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I have visited many historic structures, and have been fascinated by each building’s place in history. Walking through the Castillo de San Cristobal navigated my imagination back to a time when Spanish explorers dared to journey into an unknown sea. The sandstone is weathered grey with time, but the columns, turrets, tunnels and even the prison cell weave a story. The island of Puerto Rico where the Castillo is built breathes history, like the wind that whispers from a Caribbean sea.
Puerto Rico means ‘Rich Port,’ and indeed the island’s history is rich. Long before Tomas O’Daly and Juan Mestre engineered the Castillo during the main years of 1765––1783, the island held importance to Europeans who sought to exploit the new world of America. Christopher Columbus while searching for Asia and material riches, found this new world in the vicinity of the Bahamas in 1492. He discovered Puerto Rico a year later during his second voyage on November 19, 1493. He first named the island San Juan Bautista, but this rich port, which did contain gold; eventually became the port of San Juan and the territory of Puerto Rico. The island was Spain’s most important military outpost in the Caribbean and several fortifications were built to protect a key investment.
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The island faced many aggressors during the four hundred years that Spain held the land. The French battled from the sea in 1528. The English were defeated in 1595, but took control of the island for 65 days during a second invasion at Fort San Felipe del Morro in 1598. Illness forced their departure. The Dutch, a common foe, attacked in 1625, but were defeated. Philip IV fortified San Cristobal in 1634, and six other Castillo’s along the island, all linked by sandstone walls.
On May 10, 1898, Captain Angel Rivero Mendez ordered the cannons to fire from the Castillo de San Cristobal during the beginning of the Spanish/American war. The soldiers endured a daylong bombardment, then yielded to the United States. Six months later, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory under the Treaty of Paris. The people who call Puerto Rico home today, within this beautiful scenic port, are American citizens who have retained their Spanish cultural heritage.
I can now say my feet have walked a path where legendary explorers once landed, daring to go where most would not travel. I cannot imagine stepping onto a gangway plank, and sailing away to an unknown future, leaving my family, and everything I know behind to journey into uncertain waters. When the ship left port and sailed for months on shifting seas, the men must have grown weary with their constant search for land. The view from the telescope must have been scary and thrilling too, when land was finally sighted.
I stood in the square in the heart of San Cristobal, where men once fought to hold the land they had discovered. A square where soldiers were called to attention to practice drill commands, and prepare for the ships and men that would come. I wondered what their first thoughts had been when the bell rang to warn of such a sighting.
I stood in a garita or sentry box, gazing out to sea, and feeling the warm tribal winds on my face. It would have been hot clothed in military gear while on the lookout for invaders. However, for this tourist, the Cerulean-blue Ocean and sweeping shoreline was immensely beautiful.
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I walked down a sloping tunnel, of which there were many, and ventured into a prison, a dark cave with a slit for a window, where a mutinous captain was imprisoned for many years. I wondered what being trapped within this dark space would have felt like, gazing at a tiny slip of light from a narrow window and wondering if I would ever be free. I wondered when this captive man felt encouraged to document his story on the walls through the depiction of sailing ships. If only his pictures could give way to words, what a story they would tell. The images are still available to view today, and weave a haunting impression of a time gone by.
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Puerto Rico has an amazing rich history, and the Castillo de San Cristobal played a huge role in its fortification. This rich port was considered a stepping-stone, or the key to the Antilles in the new world, which is why so many Europeans desired the island. The port still serves as a good place to dock a ship, but the vessels that cruise are much larger today and the passengers are tourists.
Someday, I hope to venture back to old San Juan and discover its history again.