Castillo de la Real Fuerza

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Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) is a star fort on the western side of the harbour in Havana, Cuba, set back from the entrance, and bordering the Plaza de Armas. Originally built to defend against attack by pirates, it suffered from a poor strategic position, being too far inside the bay. The fort is considered to be the oldest stone fort in the Americas, and was listed in 1982 as part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of "Old Havana and its Fortifications".

History[edit]

A previous fort, the Fuerza Vieja (Old Force), was badly damaged in 1555 during an attack on Havana by the French privateer Jacques de Sores and eventually was demolished in 1582. In 1558 Bartolomé Sánchez, an engineer appointed by King Philip II of Spain, began work on the new fort, initially known as the Fuerza Nueva (New Force). The Fuerza Vieja was set back from the harbour, but the new fort was planned to be closer to the harbour to give it a better strategic position. The ironworks were established in 1558, but the first stones were not laid until 1562. Construction was delayed due to complaints from local residents forced to relocate to make way for the building and from disagreements between Sánchez and the Governor of Havana. The fort was not completed until 1577, with slaves and French prisoners providing most of the labour. Built of limestone quarried from the Havana shoreline, the fortification incorporated thick sloping walls, a moat and drawbridge. The governor, Francisco Carreño, ordered the addition an upper storey as barracks and a munitions store, but on completion, the fort proved to be too small for practical use.

La Giradilla on the watchtower (inset: The original, which is now held in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales)
A view of the watchtower from the outside

Despite being positioned closer to the harbour than the Fuerza Vieja, it quickly became apparent that the new fort was still too distant from the mouth of the harbour to serve effectively as a defensive bulwark. Instead Juan de Tejeda adopted it as the residence of the Governor of Havana. Subsequent governors made changes to the building. The façade of the fortress was demolished in 1851 to allow O’Reilly Street to go all the way to the docks, and prevent the fort from overshadowing El Templete, which was completed in 1828.

La Fuerza Fortress (circa 1921-1939)
La Giraldilla

In 1634, Juan Vitrián de Viamonte added a watchtower with a weathervane sculpted in the form of a woman, by Gerónimo Martín Pinzón, an artist from Havana, and based on the figure crowning La Giralda in Seville. Although the reason for the choice of this figure, called La Giraldilla, is not known, a common suggestion is to honour Inés de Bobadilla, Havana's only female governor, who assumed control from her husband Hernando de Soto when he undertook an expedition to Florida. She spent many years scanning the horizon for signs of his returning ship (unbeknown to her, he had died). The figure became the symbol of the city of Havana (it features on the Havana Club rum label), and is now held at the City Museum housed in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in the Plaza de Armas, while a copy is in place on the watchtower.

Use[edit]

The fort was home to the National Archive from 1899 and the National Library from 1938 up until 1957, when both were relocated to a purpose-built library in Plaza de la Revolución. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the fort housed the offices of the National Commission of Monuments and the Centre of Preservation, Restoration and Museology. The fort served briefly as the Museum of Arms, but the conditions within the fortress were not conducive to the preservation of the displays.

In 1977, on the 400th anniversary of completion, the building was inaugurated as a museum and used to display exhibitions of Cuban contemporary and international art. In 1990, it became the National Museum of Cuban Ceramics.

In 2010, Castillo de la Real Fuerza reopened as a Cuba’s premier maritime museum. (There is also a small naval museum in Cienfuegos.) The museum contains excellent exhibits of Cuba’s maritime past from pre-Columbian days through to the 18th century with the Royal Shipyard of Havana, one of the largest in the world, which built nearly 200 ships for the Spanish Crown. The museum features a huge four-metre model of the Santisima Trinidad located on the main floor with a large interactive touch screen which describes life aboard an 18th-century ship-of-the-line in Spanish, French, and English. The original ship was launched into Havana Bay on 2 March 1769 and was the largest ship in the world in the 18th century, with 140 cannons on four gun decks. She was one of four Cuban-built ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Downstairs you will also find ancient navigational instruments, underwater archaeological artifacts, and gold and silver from the colonial era. Also note the original weathervane, La Giraldilla, while her replica moves in the breeze on the top of the fortress tower, which also commands a fantastic view of the city. The second level of the museum hosts many other historic and contemporary models of ships with links to Cuba and is also a good location for viewing the harbour and city skyline.

The castle has thick sloping walls to fend off attackers.

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