A view of the Colonial and traditional neighborhood of Getsemaní, usually found old houses painted with graffiti.

For more than 275 years, Cartagena was under Spanish rule. With Napoleon’s imprisonment of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII, and the start of the Peninsular War, the Latin American wars of independence soon followed. In Cartagena, on 4 June 1810, Royal Commissioner Antonio Villavicencio and the Cartagena City Council banished the Spanish Governor Francisco de Montes on suspicions of sympathy for the French emperor and the French occupation forces which overthrew the king. A Supreme Junta was formed, along with two political parties, one led by Jose Maria Garcia de Toledo representing the aristocrats, and a second led by Gabriel and German Piñeres representing the common people of Getsemani. Finally, on 11 November, a Declaration of Independence was signed proclaiming “a free state, sovereign and independent of all domination and servitude to any power on Earth”.[12]: 49–51  The support for a declaration of independence by working class leader and artisan Pedro Romero was key in pushing the Junta to adopting it.

Spain’s reaction was to send a “pacifying expedition” under the command of Pablo Morillo, The Pacifier, and Pascual de Enrile, which included 59 ships, and 10,612 men. The city was placed under siege on 22 August 1815. The city was defended by 3000 men, 360 cannons, and 8 ships plus ancillary small watercraft, under the command of Manuel del Castillo y Rada and Juan N. Enslava. However, by that time, the city was under the rule of the Garcia de Toledo Party, having exiled German and Gabriel Piñeres, and Simon Bolivar. By 5 December, about 300 people per day died from hunger or disease, forcing 2000 to flee on vessels provided by the French mercenary Louis Aury. By that time, 6000 had died. Morillo, in retaliation after entering the city, shot nine of the rebel leaders on 24 February 1816, at what is now known as the Camellon de los Martires. These included José María García de Toledo and Manuel del Castillo y Rada.

Finally, a patriot army led by General Mariano Montilla, supported by Admiral José Prudencio Padilla, laid siege to the city from August 1820 until October 1821. A key engagement was the destruction of almost all of the royalist ships anchored on Getsemani Island on 24 June 1821. After Governor Gabriel Torres surrendered, Simon Bolivar the Liberator, bestowed the title “Heroic City” onto Cartagena. The Liberator spent 18 days in the city from 20–28 July 1827, staying in the Government Palace in Proclamation Square and the guest of a banquet hosted by Jose Padilla at his residence on Calle Larga.

Unfortunately, the toll of war, in particular from Morillo’s siege long affected the city. With the loss of the funds it had received as the main colonial military outpost, and the loss of population, the city deteriorated. It suffered a long decline in the aftermath of independence, and was largely neglected by the central government in Bogotá. In fact, its population did not reach pre-1811 numbers until the start of the 20th century.

These declines were also due to disease, including a devastating cholera epidemic in 1849. The Canal del Dique that connected it to the Magdalena River also filled with silt, leading to a drastic reduction in the amount of international trade. The rise of the port of Barranquilla only compounded the decline in trade. During the presidency of Rafael Nuñez, who was a Cartagena native, the central government finally invested in a railroad and other infrastructure improvements and modernization that helped the city to recover.


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