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The city of Havana was located where it stands today in 1519, after a four years’ unsatisfactory trial of a site on the opposite, or south, coast of the island. It jogged along comfortably through all of the ordinary perils of that time until 1538, when it was attacked and sacked by a French privateers man. The authorities in the home country determined to provide some means of defense for the baby metropolis, and one Hernando de Soto, an impecunious adventurer who had followed Pizarro to Peru, and had returned enriched with plunder from that unhappy land, was commissioned governor of Cuba and Florida with instructions to build a fortress at Havana. De Soto came to Havana in the fashion of leisure of the times, and in pursuit of his royal master’s instructions, laid the foundations of a fortress. This work was finished under the direction of his lieutenant while he, himself, was searching an El Dorado in Florida and was finding a miserable death by fever on the Mississippi. The structure which De Soto left as his legacy to Havana is the Castillo de la Fuerza, half hidden, today, between the Senate and old post office building on the Plaza de Armes. La Fuerza has been credited with being the oldest inhabitable and inhabited structure in the Western Hemisphere and the claim is not easily disputed. As early as 1544 a royal decree had been given forth that all vessels entering Havana harbor should salute the little fortress with a ceremony not enjoyed by any other city in the New World save Santo Domingo.
The form of la Fuerza is that of a quadrilateral, having a bastion at each of the four corners. The walls are twenty-five feet in height and are double. There is a moat, which has not contained water for many years, and arrangements for a drawbridge, which has been replaced by a permanent plank walk. To the seaward is a watchtower similar in design to that on the fort at St. Augustine, and in this tower is a bell, which, tradition says, was rung wildly whenever in the old days a suspicious sail came into the view of the watchman. The little bronze image in the top of the tower is known as “La Habana.” When de Soto sailed out from Havana harbor on that storied expedition through the American wilds which was to end in his death, he left la Fuerza, and with it his command as governor, in charge of his bride, Isabel de Bobadilla. For four years Lady Isabel waited for her lord’s return, spending anxious hours in the little watchtower of the fort. Only when the tattered remnants of that splendid army which had accompanied the adventurer were brought back to Havana was her long suspense ended.
The cellars of la Fuerza contain damp dungeons used as receptacles for modern rifles and ammunition, this part of the old fort being given over to the purposes of an armory.
In 1554 Havana was again attacked by the French and partially destroyed and in the following year it fell a victim to pirates. During the wars which marked the reigns of the Emperor Charles V, of Spain, and his son, Philip II, the colony became more and more the object of attack by Spain’s enemies, and in 1585, Havana having been seriously menaced by Sir Francis Drake, it was /determined to build additional defenses for the city. In 1589 Morro Castle, the Castle of the Three Kings and the Bateria de la Punta were begun; by 1597 they were completed.
The word “Morro” means promontory, and Castle del Morro is merely the fortress on the point. The design of Morro is that of the quaint Moorish fortress in the harbor of Lisbon, but it has been changed so much for modem defensive uses that it does not now greatly resemble its original. The work is irregular in shape, is built on solid rock, and rises from 100 to 120 feet above the level of the sea. Its situation on the northern one of the two points of the entrance to the harbor of Havana gives it a great importance. Opposite Morro, across the harbor mouth, is la Punta.
To visit Morro one climbs to the fort by an inclined road cut out of rock, shaded with laurels and royal Poincianas. Hedges of cactus hem in the road. The pilgrim reaches at last the moat. This was cut out of solid rock and is seventy feet in depth. Passing over the drawbridge and advancing through the dark walls of the work, one comes to the inner court, from whence there is a passage to the ramparts. Here is a fine outlook over city and harbor, from the seaward side of the ramparts, where there is a battery of twelve guns known as the “Twelve Apostles.”
Some of the prison cells in Morro are directly over the water and in one spot a steep chute leads to the sea. Your guide will tell you that from here bodies of prisoners, both living and dead, were shot out to become the food of innumerable sharks waiting below.
The most active service that Morro has seen was in 1762, when Havana was taken by the English under Admiral Pocock and Lord Albemarle. In June of that year, shortly after the outbreak of war between France and Spain as allies against England, a fleet of 44 English men-of-war and 150 lighter vessels, bearing a land force of 15,000 men, appeared off Havana. The Spanish defenders numbered 27,000 men, of whom a sufficient garrison was at Morro. The English landed on the coast to the east of our fortress and worked around to the rear of that structure to an eminence where the fortification of Cabanas now stands. The siege began on June 3 and continued until July 30, when, after a stubborn defense, Morro fell.
The long resistance of the point against an over whelming force is largely to be credited to the indomitable spirit of its commander, Velasco, who, though he knew that his position had been undermined and his men were deserting him, refused to surrender. The fort was taken after the mines had been sprung and the walls had been battered down. Captain Velasco died of wounds received during the siege, and on the day of his funeral hostilities were suspended by the English in recognition of his bravery.
The authorities in Spain decreed that a ship in the Spanish navy should always bear the name of Velasco, and the vessel so named at the time of the Spanish American war was sunk in Manila Bay by the Boston.
Havana fell thirteen days after Morro and for a year was in the hands of the enemy.
Stretching along bare hilltop back of Morro is Havana’s greatest fortress, built in 1763 after the departure of the unwelcome English guests whose coming had shown the weakness of the city’s defenses. Cabanas, or to give its full name, Castillo de San Carlos de Cabanas (Saint Charles of the Cabin), is nearly a mile in length with a width of about one-fifth of a mile. Its cost was $14,000,000. When King Charles III of Spain, under whose direction the work was commenced, was told the total of expenditures, it is said that he walked to the window of his study and gazed intently out of it, remarking that such an enormous and expensive construction should be visible from Spain.
Within the fort are innumerable walks, dungeons and secret passages. To the right of the entrance is the famous “Laurel Moat” where unfortunate Cubans and other political prisoners were shot without benefit of trial. The condemned men were compelled to kneel facing a wall, and this wall marked with bullets in a line nearly one hundred feet long is a grim present day memento of Spain’s ruthless rule in the island. The spot has been marked with a bronze tablet which records its history.
Other fortifications in Havana include Principe Castle, built in 1774, and Atares Castle, 1767. There are two ancient little round towers of defense at Chorrera and Cojimar.