The Third Veracruz
San Juan de Ulua 1600-1825

Exploring An Old Fort and a Dank Dungeon

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

The Third Veracruz: Location of the Largest Transfer of Riches in History
Sitting quietly across the Malecón from the busy city and port of Veracruz is the old Spanish fort of San Juan de Ulua.This is the third Veracruz.

Most people don´t know it, but this was the transfer point for the huge treasure of the Spanish Empire. It was the largest in the history of mankind. Perhaps because it was so long ago, that most people don´t think much about it.

Although it doesn´t look like much, the Fort of San Juan de Ulua should be preserved as a World Heritage Site along with the Taj Majal or the pyramids of Egypt.

Now it just sits there in the harbor dwarfed by the ships of modern Veracruz.

Traffic Flow During the Spanish Colonial Era 1521-1810

The Roads to Antigua Veracruz
An Important Place
On the weekends I had been to the fort of San Juan de Ulúa many times, but I didn't know the real importance of this old fort until much later when I began doing tour guide work.

For about 300 years, the fort was the center of traffic and logistics for the richest colony of the Spanish Empire and was the repository for the treasures of the orient, South America, and Mexico.

Many times this wealth came from far away on its trip to the mother country of Spain.
Where it is
Buried Treasure and Spanish Forts
As a child I was fascinated by stories of pirates and buried treasure.

The movie Treasure Island with Bobby Driscoll and Long John Silver still gives me a slight twinge of panic.

"Shiver me timbers, Lad!"

I can still see the creepy one eyed pirate grabbing Bobby Driscoll by the shoulder not letting him escape.
San Juan de Ulua
Protection from Pirates and "Nortes"
Maybe you´ve seen "Pirates of the Caribbean". It was about the treasure coming out of Veracruz.

I wondered what an old Spanish fort looked like. I had seen pictures in books, but it's nothing like being there and knowing what it "feels" like.

And trying to imagine why they built it the way the did, and the amounts labor and materials they had available at the time.

The Port of Veracruz
The Port of Veracruz
This is what a Spanish fort looks like today nestled in amongst the ships of the port of Veracruz, Mexico´s largest port.

The cranes in the background unload 38,000 containers a month.

In the foreground, is a motor launch that takes tourists on a boat ride of the harbor around the Isla de Sacrificios.
Thick Walls
Tactical Problems
Site selection was the first problem to solve.

The Spaniards had to choose a place that was defensible on all sides, yet convenient for loading and unloading of the ships.

They also had take into account the laborious administrative requirements of the day.

It looked like the Island of San Juan de Ulua on the Gallega Reef was the best choice.

The Gulf side was projected by the jagged reef on the north and east sides.
Storage Bin
And the harbor side was protected on the leeward from "nortes" for ease of loading ships anchored at the dock.

Thick Walls
The Spaniards immediate problem was to build a strong fortress where they could store the treasure until time for the annual gold fleet.

Notice the thick walls which would withstand the heaviest of cannonballs.

Another problem was in organization of the storage area. If a ship were overloaded with gold, the ship could sink.
Storage Areas
Later in the 16th Century, when the Mexican gold and silver mines began production, it was found that gold and silver weighed differently and that you could store silver higher than gold without sinking the ship.

The solution to the storage problem was easy. Each storage room was built to the approximate dimensions of the hold of a Spanish galleon.

Storage Areas
The capacity of a silver ship was known, so the walls of the storage room were painted a certain color up to a about 6 feet for a silver ship.
Storage Areas
Beyond Imagination
Because gold is heavier, it couldn't be stacked as high. So, the walls were painted up to 4 ft. for the color level for gold.

The amount of gold stored here is almost beyond imagination.

In 1628 the Spanish gold fleet lost its entire cargo of 90 tons to the Dutch pirate Piet Heyn which must have financed the whole country of Holland.

There is a Dutch folk song about Pirate Piet Heyn which every school child in Holland learns. Just ask any Dutchman.

He can probably sing you a couple of verses in Dutch, of course.
The Observation Tower
Another was a warning system. A high observation post had to be built to afford an early warning system in case of attack.

Construction Problems
The Project Manager was faced with several problems with such a vast project.

Although he had been given a good design, and lots of free Indian labor.

He didn't have the same materials as in Spain.

He couldn't just go to the brick factory and order a couple of tons of red bricks.
Built on Brain Coral
A City Built of Brain Coral
But, there was an abundance of coral, especially big chunks of "brain coral", and loads of sand.

Most of the old part of downtown Veracruz is built on brain coral.

From the first authorization request for the port change to San Juan de Ulua in 1528 to it´s formal finally inauguration in 1635.

You can see the different materials used over the years for maintenance.

The red "tabique" or red brick appeared on the construction market much later.

Another problem was that Indian labor was abundant, and often unwilling.

It is estimated that a half million slaves died during construction and the leveling of the coral reef.
The Mysterious Low Little Window
A Mysterious Little Window
I have passed by this little window many times and wonder what it was used for.

You can see the original brain coral material and how it was patched over the years.

The red bricks were added years later when the first brick factories were built in Veracruz.
The Docks
The Docks
This is the loading area just next to the gate. Notice the huge bronze rings where they tied up the galleons. They must weigh several tons.

It´s hard to believe that 60 to 80 ships a year were loaded out with hundreds of tons of gold and silver from this small dock area.

It looks like there´s only space for 3 or 4 at a time. These must have been busy docks, with a lot of people moving a lot of gold and silver.

Until a few years ago these were well known shark infested waters, and about 20 years ago the sharks seemed to have disappeared.

Many think they were over fished, and others think they migrated to Argentina where they used to be few sharks. They must have moved.
Sentry Box from the Outside
Sentry Boxes
In the pirate movies this is what a sentry box looks like from the outside.

Simple in design, one man can watch the area and be protected. Plus he can he has a view of 180 degrees.

The little slits actually open inward offering added protection and greater visibility.

From the outside you never know when someone is inside.

Just to the right of the main gate is what the sentry box looks like from the inside of the fort.

This is also the main gate where all the treasure left to be loaded on the ships for Spain.
Sentry Box from the Outside
Sentry Box Entrance

Location of the Chapel
A Quiet Forgotten Nook
When you walk through the old fort of San Juan de Ulua, it´s fun to imagine what life must have been like during those early years.

On the southwest side of the fort, next to what looks like what was the gateway for the common crew members of the Spanish galleons, is what looks like an old chapel.

In spite of the passing of the years and political changes that attempted to erase the presence of formal spirituality, yet it is not easy to change the basic structural architecture into something else.

In a quiet nook where few tourists venture is a staircase and what looks like it used to be a little chapel.
An Obsure Staircase
Our Lady of the Staircase
You can sense that this was once a place of strong devotion, because the people still come here.

Many lifetimes have passed through the same area where we are walking.

For four centuries, there was always urgent business at hand in these walkways and staircases.

Although there are no signs, later I was told that this is a little chapel which is now closed, is dedicated to Our Lady of the Staircase, but I am really not sure because the origins have been forgotten.

Not much is remembered about devotion to this appearance of the Virgen Mary by the early Spanish mariners.

I wasn't sure the name was correct and asked some of the tour guides if they knew more about it, but they weren't able to tell me much about it.
The Mysterious Shrine
Property of the Navy
They told me that the whole corner of the building is property of the Navy because it is still the official benchmark for navigation for Veracruz.

I was told they have a lot of the original documents for the fort and won't release them to the public.

At the top of the stairway, is a doorway some of the old artillery shells and mobile cannons used by the Navy are on display.

Later, independent historian Carmen Boone Canova sent me some more information.
People Looking at the Font
The Miraculous Image
Originally it was called the statue of the Concepción of Our Lady, simply called "La Escalera" or the "Stairway".

In the very early days, she protected the Castle of San Juan de Ulua, the Bay, and the people of Veracruz who lived on the mainland.

Her statue was located at the very top of the tower on the southwest corner of the fort where she had full view of the city and all the ships arriving and anchored in Veracruz Bay.

From her high place on the tower, she greeted the annual fleets of ships that arrived and departed for Spain.

It is said that when they arrived, her statue was brought down the stairs for each member to greet and give thanks to for their safe arrival.

More about the Mysterious Statue of Our Lady of the Staircase here:
An Empty Doorway
San Juan de Ulua is for Exploration
It seems that each empty doorway has it´s own story, and I pause for a moment to imagine what life for the early people who manned the fort must have been like.

More than likely, at times they must have felt they were on a powder keg, with so many riches awaiting transportation to Spain.Pirates were always lurking over the horizon, and you never knew what could happen next.

There was the unexpected visit of the English privateers Francis Drake and John Hawkins in 1568 and the raid on Veracruz in 1683 by the Dutch pirate Lorenz de Graaf which was the origin of a protest song called "La Bamba".

The nights during the wild winds of a November "norte" must have been terrible and lonely, so far away in America. In the summertime, there was the unbearable heat and swarms of mosquitos that carried the deadly illness graphically called "el vómito negro."

There must have been entire generations of crushing boredom, sometimes hearing the music of the bars and cantinas from across the way in the village of Veracruz.

A Forgotten Plaque
An Obscure Plaque
Upstairs, overlooking the presidio is a forgotten plaque.

It is very old and it's hard to make out the old Spanish letters any more.

About all I could make out was the name of the Viceroy the Duque de Albuquerque.

Later I found he was Viceroy of New Spain/Mexico 1653 - 1660, and his real name was Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, Duque de Albuquerque.

How the plaque got there and the reasons are still one of the mysteries of San Juan de Ulua that are buried in history.

Administration Building
A Storage Area
The storage areas were located close to the port side gates, and in front was the Administration Building.

In the old days there were large wooden doors and a large padlock to keep the valuable cargo safe.

The floors were also made of guanacaste wood that is resistant to tropical dampness.

This is what it looks like from one of the storage bins.
Treasure Storage Rooms
The City Grows
As time went on service and trades people began to settle on the mainland across from the fort in the town of Veracruz.

Two forts were constructed on the mainland with cannons facing the fort so that any ships attacking the fort could be accurately caught in the crossfire.

Pirates Attack
On May 17, 1683, the Dutch pirate Laurenz de Graaf, or "Lorencillo", attacked the city of Veracruz.
Treasure Storage Rooms
In spite of being in front of the fort, the townspeople were helpless and entire population of 7,000 was herded into the Cathedral.

May is one of the hottest months of the year in Veracruz, and you can imagine what it must have been like for the people inside the hot church.

They were kept there for almost 4 days without food or water, while Lorencillo systematically looted each and every home and business in Veracruz.

The Walled City of Veracruz
The Protective Wall
As a result of the pillage of Veracruz the King of Spain authorized the construction of a massive wall around the town along with 7 forts.

In later years because of over population and pestilence the wall was ordered to be demolished in 1880, and the only remaining fort is Baluarte Santiago.

Parts of the original wall can still be found in present day Veracruz.
A Quiet Place to Talk

When the wall was demolished the city was allowed to grow, and stately homes were built by the wealthy along the new avenue called "El Paseo de la Libertad" until the 1930´s it was changed to Salvador Diaz Mirón after a local politician.

And not far away, the area for the less prominent made up of shacks built from driftwood lumber called El Barrio de la Guaca also continued to grow.

The Final Days of Spanish Occupation
Even though Mexico declared its independence from Spanish rule on September 16, 1810, Spanish troops continued to occupy the fort at San Juan de Ulua for many years.
Original Paint
The administrators even continued to collect customs duties for the crown in Spain while the final skirmishes for control of the country were being fought in different parts of the country.

The fort at San Juan de Ulua proved to be invincible. So, in 1822 the government of Mexico authorized a blockade of the island fort.

The Spaniards stayed firm for the next 3 years, on August 16, 1825 a final blockade was organized.

On October 5, 1825, a flotilla of Spanish warships arrived carrying food and relief supplies for the garrison at San Juan de Ulua.

By October 11, Mexican ships had set up a battle line just off the Isla de Sacrificios.
The Bridge of the "Last Sigh"
After facing off for several hours, and without firing a shot, the Spanish ships simply withdrew and set sail for Havana.

Finally, on November 21, 1825 among artillery salvos and "great jubilation" in the town of Veracruz, the Spanish flag was lowered and replaced by the Mexican flag

This ended the final chapter of the Spanish Empire in Mexico, and consolidating the independence of Mexico.
The Dungeon of San Juan de Ulua
For the next hundred years or so the dungeon of San Juan de Ulua was used as a high security prison for incorrigibles, as well as political prisoners.

In 1914, the prisoners were freed to fight the American invaders.

You can still visit the dank dungeon where thousands must had died from starvation in the crowded, hot, dank conditions.

It is said that several tried to escape by swimming the shark infested waters across the way to the town of Veracruz, but not many made it.

One of the legendary bandits of Mexico, Chucho El Roto, was a resident for a time.

Many people still come to San Juan de Ulua each year to see his cell.
Now on Weekends
And now on the weekends tourists come to quietly revisit the past greatness of the fortress of San Juan de Ulua.

Many come to remember the glorious 300 years when New Spain was the key piece of the Spanish Empire.

It was when Veracruz was the center of logistics and traffic for the vast treasures of gold and silver passed through the fort of San Juan de Ulua on it's way to Europe.
A Quiet View of the Harbor
Your Own Spanish Fort to Explore
I live in Veracruz now, and it´s neat to have a own Spanish fort to explore almost in your own backyard.

People still find cannonballs, and you sometimes see them in offices used as paper weights.

When I see a cannonball from the past, I daydream about where they must have come from.

And the fear, or security they must have caused, depending, of course on which side you were on!

Weekend Visits to San Juan de Ulua
On Sundays, I enjoy visiting the old Fort of San Juan de Ulua on my own. Sometimes I take my friends along to explore the nooks and crannies of this old 400 year old fort that dates from the 1550´s. You never know what you will find.

This is the story of one of my discoveries. I still don´t know what to think.

The Ghosts of San Juan de Ulua
The Ghosts of San Juan de Ulua
Over the years, I have heard legends of the ghosts and spirits and discounted them to people with little culture or who were superstitious.

There are the stories of the legend of Chucho el Roto and the many soldiers and prisoners who died there. Veracruz has many legends, not only at the fort.

In December of 2006, I was showing some friends around the dungeons of San Juan de Ulua.

We walked into this cell block to look at the stalagmites and a particular cross embossed into the floor.
The Dungeon of San Juan de Ulua
The Location of the Cell Block
Many of the records are lost and today, we see things at the fort that have no explanation, and I guess that is part of the mystery of the fort.

When we walked into the chill of the old cell block, I looked at the far wall where the cross on the floor was.

At first, I could make out what looked like the image of an eye, and started taking pictures of the wall.

Later in looking at the photos, these interesting images began to appear from among the stains of the water damage.

The Wall with the Images

The Face of a Priest
A Bishop with his Miter
At first, I thought it was a priest, but then I took a closer look and saw that he was wearing a miter.

Priests don´t wear miters. They are reserved for bishops and above.

On closer inspection, behind the priest I noticed yet another whisp of white with something that looked like a face.

It looked larger than the priest and maybe has a larger significance.
A Couple from the 19th Century
A Couple from the 19th Century
Then to my astonishment, just to the left of the priest, there began to appear the figure of a man and next to him was a woman.

It looked like a hazy version of something a 19th Century French Impressionist would have painted.

The first thing that came to mind was the legend of Chucho el Roto and his beloved Matilde.

Could this have been their blessing by a priest or a bishop?

These coincidences were truly amazing!
A Spanish Lady with a Lace Mantilla
A Spanish Lady with a Lace Mantilla
A little further off to the left, was a white blotch, and upon closer inspection the profile of what looked like a Spanish lady with a lace mantilla.

It was also of the style popular during the 300 years when Mexico was a Spanish colony.

At this point, I am not sure what to think, and will continue to research the legends of San Juan de Ulua.

My Own Research Continues
Of course, none of this may be true, but it is a lot of fun talking to people about my strange photos from the ancient dungeons of San Juan de Ulua.

If you are ever in Veracruz, you might go by the fort and look for these images.In the meantime, you may find some other things.

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