Edward Vernon fills the horizon with his fleet
It must have been a frightening sight when on March 15 the first three English ships arrived and anchored in front of the city!. They kept coming all through the following day until there was a line of them anchored as closely to each other as they dared, facing the city from Punta Canoa to Bocagrande. The total force had 186 ships mounting 2,070 cannons. Not counting the sailors, there were 23,600 men just waiting for orders to go ashore. One of the regiments was composed of North Americans commanded by Lawrence Washington, a half brother to George. The Washington family admired Edward Vernon so much that they were later to name the family home site Mount Vernon in his honor.
After a few probing attacks at the various forts along the sea, the battle began in earnest on April 1. Vernon’s first job was to take control of the narrow mouth of the harbor, Bocachica, so that he could move his fleet into the bay.
The three forts at Bocachica were reinforced by a chain stretched across the entrance, and behind the chain Don Blas had four Spanish warships anchored to add their firepower to that of the forts. It was in this bloody battle that Don Blas was wounded again, this time in his good leg. Two of these forts were shown on my web page last month, with the dragon sailing between them, just as little Dragonet did!
After three days of heavy bombardment, Don Blas decided to fall back to the next line of defense. He brought the survivors to the next pair of forts, Castillo Grande and Manzanillo. Between these two forts Don Blas sank seven ships and moored two men-of-war in the line of sunken ships to use their guns to reinforce the fire from the forts.
After causing considerable damage to the English, these two also were sunk to close off the channel. Unfortunately, the current changed at the last moment and one ship sank partly sideways leaving a small, hazardous gap in the line. This left only the small fort Boquerón, which was quickly destroyed. Then came Vernon’s big disappointment. He had planned to bombard San Felipe from his ships but discovered that it was so high that to get in range, he would have to come in very close. To do so would have placed his fleet in a disastrous position directly under the guns of San Felipe. He realized he would have to unload his cannons and attack by land.
On April 5, forces were landed and after one of the bloodiest battles in British history, they took possession of the Convent of La Popa, on the high hill overlooking the city, from which they could observe everything the Spanish were doing.
Vernon Stopped by Spanish Military Engineering
Vernon now felt that victory was within his gasp, for there was nothing between him and the great fortress of San Felipe. He landed the balance of his forces and equipment and before dawn on April 9 he attacked with three columns coming from three directions.
Both sides were well motivated. The English forces knew that it had been nine months since the last shipment of treasure, so they believed that the fortress contained a fortune. The Spanish had no place to retreat if the fortress fell. The battle raged fiercely all day, but by dark it was Vernon’s turn to retreat, for little had been accomplished and his losses were substantial. While trying to regroup, he kept receiving reports of wide spread illness among his troops. Sir Chalamar Ogle himself had such severe stomach pains that he had to report himself unfit for duty.
Epidemic is on the Spaniards’ side
A Council of war was held on April 15, at which it was decided the only way San Felipe could be taken would be to bombard it from the ships in the bay. This, it was decided, would be too dangerous to the fleet. According to the English historians, the widespread dysentery, malaria and yellow fever had rendered their forces unfit for another frontal assault so the men and equipment were reloaded on the ships and preparations were made to return to England. It took them almost a month to get ready for sea and to destroy the forts that they had taken. On May 12, the last of the English had left and the siege of Cartagena was ended. Even today, it is said that if you can live here for a month without a fever, you will not get sick and die of yellow fever (we have 2 1/2 weeks to go ).
Vernon is left with his victory medals
The English had been so sure of success that they struck some victory medals as soon as the siege was underway. The inscriptions reflected their confidence: "The forts of Cartagena destroyed by Ad. Vernon", and "They took Cartagena, 1741." Probably the most arrogant of them all was the one showing Vernon and Ogle standing in front of Don Blas as he kneels in surrender. The inscription says, in English of course, "The pride of Spain humbled by Ad. Vernon."
The English apparently felt it was ungallant to conquer half a man so they put his arm and leg back on for the capitulation that never took place. As a result of the leg wound he had received Don Blas de Lezo was to die shortly after the withdrawal of Admiral Vernon’s fleet. His indomitable spirit represents the best of Cartagena’s colonial tradition. This spirit was to rekindle during the independence movement of 1810, when Cartagena declared its partial independence from Spanish rule.
At first Cartagena claimed continued loyalty to the Spanish King and his son, then in prison thanks to Napoleon. The Cartagena call was followed by Santa Fe (Bogota) and other cities. Pressure toward complete independence grew until the final declaration of independence on November 11. This first period of independence was to last only until 1815 when Royalist and Spanish forces under Morillo retook the city and executed nine of the revolutionary leaders.
In this way, Cartagena was to pay dearly for its early challenge to Spanish authority. Final independence was not until 1821. For its early calls to arms and its repeated sacrifices during the struggle for independence, Simon Bolivar gave to Cartagena her well deserved name: La Heroica, the Heroic City.