Cuba’s Castillo de la Real Fuerza

Photo feature by Elio Delgado

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 25 — The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) is a military fortress with a European design and is one of the oldest in the New World. It is located adjacent to the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, a site declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

It was preceded by “La Fuerza de La Habana,” known as the “Antigua Fuerza” (Old Force), which was also built in order to protect the town of San Cristobal de La Habana from being sacked by corsairs and pirates. However in 1555 the French corsair Jacques de Sores destroyed and immediately took over and occupied the town since the fortress “suffered from a poor strategic position too far inside the bay.”

Construction of the structure that we know today began in 1558 and was completed in 1577. Later the top floor was expanded until the entire area was put under roof to house troops and serve as the residence of the governor, thus serving as barracks and as the principal defense of the city. Its builders were Bartolome Sanchez and Francisco Colona.

Among the additions stands the bell tower, topped by a bronze weathervane shaped like a woman. It is called “La Giraldilla” by some, as an evocation of La Giralda in Seville, Spain.

The Castillo’s floor plane is in the shape of a perfect square that is just over 30 meters with four bastions, one at each corner. It’s surrounded by a wide moat and access to its interior over a wooden drawbridge.

Until the late eighteenth century, more than 200 years ago, the top floor was the residence of the General Captains and soldiers of the royal guard.

It is at a distance from the harbor that fronts the Avenida del Puerto (Avenida de Cespedes) and is opposite the Plaza de Armas, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza is considered the oldest existing European-style fort in the New World.

It has also had civilian uses, which included the national library, a weapons museum and a museum of contemporary ceramics.


The bell tower is located on the northwest corner of the castle and is a replica of the weathervane known as La Giraldilla. This vane, considered the oldest sculpture of Cuba, was crafted by master-founder Jerome Martin Pinzon (1607-1649). The original sculpture was of a royal palm and the Calatrava Cross of the Spanish military order, but strong winds blew it down.

Currently a copy is taking its place since the original weathervane is preserved in the museum’s entrance and welcomes everyone who enters (along with a bell made by the same artist and that was brought from the convent of Santa Clara).

La Giraldilla constitutes the oldest sculpture cast in bronze in Cuba and was made in 1632. It is said to represent the wife of Hernando de Soto, Doña Isabel de Bobadilla, who was Cuba’s only female governor.

Legend has it that when her husband left to explore the southern US, she would go every day to a high point near the sea to await her husband’s return. He never returned (unbeknown to her, he had died) but her love, loyalty and courage made La Giraldilla a symbol of the capital.


This structure is now the naval museum, with 12 rooms. Those which correspond to the four corners of geometric figure are referred to by letters. The “A” presents a monograph of the castle; “B” is a collection of precious salvaged items such as disks and bars of silver and 22 carat gold from the sixteenth century, carved stones, buttons, watch chains, etc. Room C represents life on board a ship and Room D houses navigational instruments.

In addition, Room 1 is the information area, Room 2 presents the history of shipbuilding in Cuba and a display of tools made of shells and rocks, which were used by indigenous peoples; there is also a replica of the canoes they used. In Rooms 3 and 4 are some of the riches of the New World, and Room 5 has a demonstration of seventeenth-century shipbuilding; in Room 6 is the Royal Arsenal of Havana, in Room 7 the Holy Trinity, and Room 8 presents the decline and fall of the Royal Arsenal of Havana. Room 9 is the patio area.

Concerning shipbuilding in Cuba, it’s interesting that the first ships built were made by individuals interested in fishing, sailing and smuggling.

The metropolis was aware of the benefits of ports and harbors, as well as the importance of nearby forests with excellent timber for ship building and repair. This was why by mid-sixteenth century shipbuilding began in the port of Havana.

The first galleon that appears in the records of the trading house in Seville was the 350-ton Saint Andrew, which was launched in 1551.

In 1561 Philip II reorganized the fleet system made up of merchant and naval ships. Their routes, based on the knowledge of ocean currents and winds, constituted the commercial circuit between Spain and the Caribbean.

One of the two routes from Spain to the New World was Havana; in addition, all fleets converged in Havana laden with the riches from different countries of the Americas to continue their journeys to Spain accompanied by the Armada. This made Havana a critical port, which earned it the title of the “Key to the New World.”

The royal decree of April 1617 ordered the establishment of a shipyard in Havana, but it was not until 1722 that work began here on land adjacent to the Real Fuerza and the San Francisco wharf. In 1724, the 50-gun ship San Juan was launched from there.

The wealth of timber in the region led to the development of shipbuilding in other nearby points. In the port of Cabañas (west) were built ships such as La Magdalena, the flagship of the Royal Navy; La Criolla, a 700-ton merchant vessel; and Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion, which was the flagship of the fleet of New Spain.

Built there were a total of twenty-two ships, six frigates and three liners. The larger ships had complements of 80 guns.

Built in the Royal Arsenal of Havana, the Santisima Trinidad was the largest of its kind at that moment in history – and one of the most controversial. It ended up having 140 guns and was launched in 1769. A storm led to its sinking in 1805, after the battle of Trafalgar.

At the same time, the global shipbuilding industry developed rapidly, revolutionizing armor and artillery and outstripping sailing ships with steam-powered ones. Major shipbuilding ended in Havana and the activity of the Royal Arsenal was reduced to ship repair.

The only launchings between 1844 and 1852 were a brigantine, a corvette and Columbus steamship, which concluded production by the Royal Naval Arsenal. To complete the construction history, an Arsenal Ordinance passed on May 7, 1886 defined the Havana shipyard as inappropriate and limited its function to minor repairs, until it was abandoned completely in the last days of Spanish rule.

The theme of ships and the great navigators is dealt with dealt with on the coins, banknotes and medals of disparate countries. This exhibition is a look at how humans prize important naval achievements and ships renowned for their beauty or power; where the universe of legends blends with reality as it occurred in literature, movies and even stamp collecting – and as it is now presented in coin collecting.

A beautiful historic amalgam overwhelms us when we visit the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

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