El Morro

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Thu 11 Feb 2010 23:10
 Fort San Felipe del Morro


Fort San Felipe del Morro is a sixteenth-century citadel which lies on the northwestern-most point of the islet of San Juan. Named in honour of King Philip II of Spain, the fort, also referred to as "El Morro", was designed to guard the entrance to San Juan bay and defend the city from seaborne enemies. In 1983, the fort was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is part of San Juan National Historic Site. Over two million visitors a year explore the windswept ramparts and passageways making the fort one of Puerto Rico's main visitor attractions. Facing "El Morro", on the opposite side of the bay, a smaller fort known as El Canuelo complemented the fort's defense of the entrance to the bay. The stubby "statue" over Bears left shoulder is a monument at honoring Capt. Juan de Amezuita's defense of San Juan in 1625. Including the exterior open killing grounds, known as the glacis and esplanade, dominated by canon in the 17th and 18th centuries, El Morro covers an area of over seventy acres. The entry fee was three dollars, but five if we wanted to visit Fort Christobal, which we did, complete with a lift on a golf cart driven by a US Park Ranger. Amazing the very same people who look after Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, Huckleberry Hound and friends in Jellystone Park you know.




The sign proudly showing the fort is a World Heritage Site and the map Bear is leaning on above.




The Royal Crest over the entrance. Second career as a bouncer, perhaps......





The construction of the Fort San Felipe del Morro begun in 1539 when King Charles V of Spain authorised its construction, including the surrounding walls. The purpose was to defend the port of San Juan. Construction started the same year with a tiny proto-fortress that was "completed" in 1589. This small section comprises perhaps 10% of the structure people see today. In 1587, engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli designed the actual appearance of the castle following well established Spanish military fortification design principles. Similar Spanish fortifications of the 1600’s-1700’s can be seen in Cuba, St Augustine, Florida, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Veracruz, Acapulco, Portobelo, Panama City and many other Latin American locations which were part of the Spanish Empire during the Age of Exploration.



The Main Plaza. Here troops assembled for parades, inspections and guard mounts. The well in the centre gave access to three underground cisterns which held 220,000 gallons of rainwater, collected from El Morro's gun-deck surfaces - enough for a year' supply if the garrison was under siege. The vaulted rooms surrounding the plaza are called casemates, they served as living quarters for officers, soldiers, storerooms for food, powder magazines, prison cells and canon firing positions. One is the chapel. The three flags flying are the flags of Puerto Rico, the US and the Burgundy Cross, an old Spanish military flag flown from 1516 until 1785. It was first adopted by Philip the Handsome, King of Castille, to honour his mother, Mary Duchess of Burgundy at the time Burgundy was a territory of  Spain.



An artists impression of the Plaza




Why look cool in a chapel ? The garrison worshipped in this lovely little chapel. The oil painting above the altar is a replica of The Virgin of the Navigators by Alejo Fernandez circa 1531. The original hangs in the Archivo General de Indias in Spain.




The famous garita as seen on the number plates on all Puerto Rican vehicles - only on the back as they don't have front ones, looks a bit odd.

This garita is representative of the oldest structure at El Morro. This round turret-style tower was built at the base of a natural promontory in 1539. Only large enough to accommodate four small canons, the original tower was swallowed up inside thicker walls when El Morro was expanded. Many complex additional new structures were added to El Morro over the next four hundred years. In 1680, Governor Enrique Enriquez de Sotomayor ordered the construction of the walls surrounding the city of San Juan, which took forty eight years. By the late 18th century, El Morro's walls had grown to be eighteen feet thick. Today El Morro has six levels that rise from sea level to one hundred and forty five feet high. All along the walls are seen the dome-covered sentry boxes known as garitas, which have become a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico itself. The El Morro or Port San Juan Light was originally built atop the fort in 1843.


The people look tiny, showing the sheer size of this impressive structure. On the shore opposite is the small Fort San Juan de la Cruz, best known as El Canuelo. This smaller fort helped El Morro protect the entrance channel to San Juan Bay. The canons of the two forts created a deadly crossfire should enemy ships try to sail into the harbour


Spanish Rule (1539–1898)

El Morro's last active fight occurred during a naval bombardment by the US Navy during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Ending the age of naval warfare in the Caribbean, at least in the classical sense. However, the United States' first shots of World War I were fired from the fort's battery in 1915. Spain ceded ownership of the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines to the US. El Morro and many other Spanish government buildings in Old San Juan then became part of a large U.S. Army post, called Fort Brooke. In the early 20th century, the US military filled up the esplanade, or green space in front of "El Morro" with baseball diamonds, hospitals, officers' quarters, an officers' club and even a golf course.



American Military Occupation (1898–1961)

On the 21st of March 1915, Lt. Teofilo Marxuach was the officer of the day at El Morro. The Odenwald, built in 1903 (not to be confused with the German World War II war ship which carried the same name), was an armed German supply ship which tried to force its way out of the bay and deliver supplies to the German submarines waiting in the Atlantic Ocean. Lt. Marxuach gave the order to open fire on the ship from the walls of the fort. The Odenwald was forced to return and its supplies were confiscated. The shots ordered by Lt. Marxuach have been considered as the first fired by the United States in World War I.




During WWII the US Army added a massive concrete bunker to the top of El Morro to serve as a Harbour Defense Fire Control Station to direct a network of coastal artillery sites, and to keep watch for German submarines which were ravaging shipping in the Caribbean. The lighthouse, rebuilt by the US Army in 1906–08, after it was damaged in the Spanish-American War in 1898, is the tallest point on El Morro, stands one hundred and eighty  feet above sea level. The inside was beautifully cared for, but, sadly we couldn't go up to the light itself.

National Park (1961–present)

In 1961, the US Army officially retired from El Morro. The fort became a part of the National Park Service to be preserved as a museum. In honour of the Quincentennial of the voyages of Columbus in 1992 the exterior esplanade was cleared of palm trees that had been planted by the US Army in the Fort Brooke area, and restored to the open appearance this "field-of-fire" for El Morro's cannon would have had in colonial Spanish times. Parking lots and paved roads were also removed, and the El Morro lighthouse repaired and restored to its original appearance.

El Morro was used as a film set in the 1996 motion picture Amistad. Steven Spielberg used it to represent a fort in Sierra Leone where African slaves were auctioned in 1839. The real history of Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in Puerto Rico has absolutely nothing to do with the slave trade. No such activity took place on or near El Morro. El Morro was strictly a defensive military fortification and a major component of San Juan's harbour defense system.




This is a Loophole. Armed with a musket, a sentry stood guard at this post. In the event of an attack the sentry could scurry down the narrow tunnel to a concealed firing position. Here he could fire his musket and reload under cover. The extraordinary staircase we couldn't imagine soldiers in full battle fatigues having to run up and down, bottom to top level has seventy seven stairs.

Historical time line

1519 – Spanish settlers from Caparra found San Juan.

1539 – Construction of the first harbour defenses at El Morro and La Fortaleza authorized by King Charles V.

1587 – Engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli lay out the main design for El Morro still seen today.

1589 – Governor Diego Menendez begins new construction at El Morro.

1595 – Sir Francis Drake, (described on the information film in Fort Christobal - as the "English pirate") attacks El Morro unsuccessfully by sea. Gunners from El Morro shoot a cannonball through the cabin of Drake's flagship, demolishing his stool as he sat on it. To impede Drake's ships from entering the bay, a metal chain was drawn across the entrance. Drake was defeated and many of his ships sunk.

1598 – George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland, attacks from the land side in June of this year, the only time El Morro was taken in battle. English forces move into the fortress, however weakened by dysentery they leave in November.

1625 – The Dutch under the command of Captain Bowdoin Henrick attacked and invaded San Juan from the "La Puntilla". El Morro held out under the leadership of Spanish Governor De Haro and Captain Juan de Amezquita of the Puerto Rican militia, but the city was ransacked and burned.

1630 – Governor Enrique de Sotomayor begins construction of the city walls. Work continues until 1678 to encircle the city completely.



The unique triangular staircase, which supposedly the soldiers could run up and down faster - are they nuts, we found it hard to walk up and down


1765 – Field Marshall Alexander O'Reilly and Royal Engineer Thomas O'Daly reform the defenses of San Juan by reorganising the garrison and making the city a "Defense of the First Order".

1797 – Ralph Abercromby and Henry Harvey, with a force of 7,000 -13,000 men, invaded the island of Puerto Rico. Captain General Don Ramon de Castro and his forces repelled the attack. Abercromby and Harvey were defeated. This was the one of the largest invasions to Spanish territories in the Americas.

1825 – Well known Puerto Rican pirate, Roberto Coffers was jailed and later executed within the fort's walls.

1843 – First lighthouse in Puerto Rico constructed atop the fort.

1898 – On the 12th of May, US Navy warships shell El Morro in a day-long bombardment, damaging the tip of the main battery. Six months later, Puerto Rico becomes US territory by terms of the Treaty of Paris which ends the Spanish-American War.

1908 – Present lighthouse seen atop El Morro built by the US Navy.

1915 – First shots of World War l fired by Lt. Teofilo Marxuach on behalf of the United States.



1942 – Still an active military post during WWII, concrete artillery observation posts and an underground bunker are added to El Morro to defend against possible German attacks.

1949 – San Juan National Historic Site is established.

1961 – The US Army moves out of the forts of Old San Juan and they become the jurisdiction of the United States National Park Service, to be preserved solely as museums.

1983 – San Juan National Historic Site declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

1992 – El Morro's grounds are returned to their historic 18th century appearance as part of Quincentennial commemoration of the discovery of Puerto Rico by Christopher Columbus when modern roadways and parking lots are removed. El Morro now generates revenue through tourism. When you finish here one of the Park Rangers will give you a lift in a golf cart to Fort Christobal or you can jump on the free trolley bus on its circular route.



                                                                    Bear never can resist pushing the "fire" button, one of these days he'll get a shock if something actually goes "BANG".




                                                                                                                   So next we went off seeking balls - nothing more to say



The view as we left the fort on the free tour bus, en route for Fort Christobal