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The Iconic “Spanish” Fort: Only a Spanish Galleon Says “Pirates” Better!

View of El Morro and the Caribbean at Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Author’s photo, 1987.

Recently, while searching for Spanish colonial Caribbean buildings and fortifications for a game table on which to play Blood & Plunder by Firelock Games–a project that will likely take me years but should be ready when my third and fourth children are old enough to play–I came across a truly iconic 28mm version of the classic Spanish fort by King’s 3D Prints, and I had to have it.

Caribbean fort and pier church by Kings 3D Prints in the UK.

Why? Well, as I’ll explain in more detail shortly, because… Captain Blood. Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Classic Hollywood swashbucklers starring Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara and others. The intelligent buccaneer romances of Rafael Sabatini. And most especially, childhood memories.

Not to mention that I’m working on a fully-annotated version of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, and it would make a great inspirational prop.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say up front that I do historical consulting for Blood & Plunder (and Oak & Iron too). It’s a great game created by great people, with an emphasis on both enjoyable game play and historical accuracy. In fact, the creators of South Park love the game, and even featured it in episode 7, season 23 this past November 13 (2019).

But Firelock, which has a wonderful, beautiful, broad line of ships, vessels, figures, &c, doesn’t make a Spanish fort with the particularly iconic sentry box (I’m not trying to put you on the spot, Mike!), and this is what really makes “Spanish” Caribbean forts stand out to me. And not just Spanish forts, but European forts in general, even though pirate movies make us think that all such forts are Spanish Caribbean, or in some minds, “pirate” forts.

Single section of the 28mm Caribbean fort by King’s 3D Prints. Vessel and figures by Blood & Plunder.

So, again, when I found this 3-D printed Spanish fort, I had to have it. More full disclosure: the seller recognized my name, knew I had written books on the subject of piracy and consulted for Blood & Plunder, and said he loved the game, it’s what got him interested in the period. And he sent me more than I had purchased, with a tongue-in-cheek piratical request that, if I didn’t mind, I’d put a small plug in for his product.

I decided therefore that this was a good excuse for a blog on Spanish Caribbean forts, so here we are, plug included, and I’m happy to do so. The 3-D printed fort is a very nice piece of work, perfect for evoking pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the brave men and women who tried to defend their lives and property against these often brutal sea thieves.

Corner section of the 3D printed fort, with the sentry box prominent.

Most people are probably familiar with this iconic fort from the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Originally meant to be a comic depiction of a the sack of a Spanish Caribbean town by not-too-rapacious buccaneers–although in reality there was nothing comical about these attacks–it has been somewhat altered to bring it in line with the film series. But no matter, we’re all familiar with the pirate ship Wicked Wench bombarding the Spanish fort, its sentry box in plain view, even though no pirate ship would ever have survived such a cannonade. Buccaneers attacked Spanish forts from the shore, not from the sea, and for good reason.

Model of the Wicked Wench and the Spanish fort for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Disney photograph.
The Castillo and the Wicked Wench depicted in Disney art.

So iconic is the image of the sentry box that it’s displayed prominently at the entry to the ride at Walt Disney World, and even more prominently at the nearby Pirates of the Caribbean lodging, in which there are several at the pool.

The “Castillo del Morro” at Walt Disney World. There is in fact such a castillo at Havana, Cuba, and a Castillo San Felipe del Morro at Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo from the Pure Imagineering Blog.

The opening scene at the Disney ride, at least once you’re past the scenes of the dead or undead pirates, in which ship battles fort, was without doubt inspired by the similar scene in the 1935 version of Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. In it, following the plot of Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini, a Spanish pirate making a reprisal against English buccaneers launches an attack against Port Royal (although in the book it’s Barbados–screenwriter Casey Robinson streamlined the plot). But in reality, not even the most famous of all admirals, Michiel de Ruyter of the Netherlands, with a battle fleet at hand, could defeat the fortifications of Barbados, much less would he have been able to at Port Royal. It’s a fiction, albeit a fun one, which has been carried on by numerous swashbuckling novels, pirate films, and, especially, pirate video games, their arcade nature making such battles a natural fit.

The Cinco Llagas attacking the fort at Port Royal, Jamaica, in Captain Blood. DVD screen capture from the Warner Bros. 1935 film. (And when will this film be available on Blu-ray?)
A model, of course, there was no CGI. DVD screen capture from the Warner Bros. 1935 film.
Spanish captain and officers in anachronistic but Hollywood-iconic armor overseeing the assault. DVD screen capture from the Warner Bros. 1935 film.

The iconic Spanish fort made its way into other pirate films as well, such as The Spanish Main (RKO, 1945) starring Maureen O’Hara, Paul Henreid, Binnie Barnes (doing some excellent swordplay, by the way), and John Emery (also doing some excellent swordplay, much better than Henreid’s, notwithstanding that Emery had to lose to him in the finale).

Over-the-top (as most Hollywood forts are) Spanish fort imagined for Cartagena de Indias in The Spanish Main. In fact, much of the several original forts at Cartagena still exist. DVD screen capture from the RKO film.
A pair of images (YouTube screen captures) from Il Corsaro Nero (The Black Corsair, 1976) starring Kabir Bedi and, in a supporting role, Mel Ferrer. The Italian film was shot on location at the fortifications at Cartagena de Indias where in 1697 a privateer force of French ships, seamen, and soldiers on loan from the French navy and army, combined with French flibustiers (buccaneers) and Caribbean militia, sacked the town. My thanks to Antón Viejo Alonso for bringing this film to my attention!

Period depictions of the sentry box, used on forts across Europe actually, are more difficult to find.

Title page of a book on fortification, 1654. The sentry box appears rather phallic, probably a joke on the part of the artist. Rijksmuseum.

In spite of a review of the plans of numerous seventeenth century Spanish Caribbean and other Spanish Main fortifications, the sentry box seldom shows up, although here it does in a somewhat inaccurate vista of Nombre de Dios.

Vista of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. French National Library.
Detail from the previous image, showing the sentry boxes at the corners of the bastions.

There are in fact three Spanish forts with the iconic sentry box–all very “piratey”–in the US, all worth visiting. Most impressive is the Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The image at the head of this blog post was taken there in 1987.

Another view of one of the parapets and sentry box at the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Author’s photo, 1987.
National Park Service photograph.
In fact, so iconic is the sentry tower, that it was used in the 1971 US Postal Service stamp commemorating the tricentennial of the settlement of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In St. Augustine, Florida, is the Castillo de San Marcos, a classic Spanish fort, one attacked both by buccaneers and by Carolinians in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The castillo from the air. National Park Service photograph.
Mid-eighteenth century view of the Castillo de San Marcos after the British captured it. Library of Congress.
Author’s photograph, 2011.
Author’s photograph, 2011.
The large sentry tower at the Castillo. Author’s photograph, 2011.

And nearby, at Matanzas, where the Spanish slaughtered an entire French colony in its early stages (in many ways a reprisal for French slaughter of Spaniards), is the Fuerte Matanzas, probably the coolest little fort in the world, evoking buccaneers and the Spanish Main close up. Every kid should have one!

Seen from the ferry. Author’s photograph, 2011.
Author’s photograph, 2011.
My wife at the sentry box. Author’s photograph, 2011.

There’s also a similar fort section, albeit a reproduction, at Fort Condé, or Fort Louis de la Mobile as it was originally known before it was relocated  in Mobile, Alabama–French this time.

Author’s photograph, a long long time ago…

I know the Disney ride is fun and the Flynn film is outstanding entertainment, but I can’t recommend enough that you visit these forts in the US, and even better, visit those in the Caribbean and Latin America as well. For additional information, there are several good books on the subject of Spanish forts in the Americas, and I recommend starting with Fortificaciones en IberoAmerica by Ramón Gutiérrez, available as a print book and pdf as well.

And if you need a Spanish fort to set on your desk, well, you know where to find one!

Copyright Benerson Little, 2019. First published November 23, 2019, last updated November 27, 2019.


2 Comments

  1. Anton Ryzbak says:

    I have only made it to the Castillo and its little brother Fort Matanzas, but I did build full-sized 1/50 scale models of both! https://antonswargame.blogspot.com/2018/01/castillo-besieged-part-i.html and https://antonswargame.blogspot.com/2015/05/28mm-spanish-lace-wars-fort-part-iv.html

    Like

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