The last Saturday in August, three days after the Colombian government and a rebel army signed a peace accord to end a 52-year war, a yellow taxi coasted through Cartagena on its way to the airport.
To the left of the taxi, the Caribbean glittered and sent up spray. To the right rose a spectacle: a dozen kites dancing magically in mid-air. The kite-flyers stood atop the old walls of a great fort that once defended Cartagena. They read the wind like mariners. Their kites painted the sky.
The irony in that peaceful moment struck me.
Colombia owns a bloody history. In the last five decades, hostilities in this country’s open wound of a civil war took 220,000 lives, left many times that number maimed and traumatized, and created 5 million refugees in a nation of 60 million.
The blood soaks even deeper into Colombian history. On the very walls where Colombian kids and kids-at-heart tugged the strings of little paper playthings in the sky, centuries of cannon blasts defended Cartagena from pirates and invading armies. Smoke, steel, and blood are the holy trinity of the city.
The Spanish settled Cartagena in 1533, just 41 years after Columbus accidentally ‘discovered’ the Americas as he sought the spice-rich East Indies. (Cartagena to this day bears the official name Cartagena de Indias.) Original settlers came from Cartagena, Spain, itself named for Carthage, the city in northern Africa that Rome famously destroyed, salting the earth after burning it.
Cartagena guarded the northern tip of a vast new continent, overlooking sea routes between South America, Cuba, and Europe.
South American gold brought pirates and armies in waves. Early after its founding, Cartagena survived a visit from the French corsair Jean-Francois Roberval, who took away everything he could load on his ships. Cartagena then built walls and put cannon on top of them. Another French pirate, Martin Cote, pillaged the city anyway.
Then came the English. First, Sir John Hawkins attacked Cartagena in 1568. By now, however, the city had some experience at fighting back, and Hawkins sailed away without plunder. Sir Francis Drakedid better. The Englishman took the city one morning in 1586. Wanting booty for Queen Elizabeth’s coffers, he began burning houses to extract ransom. He reached 200, then discovered a letter from Spanish officials in the city that referred to him as a “pirate.” Enraged, Drake burned much more, including the city’s cathedral, then sailed away with jewels, gold, and the city’s bells.
In the 1600s and 1700s the slave trade brought its stain. The Spanish Inquisition set up practice too, brutally mistreating those without utter subservience to the crown and the Catholic faith.
In 1669, Morgan the Pirate and a scurvy crew attacked the port, lustful for gold from the old Inca Empire in Peru that offloaded in Cartagena. Morgan didn’t capture the city, but he added fresh pages to its bloody history.
In 1741, the British navy crossed the Atlantic with a vengeance. The War of Jenkin’s Ear offered England a trumped-up excuse to grab wealth and land from arch-rival Spain.
King George II dispatched to Cartagena the largest fleet in the history of European warfare (until D-Day in 1944), a flotilla dwarfing even the ill-fated Spanish Armada of 1585. The King’s 192 ships and 30,000 men attacked a city with about 3,000 defenders, these led by a one-armed, one-handed, one-eyed Spanish officer. Miraculously, Cartagena defeated the British, an event celebrated today as a national holiday in Colombia. (It was not lost on leaders in English colonies from Georgia to Massachusetts that the invincible British navy had been vanquished. Sparks of the American Revolution 35 years later began to burn at Cartagena.)