This part of the South American coastline was visited in the early years of the 16th century by Spanish settlers from Venezuela. At this time, many indigenous groups were living on and near the coast, trading with each other and with communities further inland. The dominant group were the Tayrona.
Santa Marta was founded in 1525 by Rodrigo de Bastidas, who chose it for its sheltered harbour and its proximity to the Río Magdelena and therefore its access to the hinterland. The indígenas represented a potential labour force, and the gold in their ornaments suggested fortunes could be made in the area. Within a few years, the Spanish settlement was consolidated and permanent buildings, such as the Casa de la Aduana, had been constructed. Things did not go well, however. The indígenas did not ‘cooperate’, and there was continual friction amongst the Spaniards, all of whom were expecting instant riches. Bastidas’ successor, Rodrigo Alvarez Palomino, attempted to subdue the indígenas by force, with great loss of life and little success. The indígenas that survived took to the hills, where their successors, the Kogi, remain to this day.
By the middle of the 16th century, a new threat had appeared. Encouraged and often financed by Spain’s enemies (England, France and Holland), pirates realized that rich pickings were to be had, not only from shipping, but also by attacking coastal settlements. The first raid took place around 1544, captained by the French pirate Robert Waal with three ships and 1000 men. He was followed by many privateers – the brothers Côte, Drake and Hawkins – who all ransacked the city. Forts were built on a small island at the entrance to the bay and on the mainland, but before the end of the century more than 20 attacks had been recorded; the pillage continued until as late as 1779, and the townsfolk lived in constant fear. Caches of treasure have been unearthed in old walls and floors around Santa Marta – testimony to the population’s fear of looting during those troubled times. Cartagena, meanwhile, had become the main base for the conquistadors and much had been invested in its defences. Santa Marta was never fortified in the same way and declined in importance.
Two important names connect Santa Marta with the history of Colombia. Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada began the expedition here that led him up the Río Magdalena and into the highlands to found Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1538; and it was here that Simón Bolívar, his dream of Gran Colombia shattered, came to die. Almost penniless, he was given hospitality at the quinta of San Pedro Alejandrino, where he died on 17 December 1830, at the age of 47.
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