San juan de Ulua: Mexicos Haunted Castle
by Lovetta Scott Miller
September 1997 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 14, Number 1

One of the greatest symbols of Mexico's modern history, its struggles, defeats and victories, sits on an island in the port of Veracruz. The mighty fortress of San Juan de Ulua evokes the spirit of excitement and adventure that marked the great the great swashbuckling era of sword flights and stowaways, the era of explorers and conquistadors.

The fort is also a testament to the importance of Veracruz, the first European city on the American mainland, which served as the main entrance to Mexico from the time of its founding in the sixtieth century until the advent of air travel in the twentieth century. All European and most North American trade and travel was conducted trough the port of Veracruz until fifty or sixty years ago.

Set amidst a backdrop of high-rise hotels and offices, freighters longer than a football field and shipyards that go on for acres, the old fort tells ancient tales of torture and terrorism, victory and defeat with a cast of characters familiar to us all await the imaginative visitor. As you climb the stairs, walk the battlements and peer through trap doors into pit-like dungeons, you can envision the likes of Hernan Cortes, Sir Francis Drake, Benito Juarez, even Profirio Diaz, all of whom played a role here.

With a little encouragement, one might even conjure up images of the four Totonac priests found on the site by the first Spanish explorer to land here. In 1518, a full year before Cortes arrived, Juan de Grijalve landed on the tiny island and found totonac Indian priests making offerings at a shire to Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec smoking-mirror God.

Nearly 500 years later, there is no sign of the shrine, and history is mute about the fate of the priests. But we do know that the Totonacs, linguistically related to the Maya, are directly descended from the Huastec Indians who lived in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast regions of Mesoamerica for 3,000 years. They had a highly evolved culture and built El Tajin, one of Mexico's premier archeological sites in the state of Veracruz. But by the 16th century, when the Spaniards arrived, the Totonacs had fallen under the power of the Aztecs.

Construction of the fort, or castle as it is also know, began shortly after the conquest with the erection of a Franciscan chapel in 1524. Completion dates range from as early as 1701 to 1779. It cost King Charles V of Spain 40 million in gold to build the castle. In addition to 250 cannons of various caliber, it had a build-in moat, numerous bridges and parapets.

During the colonial era, Veracruz was the only East Coast port permitted to operate in New Spain. As a result it was frequently attacked by pirates seeking the fabled gold and silver bound for the motherland. Among the most famous booty-seeking pirates to attack the port was John Hawkins and his nephew, Sir Francis Drake. They were soundly defeated in 1568, but escaped with their lives and returned to England as heroes.

Over the years the fort was battered and bombarded by the French, British, Dutch and Americans and consequently saw many masters. Historians tell us that prisoners were often chained to the three-foot thick walls, even during high tide when water seeped into the cells and rose waist high.

In the 17th century, Spain used the fort as a support base for colonial activities in Florida. But by the 19th century, it would be the scene of Spain's fall. As the Mexican War of Independence wound down and the Spanish Royalist were driven from the country, they clung to the fort as their last hope and watched as the Spanish flag was lowered in defeat.

However, Spanish Royalists were not alone in their taste of defeat at San Juan de Ulua. Agustin de Iturbide, Mexico's self declared emperor, said his good-byes to Mexico from the fort on his way into exile. His nemesis and successor, Santa also made his way in and out of exile by way of the fort.

General Winfield Scott battered Veracruz, captured the fort and gained access to Mexico during the Mexican-American War. His victory over San Juan de Ulua, and Veracruz would eventually result in the ceding of all Mexican lands north the Rio Grande--Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah and part of Colorado--a territory larger than todays Mexico.

With its passageways and battlements, its bridges and stairways, brassy plazas and arched breezeways it offers a safe haven and a lovely way to while away a few hours. Visitors are free to wander and photograph at will from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, Tuesdays through Sundays. Guided tours are given in Spanish. There is a small admission fee. A bridge from downtown Veracruz leads to the island and the fort, accesible by car or taxi.