El Morro

El Morro

The old fortifications and walls of Old San Juan were built by the Spanish to protect the city from military and pirate attacks. The main fortification of the islet is the San Felipe del Morro Fort, named in honor of King Felipe II of Spain. It is located on the promontory at the mouth of San Juan Bay, where the land rises precipitously more than 100 feet above the sea.

The first military structure erected on this promontory dates to 1539 and consisted of a stone tower built on the crag about 60 feet above sea level. It had four gun ports and a circular platform for three pieces of artillery that were called the “water battery.”

In 1588, because of the continual attacks by pirates and privateers, King Felipe II sent two experts to the Antilles to plan defenses for the overseas territories: Field Marshal Juan de Tejeda and the Italian engineer and architect Juan Bautista Antonelli. Three projects were approved for San Juan: a fort on the promontory, a defensive wall and a defense for the Boquerón Channel.

In 1599, construction began on the fort, which consisted of a “hornabeque” (two half bastions connected by a wall). The structure was designed by Antonelli to house 3,000 people. The fort, which Tejada called “La Ciudadela,” extended along the promontory and, along with the tower and the “water battery” in the entrance of the bay, protected the embattlement.

The new hornabeque had two half bastions. The first was called “Austria” in honor of the ruling dynasty in Spain and offered a view of the port, the bay and the nearby grounds. The second, called “Tejada,” faced the Atlantic. There was also a straight wall that connected the two bastions, a moat, a gate, a drawbridge, a “revellín,” a triangular fort that covered the connecting wall, a guard house and storehouses for munitions and weapons.

The first attack against El Morro occurred in 1595, when 25 ships commanded by English privateer Sir Francis Drake attacked the port of San Juan in an attempt to steal a shipment of gold and silver. The artillery at El Morro forced Drake to withdraw. The next attack occurred in 1598 under the command of Sir George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland. He disembarked to the east of the islet with plans to seize it. El Morro’s artillery held him off for a while, but Cumberland was able to take the fort after the surrender of Governor Antonio de Mosquera. The Englishman was forced to abandon his plans to make San Juan an English base, however, when an epidemic of dysentery took the lives of 400 of his soldiers. He abandoned the islet after sacking the town and the fort.

The reconstruction of El Morro took place between 1601 and 1609 and included the installation of foundations for the fort walls. These improvements were insufficient to stop the enemy, however, as was proven in the Dutch attack of 1625. The fleet, commanded by General Boudewijn Hendricksz, was able to enter the bay and evade the attack by the artillery of El Morro. They laid siege to the fort from the land, but the Spaniards tenaciously defended their position until they were able to remove the invaders from the islet.

In the 18th century, another cycle of renovations was ordered by King Carlos III. Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilley and the chief of engineers for San Juan, Tomás O’Daly, were in charge of the structural design to reinforce the fortifications. The changes included improvements to the main battery, called Santa Bárbara; the redesign of the flank walls; and the enlargement of the bastions. Also, the old parapets were replaced with thicker ones and bomb-proof rooms were built that supported, in turn, a broad embankment or firing platform. Later, in 1843, a lighthouse was built on the upper part of El Morro, the first of its class in Puerto Rico.

During the Spanish-American War, El Morro was attacked by a naval squadron commanded by Admiral William T. Sampson, who bombarded the city of San Juan for three hours. The Spanish artillery could not contain the attack by the United States ships. After the defeat of the Spanish forces, the fortifications were taken over by the United States government.

During the first half of the 20th century, San Felipe del Morro Fort was part of the Fort Brooke complex, which included housing and a hospital. During World War II, observation posts and communications centers were built on the fort. In 1949, El Morro was declared a National Historic Site in San Juan. In 1983 was declared World Heritage Sites along with La Fortaleza a San Cristóbal Fort. It is administered by the National Parks Service. Today it is one of the main tourist attractions in Puerto Rico.

Adapted by the PROE Editorial Group.
Original source: The Forts of Old San Juan, National Historic Site of San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2002. National Parks Service, Publications Division.

Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 08, 2014.

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