- Historic Sites
Forts Of The Americas
On their weathered stone battlements can be read the whole history of the three-century struggle for supremacy in the New World
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
If Spain measured the worth of its new empire in gold, silver, and precious stones, the French and English thought in terms of furs. By the seventeenth century the demand for furs in Europe had outstripped the supply. Then the shell of North America was cracked, and the continent was found to be the greatest source of fine furs the world had known.
Canada, particularly, teemed with the wild animals whose pelts were most prized—and Canada belonged to France. King Louis XIV and his successors fought four wars with England between 1689 and 1763, with North America a major prize.
Thinly stretched along a three-thousand-mile arc from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to New Orleans, the French had to fight defensively in the New World. Although they were greatly outnumbered, their position was stronger than it appears today to have been. The Canadians were better wilderness fighters and better led than the peaceful English settiers. Furthermore, from 1665 on, France kept regular troops in Canada, whereas the English didn’t send any until 1755.
Since the English weren’t ready to breach the Appalachian rampart, the French hold on the Mississippi Valley was safe. In any event the strategic heart of New France was Quebec, and the St. Lawrence River was its artery. Consequently the serious fighting occurred in the north, where the French launched periodic raids to keep the English off balance and the English tried to cut the St. Lawrence lifeline. There were two practical invasion routes. The first was directly up the river to take Quebec headon. The second went almost due north up the Hudson, through Lakes George and Champlain, then along the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec. (“Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne followed this route south to disaster at Saratoga during the Revolution.)
Strong French positions guarded both approaches. The fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island flanked the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while Quebec itself was probably the strongest natural fastness in North America. To block the Hudson-Lake Champlain route, Fort Ticonderoga straddled the narrow connection between Lakes George and Champlain.
A third important point was Niagara on the bluff overlooking the entrance of the Niagara River into Lake Ontario, about fourteen miles below the mighty cataract. As long as Niagara, Ticonderoga, and Louisbourg remained in French hands, New France was unassailable.
In the end, the French forts failed to bulwark their builder’s position in the New World just as the Spanish forts had failed. France is gone and Spain is gone, but the forts remain to tell the story of their passing.
Three and a half centuries ago Cartagena de Indias was renowned as the richest trading center and most beautiful city on the Spanish Main. It was the principal emporium for merchandise sent from Spain to its South American colonies and the shipping point for gold, silver, emeralds, and pearls mined in Colombia and Venezuela. Between 1544 and 1741 Spain’s enemies sacked the town five times.
Built on a narrow, low strip of land between the open Caribbean Sea to the north and a huge bay behind, Cartagena was hard to defend. The marshy soil made poor footing for the heavy stone fortifications required in the tropics, and in any case there was no stone to build them with. The only harbor entrance was miles to the south.
Lack of landing beaches, heavy surf, and shallow water that kept bombarding ships at a distance combined to make the direct northern approach quite secure. The back door, however, presented problems beyond the capacities of seventeenth-century weapons and tactics. Once inside the bay an attacker could easily close in from the south.
Over two centuries, as requirements and military tactics changed, Cartagena’s defenses expanded and contracted. From a small log stockade on the harbor side of the town and a small gun battery at Boca Grande the system grew into an elaborate series of six stone forts around the bay, two guarding the entrance, and a seven-mile-long seawall around the city bristling with more than two hundred cannons. The wall alone took more than two centuries to complete.
The core of the system was the citadel of San Felipe de Barajas, a hill slightly southeast of the city in the eighteenth century but now well within it. Initially only a small eight-gun redoubt some 135 feet above sea level, it gradually grew into a massive stone fortress whose ramparts could sweep the city with seventy big guns.
San Felipe was—and still is—an amazing network of tunnels and passageways connecting storage vaults, housing, magazines, and batteries. In the sheer mass of its battlements and in the ingenuity of its water and ventilation systems, the fortress is ranked by engineers as equal, if not superior, to Gibraltar. Today it is a major tourist attraction.
Unfortunately the individual forts were too far apart to support one another. While they were formidable obstacles to direct attack, they could be cut off by landing parties and reduced one after the other. The gateway batteries, especially, never displayed much enthusiasm for a last-ditch defense.