In 1625, a Dutch fleet commanded by General Boudewijn Hendricksz attacked the San Juan islet from the east by land. Spanish troops forced the Dutch to abandon the city but they did not leave without plundering and burning the village first. This attack brought on a project to fortify the islet's defenses which consisted of improving El Morro, building a city wall that surrounded the village and a fort that would defend the island from attacks by land. In 1634, construction of a small fort on the northeastern border of the city wall began, which is the precursor of the fortification that still exists today. In 1650, San Cristóbal was little more than a semicircular platform for protecting the cannons that were located between two projections on the city walls.
The fort gets its current shape in the 18th century when, under orders of King Charles III, Field Marshal Alejandro O'Reilly and Chief Engineer of San Juan, Thomas O'Daly, began the works that would transform San Cristóbal into the largest fort in Puerto Rico and Spanish America. The repairs to San Juan's defenses began on January 1, 1766, in San Cristóbal, which was the most exposed area in the old fortifications. It was necessary to modify the topography of the area where the fort was built. Workers cleaned and adjusted the ground in the eastern area so that the cannons in the fort would reach all areas. In the southern zone, some marshes were filled out and others were kept as natural barriers. Daily, more than 400 men worked on its construction, including workers, prisoners, soldiers, and slaves. When construction was complete in 1783, San Cristóbal had become a complex fortification that covered more than 11 hectares. The fort had multiple defense lines, batteries, and bastions, in various levels. If the enemy took over one of the lines of defense, the Spaniards could easily continue fighting from the other ones.
In 1790, Fort San Cristóbal was made up of a horn work, which gave continuity to the city walls; on top of it there was a platform for the cannons known as el caballero (the knight). In front of the horn work, and surrounded by dry moats, is ravelin San Carlos and counterguard La Trinidad. Further up is arms square, which leads to a fortification named El Abanico (the fan) and two batteries with a view of the ocean: Santa Teresa and La Princesa. On the east side of the castle are Ravelin de Santiago and Bastion de Santiago.
San Cristóbal's cannons played an important role in defending San Juan from the British attack in 1797 that was commanded by General Sir Ralph Abercromby; however, they could not defeat the United States armed forces led by Admiral William T. Sampson when they bombarded the islet in 1898 during the Spanish American War.
During the first fifty years of the United States government, San Cristóbal was used as a military base. Some of the changes that were made to the fort include the installation of a plumbing and sewer system in 1899 and an electrical system in 1901. During the Second World War, observation posts for artillery and an underground communication center were built. The San Juan National Historic Site was created in 1949. After the United States Army left the fortifications in San Juan in 1961, in 1973, these, including San Cristóbal, became parks and museums. In 1983 the San Juan National Historic Site was declared a World Heritage by UNESCO.
Adapted by Grupo Editorial EPR.
Original source: Los fuertes del Viejo San Juan, Sitio Histórico Nacional de San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2002. Division of Publications, National Park Service.
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 13, 2010.