After visiting the nation’s capital and a quick trip to the rugged eastern plains, it seemed that HRH Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles could not leave Colombia without visiting the “jewel in the crown” that is Cartagena. The protocol was carefully planned, and after wandering the colonial streets of this walled city, the Prince and Duchess visited the San Felipe Fort, where the Mayor of Cartagena, Dionisio Vélez unveiled a plaque in honor of the British troops who laid siege to the Spanish fortress under Admiral Edward Vernon in 1741.
The siege of Cartagena was a short-lived campaign and resulted in the death of some 10,000 British soldiers, who tried in vain during two months to break the the Spanish dominion over this New World colony and interrupt the flow of gold from the Americas. Admiral Edward Vernon arrived at Cartagena on 13 March 1741 with a powerful flotilla of 186 ships carrying 28,600 troops.
To unveil the plaque in the presence of the heir-apparent seemed dignified and innocent enough for the Mayor, yet, the commemoration has sparked a maelstrom of criticism over the role of the English “pirates” and their attack on this historic port. The contentious words on the plaque recall the buccaneers and the bloody siege: “In memory of the bravery and suffering of all those who died in battle trying to take the city and the fort of San Felipe, under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon in Cartagena de Indias in 1741”.
This otherwise ordinary engagement of an official visit has turned into a push and shove between historians, tour operators, curious locals and the City Council over whether the British “pirates” should have been given any recognition centuries later for their efforts to “free” the creoles from Spanish rule, and one governed by the Inquisition.
Even President Juan Manuel Santos has intervened to appease some of the historical hot-headedness over the plaque and its place at the base of San Felipe Fort. “I never imagined that this text, which I understood was limited to the recording of a historical event, was to awaken such a negative reaction.”
Mayor Dionisio Vélez, who attended the unveiling with the royal couple, stated Tuesday that his intention was never to “stir controversy, or hurt the feelings of the people.”
For the governor of the Bolívar department, Juan Carlos Gossaín, the plaque was an act of “confusing diplomacy with sovereignty.”
And days after this official visit, the City Council summoned the members of the Historical Society who wrote the text, as well as the Mayor’s Secretary General, Carlos Coronado, to hear the reasons why this plaque was constructed in the first place, and placed near the statue of Don Blas de Lezo, the Spanish General who defended the port with his 3,600 troops.
Many of the British sailors during the Vernon siege died not from bullet wounds, but from yellow fever.
Unveiled before Cartagena’s Independence Day celebration on November 11th, Mayor Vélez made a “mea culpa” Tuesday and asked for the invasion plaque to be removed. On Wednesday a vandal smashed the plaque’s marble face.
While the monument’s removal may have populist overtones, it appears Mayor Vélez wants to close a chapter on the royal visit, while the people of Cartagena want to still believe in “pirates.”