Cuba’s Old Guard: Havana’s Morro Castle
Standing sentinel at the mouth of Havana Bay, Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro has a grim history at odds with the hospitality of the biblical Three Kings, after whom it was named. In Spanish colonial times, the castle (known as El Morro, Spanish for “rock”) would have been a truly formidable sight. Set high atop the rocky ridge of the Cavannos heights, its elevation meant that it could be seen by ships from miles around. With waves crashing below, it stood ready to intimidate and thwart any designs on Havana, be they from pirates, privateers or opposing colonial forces.
The Rock on the Harbor
Havana was founded by the Spanish in 1519 and possessed one of the finest natural harbors in the Caribbean. Strategically located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, it could accommodate one hundred ships at a time, meaning it quickly became the region’s largest port and a critically-important naval base for the Spanish empire.
Given the constant threat of raids and naval sieges to gain control of this gateway to the New World, Havana’s existing bastion fort—Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest in the Americas—did not suffice. Too far inland to be effective and too small for military use, it was turned into a headquarters and residence for Spanish governors.
An Impenetrable Fortress
The construction of a new defense structure began in 1589, led by Italian engineer Battista Antonelli. He studied the topography and designed a fortress that was defined by the craggy irregularities of the Cavannos rocks. El Morro castle took four decades to build and was completed in 1630 when it was big enough to house 64 heavy guns and a garrison of 700 men.
Three bastions allowed for defensive fire in different directions, while an extraordinary contraption called a boom chain stretched across the channel and could be raised if any unwelcome ship appeared on the horizon. The chain was so prodigious that it could damage invading vessels that sailed into it.
Adding a gruesome architectural touch to the impressive structure were holes in the back walls of the fortress—still visible to this day—where the prisons were located. Their purpose? To allow jailers to feed the prisoners to the sharks circling below.
Thanks to El Morro’s design and defenses, Havana was impregnable for two centuries. Then, during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1762, both empires knew that the fall of Havana rested on the conquering of that castle.
The British Invasion
The initial British plan to gain control of El Morro failed due to the castle’s unusual design and location. Firing at it from the sea proved ineffective, due to its elevation.
However, the hill of La Cabaña that overlooked El Morro, Havana and the bay was left unprotected, despite the Spanish monarch’s instruction to fortify it. There, the British constructed four batteries with heavy guns and mortars. From their elevation, the British pounded the now-vulnerable El Morro daily with up to 600 hits, eventually destroying the fortress’ heavy guns—but also indicating the incredible strength of the castle to withstand such massive onslaughts.
The bombardment also provided the British with much-needed cover, as they mined two of El Morro’s bastions before detonating them. Finally, on July 29, after an onslaught that lasted 44 days, a breach in El Morro was secured. After brief hand-to-hand combat inside the castle’s walls, the British gained control of the beleaguered fortress, and in two weeks, of Havana itself.
From Cannons to “El Che”
Today, any visit to the magical Cuban capital is incomplete without taking in Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, primarily because it is so intrinsically linked to the history of Havana. El Morro has been painted and photographed by visitors for centuries, has served as the setting for Hollywood movies and was even the home, albeit temporarily, of iconic revolutionary Che Guevara.
A visit through the captivating exhibitions on show today outlines the castle’s compelling history and documents some of its most famous battles, especially in the Maritime Museum, which chronicles in detail the fateful British attack of 1762. Outside, much of the original mighty walls remain to this day, along with well-preserved cannon stores, billet rooms, and rusty cannons. There’s more though, as galleries allow artists to both create and display their works, while many stalls run by local artisans offer great keepsakes for visitors.
El Morro is one of Havana’s most iconic symbols, notably since 1844 with the addition of the lighthouse called the Faro del Morro. Its vantage and backdrop make for picture-perfect views of the city, particularly at sunset. At 9pm nightly, cannons are fired in a symbolic ceremony open to visitors, reminding Habaneros how the sound used to signal the closing of the city gates. Standing on the castle’s esplanade, the noise ringing in one’s ears, it serves as a poignant memorial of Havana’s history and the mighty fortress built to protect them.