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History of the San Fernando de Omoa Fortress

Since the 16th century, Spanish possessions and ships were attacked by English, Dutch, and French pirates and privateers. In the 17th century, these European powers sought to seize territories that were poorly defended by the Spanish. England was particularly interested in gaining a greater foothold in the Caribbean region.

In the coast of La Mosquitia (especially in Nicaragua), English presence in the region dates back to 1633 when an expedition sent from Bermuda under the command of Captain Cammock landed in the area of Cape Gracias a Dios and later occupied Bluefields. These Englishmen engaged in trading activities with the locals, offering them clothes, beads, and other objects.

See also Tourism at the Fortress of San Fernando de Omoa


The English presence on the coast of La Mosquitia profoundly altered this region from various perspectives: economic, cultural, ecological, and biological. During the second half of the 17th century, the indigenous leaders (sumus) in the areas near Cape Gracias a Dios had mixed-race ancestry due to the intermingling with the black people brought by the English, becoming what is known as the Zambo Miskitos. With the supply of English firearms and machetes, this group engaged in looting and plundering activities along the Caribbean coasts of Central America. The English also established their own settlements on the Mosquito Coast.

First at Cape Gracias a Dios, then at Bluefields, and finally at Black River or Rio Tinto. The British settlers were attracted by local natural resources such as redwood, sarsaparilla, and cocoa. They also established some sugar and indigo plantations, using enslaved labor. By around 1750, the population of these settlements could reach approximately 1,500 Englishmen, not including the indigenous people or the Black population.

Since before the mid-century, the Spanish crown became interested in organizing the defense of the Caribbean coast and developing a plan to remove the English from the Central American coasts. In 1744, after inspecting the different defensive positions in the Caribbean, military engineer Luis Díez Navarro developed a comprehensive military defense plan for Central America. In the early 1760s, following the previous plan, a coordinated attack was planned against the various English settlements established in the Central American Caribbean.

The intention was to send a maritime expedition and a land expedition that, coordinating their actions, would simultaneously attack the English settlements of Belize, Roatan, and Mosquito Coast to prevent the escape of the colonists. Starting in 1767, Carlos III sent a team of 50 Spanish officers and technicians to Central America to organize a large military force of 30,000 men. However, the plans remained on paper despite the shipment of 15,000 weapons to Central America.

In the end, only another expedition to Belize could be launched, and the English regained the offensive by organizing an attack on Omoa from Jamaica. Eventually, the English had to retreat from Omoa and failed in their attempt to take control of the San Juan River route in Nicaragua. The land expedition, composed of around 1,500 men, failed, but the maritime expedition managed to retake Black River. However, after four months, the Spanish were finally ousted by an English expedition sent from Jamaica.

After years of military confrontations in the Caribbean, diplomacy once again attempted to resolve what had not been achieved by force. The Anglo-Spanish Convention, signed on July 14, 1786, allowed for a negotiated settlement of the dispute between the two powers: Spain authorized the English in Belize to continue logging in that territory. In return, England committed to vacating the Bay Islands, Providencia, San Andrés, the Corn Islands, as well as the settlements on the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. As a result of these agreements, the following year, English colonists and their slaves evacuated Black River and other sites on the coast. Some migrated to Belize, others to Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, or the Bahamas.

Early Projects

The first projects to fortify the port of Omoa date back to the late 17th century, following a report by the President of the Real Audiencia of Guatemala, Enrique Enríquez de Guzmán, to Carlos II in 1685, highlighting the urgent need to fortify a site in the region due to the increasing English settlements in Belize. Enríquez de Guzmán had some contributions from civil and ecclesiastical councils in Guatemala for this purpose.

The fortification of the port of Omoa was formalized in order to prevent the illicit trade of the English, who, with their operating bases in Jamaica, controlled a large part of the Caribbean, Belize, and some coastal regions of the Kingdom of Guatemala. The plan proposed by Manzola and Rebolledo depicted a quadrangular fortress with a bastioned system.

Undoubtedly, the Castle of San Fernando de Omoa is one of the great physical works that recall Spain’s domination in Central America. It was built in the second half of the 18th century with the aim of defending the northern coasts against the English privateers who were targeting our commerce. The Spanish engineer, Mr. Navarro (Luis X), who visited Central America in 1743-1744, recognized the anchorage of Omoa and, in a report he extended in 1745 in the city of Guatemala, stated the following: “That port is the safest, cleanest, and most sheltered on the entire coast of Honduras. For this reason, it seemed appropriate to me to fortify it, at a lower cost and risk than Trujillo. It offers many conveniences:

  1. The vessels and privateers that His Majesty intends to arm for cleaning up the coast can be stationed there.
  2. The registries of this kingdom can reach it with greater safety for their vessels and goods, and they can conclude their loading for this capital (Guatemala) at a lower cost and in less time than from the Gulf.
  3. They can be careened when necessary, as it is a suitable port for shipyards within cannon range and has nearby cedar woods.
  4. They will be able to load for the return journey more easily and at a lower cost than from the Gulf, as it is closer to the province of San Salvador, where the dyes are produced, which is the main item. It will also facilitate putting some regions with silver and gold mines into operation.”

The result of this report was likely the order issued by the king for Lieutenant General Mr. Vásquez Priego to go to Omoa in 1751, who directed the commencement of the construction of the fortress. The commander, along with some of those who went with him, died there. To continue the construction, various measures were devised, including levying taxes on indigo exported through the southern and northern ports of these countries.

Several years after the start of the project, the commerce of Guatemala had already spent over 16,000 pesos on the construction of the fort, although a portion of that amount had been invested in opening the road from the capital of the kingdom to Omoa.

The construction was completed in 1775, under the government of Marshal Don Martín de Mayorga. What armament existed in 1768? In the state of the arms and militias of the Kingdom of Guatemala, formed on April 20, 1768, it is stated that the Castle of San Fernando de Omoa had 6 bronze cannons of 24 pounds, 11 iron cannons of 48 pounds, and 8 cannons of 13 pounds. There were also five dismounted pounders and a large quantity of grape shot, cannister shot, grenades, gunpowder, and tools.

Occupation by the English in 1779 (October 20) and General Gálvez’s campaign to evict them

Occupied without resistance by the English in 1779, it was later recaptured by the Governor General of the kingdom, Mr. Gálvez (Matías de Gálvez), with troops from Guatemala, Chiquimula, and Comayagua. Although the Spanish flag ceased to fly there in September 1821, it was raised again in August 1832 as a result of Ramón Guzmán’s rebellion.

However, the castle was besieged and surrendered after a few months, with the defenders paying for their audacity with their lives. In 1854, it was also occupied by Guatemalan forces, which were at war with Honduras, with General Cabañas as the leader of the latter country. The small Honduran garrison there was prepared to fight against the Guatemalan troops commanded by General Zavala, but President General Carrera, who arrived in time to prevent the clash, managed to secure the surrender of the fort through a capitulation agreement reached between him and the commander of Omoa, Mr. Medina.

Outline of Documentary History

The Bay of Omoa, which in its recent history has turned into a large brackish pond, was officially proposed in 1685 as a strategic site for the installation of a Spanish colonial fortress due to the optimal conditions of the bay and its proximity to British Honduras. From here, the Spanish crown could provide protection and provisions for its own entrances, supplying goods in exchange for export commodities to the often needy colonizers.

However, we must remember that trade and Spanish power in the colonies of the New World had long been in decline by the mid-18th century. This could imply that a certain number of irregularities in the construction and maintenance of a military garrison went beyond the traditional problems caused by the delay of poorly equipped fleets from Spain, Havana, or Mexico.

The acceptance of the final plan for the fortress (proposed by a certain Count of Aranda, Director General of Engineers of the Royal Armies, on December 15, 1756) was an economic compromise that led to an innovation in military design. Evidently, the four-bastion castle (of proven strategic excellence) was set aside to make way for a cheaper construction. Therefore, although a three-bastion fortress still had a controversial design, it had the clear advantage of being cost-effective. The Fortress itself, however, was the last in a series of major fortifications built in Omoa.

The Royal Enclosure, whose walls still stand adjacent to the Fortress, was established as a temporary garrison to protect supplies, troops, and workers in the early stages of the Fortress’s construction. Earlier and surrounding El Real, though no longer visible on the surface of the ground, there was a wooden palisade that probably dated back to 1752, the same year the enclosure’s construction began.

This palisade was erected temporarily and was likely torn down by the Spanish colonizers once El Real was defensible. The interior structure of El Real consisted of a set of warehouses, administrative offices, barracks, a chapel, and so on, as indicated by the Albarez Plan of October 1756. By 1779, such interior buildings had been replaced by two warehouses that provided additional space beyond the vaults within the larger Fortress. It appears that the original buildings were dismantled to make use of the materials during the time of engineer Murga (1769-1773) (Zapatero 1972:178). Since the pier remained at the western gate of El Real, the enclosure walls were probably left standing as a defensive obstacle once the main military activity concentrated in the Fortress.

Esquema Fortaleza San Fernando de Omoa, Honduras
Esquema Fortaleza San Fernando de Omoa, Honduras

The construction of the Fortress itself did not begin until September 18, 1759, and to be honest, it was never completed. Brigadier Agustín Crame, the last official envoy cited by Zapatero, documented the unfinished state of the construction when he was sent to inspect the Fortress in 1779. The two studies conducted in 1972 confirmed that, despite any kind of work that may have continued after 1779, the main works of the circular curtain and glacis were never completed. This present study complements the research of Zapatero and Téllez, providing numerous details that reveal the unfinished state of the works.

Delays, inadequacies, changes, and unfinished works mark the history of the construction. The tropical climate, with its stifling heat and torrential rains, infested with diseases, must have been just one of the obstacles to work and construction. The chosen site for the Fortress turned out to be loose marine sand that was not stabilized or reinforced before constructing the foundations. The large visible cracks on the escarpment are the result of early settlement of the foundations in the sandy bed.

Since its earliest occupation, many of its vaults may have had the same muddy and humid atmosphere they present today. The transportation of earth for fill, river stone, bricks, and other building materials was a slow and costly affair. The quality of the bricks was low, which partially explains the erosion of the bases of some walls and the presence of so many crushed and broken bricks in the floor fill.

Undoubtedly, another factor that complicated matters was the change in construction leaders; there were at least three engineers responsible for supervising the activities over a span of 16 years. The final location of the main entrance is not documented until March 23, 1770, and the change was not acknowledged in correspondence with the crown until after August 28, 1772, which is a testament to the long time it took to establish official communication.

This change in the main entrance also led to other changes, such as the location of the guard quarters, quarters for officers on duty, the commander’s quarters, and so on, some of which are evident in the architecture still standing (guard and officers’ quarters in Vault 11). However, several significant changes and additions do not appear in any official plans after the relocation of the main entrance. For example, the location of the kitchens is not documented. The specific use of 21 out of the 31 vaults is also unclear due to the absence of fixed facilities and references in the documents. Additionally, the visible foundations of the partition walls, as well as those exposed through controlled excavations, reveal at least three cases where the construction of brick walls was never continued on the foundation surfaces. At least three floor surfaces were never completed.

The colonial Fortress, in its short history, defended itself twice against naval attacks on the Spanish Empire. On October 20, 1779, the still unfinished Fortress fell into the hands of the English for about five weeks before being recaptured by reinforcements under the command of Matías de Gálvez from Guatemala. At the time of this first attack, the garrison had fewer than 100 men, including officers, which accounted for only 22 percent of the force necessary for effective defense. The ammunition and supplies were even more inadequate: only 25 out of 69 cannons were present and in good condition; there were approximately 25 percent of the required cannonballs and 12.5 percent of the necessary muskets; they were almost completely lacking in lead, flint, and gunpowder. Spain not only had to accept the compromise of an untested, albeit economical, military design but also was now unable to complement and supply a small installation that had been considered important enough to initiate its construction three decades earlier.

In 1823, the Fortress successfully defended against the mercenary Luis Aury, but not due to superior forces. The natural barrier of mangroves to the north of the Fortress and the strategic placement of cannons outside of it countered the attackers’ actions and discouraged them from further fighting. The 1779 attack is of particular importance for several reasons. First: the entire community, consisting of over 200 houses, was supposedly burned to the ground (British map, circa 1779), creating a precisely datable sealed context. Second: Crame’s map from 1779 locates and identifies many of the buildings outside the Fortress that could have been destroyed by fire. Third: Martinez’s map from February 6, 1780, locates a sunken British frigate from the battle, a true time capsule. Fourth: the British map of the battle confirms and clarifies the extent of the fort’s construction and the location of various elements, such as the governor’s residence at La Loma and the adjacent lime kiln.

We have no historical references about the reestablished community. It was only possible to assume, pending confirmation, that life continued as before with the same families, the same industry, and most likely with the same location of the community buildings from 1779.

After Honduras gained independence in 1821, the Spanish flag flew one last time on the southern bastion. In 1832, a counterrevolutionary force took San Fernando but was quickly subdued the same year by troops sent by Francisco Morazán. With this, the fall of the Spanish empire in Honduras was complete, which, as previously observed, began in stages with economic compromise, continued with inadequate maintenance, and ended with political concessions. The history of San Fernando during the first seven or eight decades of Honduras’ independence is very obscure; local informants do not record anything about this period, nor are there detailed archival records. However, through a decree in 1909, the Fortaleza began a period of dubious notoriety that lasted for five decades: until 1959, San Fernando was one of the most feared national prisons. Since then, the El Real Compound and the Fortaleza de San Fernando have become national monuments under the protection of IHAH.

For archaeology, the Spanish success and its ultimate failure are productive sources of information. Not only are the Fortaleza and the Compound intact, but also the foundations and walls of a significant number of five Spanish colonial structures in La Loma, not to mention numerous foundations and walls of the colonial settlement and two complete kilns near Milla Tres. The sunken frigate promises to provide a context with such precise dates that could not have been expected better, and it is easily accessible to maritime archaeology. Excavations in the community itself can offer a wealth of data since it can also provide a context of burned and abandoned buildings in the short term and, therefore, precisely datable.

The discovered plans provide a wealth of data that includes the general location of additional non-perishable structures, such as a forge, an armory, a bread oven, among others. From excavations in the community, it would be possible to obtain the necessary information regarding matters related to the class and magnitude of industry in the Spanish colonial facilities, their social organization, and their degree of dependence on the crown. Fortunately for colonial research in Omoa, there is the map by Crame, dated April 17, 1779, which is immediately prior to the destruction of the town, and it precisely locates the buildings of the community, even distinguishing between the neighborhoods of the 75 white families and those of the 600 crown slaves.

With this data, there is a solid foundation to begin in-depth historical and archaeological investigations. Additionally, there is still a significant amount of archival data available, such as baptismal records, property deeds, among others, that can shed light on the social, economic, and logistical variables that once played a role in this highly specialized community system. The various levels of anthropological, archaeological, and historical questions that emerge from such a situation are of great significance, and in this specific case, many of them can be answered.