Cartagena de Indias, one of the most important port towns in the Spanish Caribbean, became a crucial pivot for European trade in the Americas, a neuralgic point in the Iberian strategy for the defense of the New World against foreign encroachment and an early enclave of pro-independence sentiment and anti-Spanish warfare. Located in present-day Colombia, Cartagena remained an important urban center in the Spanish Main from the 1530s to the 1810s, though its fortunes saw considerable changes over the generations. Founded by Spaniards in 1533 on the location of a Native American settlement, the early town was a modest enclave. However, it served Spaniards as entry point to the plains of northern South America, where incursions on horseback followed by strategic retreats to the coast yielded gold and agricultural produce taken from indigenous populations. Cartagena transitioned into a more stable place, the perfect base for conquest expeditions. From Cartagena, Spaniards planned and carried out reconnaissance missions into the Andean interior, paving the way for permanent European settlement. Blessed with a protected bay that proved useful early on, by 1600 Cartagena was one of three ports of call for the famed Spanish treasure fleets. It became, furthermore, the epicenter of the slave trade to the Spanish Americas until 1640. Spaniards, Africans, Indians, and even French, Portuguese, Italian, and Dutch individuals inhabited this thriving, multiethnic, and conflictive society. Cartagena’s economy stagnated from the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s. The population shrank, foreigners left, and it was not until the 1770s that the city began to grow again. Fearful of British attack, the Spanish Bourbons dramatically increased the local defense budget. As a result, the city became a magnet for military personnel, construction workers, artisans, and merchants. A new local elite soon emerged. Anxious for free trade with the outside world and home rule, the patricians in town finally allied with local artisans, who had also grown in economic influence and self-assertion, to declare independence from Spain in 1811. They established an independent state that lasted until 1815. Spanish re-occupation and the subsequent wars of independence took a big material and human toll on Cartagena, whose thriving merchant elite and political leaders all but disappeared after 1816. This article serves as an introduction to the Spanish period of the city’s history, concentrating on the urban area. Beginning in the 1970s, professional historians from Spain, Colombia, and (more recently) the United States have shed light on the role of this city within the Spanish world of the early modern period, providing at the same time an increasingly complex portrait of the urban microcosmos of Cartagena de Indias.
Early historical narratives on Cartagena, seldom based on systematic archival research, elaborated on the heroism and supposedly Hispanic character of the city, yielding romantic visions of the past in the idiom of literary and political paradigms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the second half of the 20th century, professional research surpassed this perspective. Although Lemaitre 1983 remained somewhat influenced by early historians, this work offers a general narrative still relevant to modern-day historians. It was Spanish historians of the so- called Escuela de Sevilla who first systematically carried out archival-based research on Cartagena. Borrego Pla 1983 is an example of this trend and an overview based on findings from the 1970s and 1980s. Within this trend, Cartagena tends to be analyzed from the perspective of Spain’s imperial constraints and possibilities. Building on this Spanish historiography as well as on the New Colombian History approach, Colombian historians tackled the history of Cartagena with a more sophisticated and nuanced perception beginning in the late 1980s. Calvo Stevenson 2005, Meisel Roca and Calvo Stevenson 2007, Calvo Stevenson and Meisel Roca 2009, and Calvo Stevenson and Meisel Roca 2011 are the most useful overviews of Cartagena’s history, synthesizing the findings of the “new history” approach. Perhaps the most up-to-date introductions to the history of Cartagena de Indias, these volumes provide information on bibliography, cartography, art, literature, and archival and archeological sources. Within this trend, Cartagena takes on a protagonist role of its own, with analytical implications for regional and national history of Colombia. Camacho Sánches, et al. 2007 is the most complete bibliographical guide to Cartagena.
Aguilera Díaz, María, and Adolfo Meisel Roca. Tres siglos de historia demográfica de Cartagena de Indias. Cartagena de Indias, Colombia: Banco de la República, 2009.
The first chapter of this book analyzes the demographic situation of Cartagena around 1777. The authors provide important information on the demography of Cartagena going back to the early Spanish period.
Borrego Pla, Maria del Carmen, ed. Cartagena de Indias en el siglo XVI. Seville, Spain: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1983.
Comprehensive study on early Spanish Cartagena, portraying the formation of the urban space, its influence on the surrounding region and the rise and decline of the encomienda (forced Indian labor) regime.
Calvo Stevenson, Haroldo, ed. Cartagena de Indias en el siglo XVIII. Bogotá, Colombia: Banco de la República, 2005.
Collection of articles on economics, politics, society, and culture in 1700s Cartagena. The articles are followed by commentaries and the volume ends with a roundtable discussion on the 1741 British siege of Cartagena.
Calvo Stevenson, Haroldo, and Adolfo Meisel Roca, eds. Cartagena de Indias en el siglo XVI. Cartagena, Colombia: Banco de la República, 2009.
Collection of articles on native peoples, Spanish conquest, and the settlement and urban development of the city and the piratical attacks it endured in the 16th century. The articles are followed by commentaries.
Calvo Stevenson, Haroldo, and Adolfo Meisel Roca, eds. Cartagena de Indias en la Independencia. Cartagena, Colombia: Banco de la República, 2011.
Collection of articles on the economy, politics, warfare, journalism, and literature of Cartagena over the early Independence period. The essays in this book are a useful introduction to the history of the independent State of Cartagena (1811–1815).
Camacho Sánches, Miguel, Zabaleta Lombana, Alberto, and Covo Torres, Pedro C. Bibliografia general de Cartagena de Indias: Desde el siglo XV hasta 2007. 3 vols. Mompox, Colombia: Ediciones Pluma de Mompox, 2007.
An extensive reference work on the existing bibliography on Cartagena, this useful guide includes biographical information on authors and commentary on their works. It covers history, politics, economy, the arts, and includes references on primary sources.
Lemaitre, Eduardo. Historia General de Cartagena. 4 vols. Bogotá, Colombia: Banco de la República, 1983.
An extensive history of Cartagena to 1944, the first three volumes provide a general account of the Spanish period. Although the work lacks extensive bibliographical references, it does provide a useful overview of Cartagena under Spanish rule.
Meisel Roca, Adolfo, and Haroldo Calvo Stevenson, eds. Cartagena de Indias en el siglo XVII. Cartagena, Colombia: Banco de la República, 2007.
Collection of articles on architecture, economy, and society in 17th-century Cartagena. The articles are followed by commentaries.
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