-bastion and the flat bastion, called San Carlos, and the other called Príncipe. Between the two ravelins … there is a place of arms called La Trinidad, because it is constituted by three batteries in an amphitheater that follows the irregular topography, having thus, as though there were two ravelins, with a ditch connecting to the main one. All these works are protected by a covered way, with the corresponding traverses and paling…The entire main wall to the eastern land front has been built over the old structure, but the ravelins and other outer works have been built up from the foundation….”
A period of unrest
But on entering the century, these glorious defensive works faced quite another scenario. Continual incidents alerted the Spanish authorities to the stirring of liberal ideas among the Island`s population and the possibility of uprisings.
The revolutionary movements among the Spanish colonies on the South American continent, as well as the independence movements and occupation of Santo Domingo by Haiti, among other incidents, greatly influenced the political affairs of the island of Puerto Rico. The island was also affected by the prelude to the American Revolution of 1776. Spain was also wary of Great Britain, which had repeatedly shown interest in owning the island, even of “exchanging Gibraltar for Puerto Rico”.
After “the unconditional loyalty” to the Crown that characterized the 18th century in Puerto Rico, the 19th century, in contrast, would be colored by separatist ideas. The results were seen in a progression of events all over the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico was no exception.
The military itself felt the effects through the repeated incidents of rebellion within the garrison in 1835, in 1838 in the Granada Regiment, and the so-called Uprising of the Infantry which occurred in 1854.
The threat of attack loomed on the island, whether an attack by a foreign power or an insurrection among the populace, in view of the uselessness of the defenses. This was the driving force for the constant petitions to the Spanish authorities in the hope that they would consider the deteriorated condition of the island’s defenses, and approve plans and provide financial support to remedy the situation.
Plans for improving the defenses
The efforts resulted in a broad range of studies with titles such as Proposals for Improvement of Defenses, Improvement Plans for Defenses, and Abbreviated Plans for Defenses, which along with dozens of Reports by the Defense and Ministry of War Commissions, were accumulated during the course of 19th century administrative affairs.
One of those documents is the Plan for the Defense of the Island of Puerto Rico, dated 31 December 1859, and submitted by Don Sabino Gámir y Maladeñ, Army Chief of Staff of Puerto Rico, in which he presents a detailed study summarizing the two basic scenarios of possible attacks on the island: defense from an attack by sea and defense against landing troops. This study is important to understanding the state of the defenses, as it sets forth the guidelines that would be repeated in later improvement plans. The criteria for considering that the island is being attacked are stated thus: by capturing San Juan, “a port of the first order because of its importance for the morale of the residents of this Antillean Island or by naval blockade of the Fortified City and conquest of the territory, achieved by landing in the Ports.”
Over and over again the plans reiterate the poor condition of these defenses and the need to bring them up to date with modern works and artillery.
This article is a passage from the essay by Milagros Flores “State of the Defenses of San Juan and the Demolition of the Walls,” included in the book San Juan: The City that Grew Beyond Its Walls, Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades. For further information about accessing this publication, you may reach EPRL by clicking Contact us.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: December 29, 2009.
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