Cartagena, the restless city

Few people know that Francesco Carletti, a Florentine, was the first private merchant to circumnavigate the globe without official assignments, but by his own means following a route, along with his father – who died during the trip – that led him to trade with the West Indies, the Philippines, Japan, China and India between 1594 and 1606. Carletti’s first trade was that of slaves: he left Spain with a rented ship and arrived in the Cape Verde Islands where he loaded “75 mori et more” and continued crossing the Atlantic along the Alisei route to reach “Cartagena d’India”. In his Ragionamenti del mio giro intorno al mondo [Reasonings of my tour around the world], he uses a wealth of detail to describe his first interactions with Negroes, also expressing a note of regret about the market of human beings that puts him in, “confusion of conscience”: “this always seemed to me an inhuman traffic and unworthy of Christian profession and piety”. However, Carletti immediately returns to focus on the commercial aspect of his journey and reports his arrival in Cartagena as a, “city of the Indies located on the coast that they call the land, far from the equatorial line ten in eleven degrees to the north, with a beautiful port, having first seen the islands that the Spaniards call Antiglias (that is, the Antilles), which as they arrived at the mainland, divided and arranged between the sea and nature with such order and in so much quantity, that they seem to have been placed as trenches sheltering the incomprehensible riches and treasures that many centuries have been hidden from us and all the new world”. As soon as he drops anchor in the bay, our protagonist is immediately arrested because of, “the Spanish strategy, who are good inventors for making money, by bringing many slaves without his Magestà’s license”. After three days however, he is freed through the intercession of Don Pietro Medici, the Governor of the city. Carletti is then allowed to sell his slaves, however complaining that some had died during the trip and that the prices had dropped, causing a lower than expected profit.

In those days Cartagena was the most important authorised centre for this type of trade: the largest slave market in Latin America was held in the Plaza de los Coches [Carriage Square]. The square still exists today and is so impressionable that you can clearly imagine the market as described by Carletti. For him it was not a good experience as he complained about the lost revenue and also of how he was forced to have an extended stay until August 12, as he was always “sick with a very bad fever” and taking care, according to the recommendations of a local doctor, to eat “fresh pork”.

The city that Carletti saw is not that different from what you see today. The fortifications of the Ciudad Amurallada had not yet been built, although Carletti reports that the work is about to be started; but the cathedral already existed in its sixteenth-century form with the oculi above the arches on the side aisles to illuminate the interior and its traditional basilica layout. There is also Plaza de la Aduana, bordered by imposing arcades and the convent and church of San Pedro Claver, which takes its name from the Spanish Jesuit (1580-1654) who worked for better conditions for the slaves in the city. A few years later, on February 5th 1610, the Inquisition Court was established by King Philip II, whose eighteenth-century building still seems to inspire awe.

The first settlement was founded by Pedro de Heredia on June 1st 1533, on a site inhabited by particularly belligerent natives called, Calamarì. A document at the time reports that: “Calamarí, which in the native language meant crab, and from which Heredia and his people simply translated the word ‘Calamar’ to Spanish, was the name with which the natives called a village located in the last fold of the bay of Cartagena of the North Indias. A thatched village with roofs that almost reached the ground, surrounded by a circular fence and thorny trees crowned with skulls, whose inhabitants were bogged down in secular barbarism, but also in absolute freedom.”

Over the centuries the city was attacked numerous times. In 1586 famously by the privateer and navigator Francis Drake, who is still remembered through the preservation of the house where he lived. However, who knows if it is true that he lived there, since he burned most of the houses, destroyed half the cathedral and left only after having obtained the ransom of 107,000 ducats, numerous jewels and 80 cannons!

The city today seems to be still under siege by an exaggerated amount of tourists who come from mostly Colombia, other Latin American countries and the United States; and it is not really difficult to re-live the memories of the past, as the ramparts that jut out onto the Caribbean Sea (which today is one of the most popular places to have an aperitif in front of the sunset) are truly suggestive, as are the streets of the historic centre or the Getsemani district and the Castle of San Felipe. The Naval museum, on the other hand, is a disappointment: full of false reconstructions, and without any original finds of historical value, it is worthy only for the ambiance of the rooms in the building that houses it.

After a sleepless night absorbing the nightlife of the weekend – which reaches levels of total anarchy in the historic centre – Valerio and I indulge in breakfast on a terrace overlooking the bell tower of the cathedral. A Cartagenian boy with whom we speak, laconically comments: “Es una ciudad inquieta” [It is a restless city].

To return to our boat, we take the local bus for five hours along 200km of coastal road back to Santa Marta, via Barranquilla. Along the Costa del Sole, a place of vacation and entertainment, you can see huge slums where thousands of people live with difficulty: plastic and mud dumps that stretch for kilometres and where huts are built up with makeshift materials. The descriptions from the first colonialists of a people “bogged down in secular barbarism”, is one of the many contradictions still existing in our present-day societies, but for these masses of desperate people, the added difference is that they are deprived of the “absolute freedom” that the Calamarì natives – who lived in these lands long before the arrival of the Spaniards – possessed.

Plaza de los Coches
The founder of the city, Pedro de Heredia
The bell tower of the cathedral
The interior of the cathedral
Drake’s house with the buccaneer Valerio Bardi
The defensive structures of the Ciudad Amurallada
A crowded place on the ramparts of the fortified wall with the new city in the background
A wedding in a downtown church
A cannon facing the Caribbean sea