El Morro: A Sentry’s Graffiti

After months in Puerto Rico, I finally decided to visit one of the island’s main tourist draw, Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This Spanish-era fortress sits right at a promontory facing the Atlantic Ocean. Viejo San Juan, the old city center of the island, is a few meters inland and is connected to the fort via a thin stretch of road that slices through a sea of green grasses.

Back when El Morro was an active military fort from 1539 onwards, it was a bastion of strength for the Spaniards, guarding the important trade routes that connected the outlying colonies to the Spanish Crown. Galleons loaded with silver, gold, spices, and other items of high value from the Pacific and Latin America passed through the Carribbean, making this island prone to attacks from pirates and other colonizing powers. Pirates like Sir Francis Drake and Roberto Cofresi made themselves legendary in these waters. Yet despite the repeated invasions, the fort was so strategically located that it was only overtaken in battle once in its centuries of history (by George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland).

Similar to the construction of the Spanish-era Philippine fortresses, Spanish military engineers filled the walls with sand and gravel and not of compacted blocks of rock. This allowed enemy cannonballs to easily penetrate the wall without destroying the structure completely. An alternative explanation could be that these sand and gravel fillers are good deterrents from collapse during earthquakes since this provides room for movement, as some Philippine local historians contend. Whatever the reasons might be, El Morro’s centuries of warfare is written on its walls.

And I am saying this in the literal sense. While casually walking about, I chanced on a conquistadors‘ graffitti. It was not on the tourist information kit so I believed that I stumbled into something nice and exciting. I was about to scream Eureka but then again, I googled “el morro graffitti” and found two sources about it. According to Rivera-Collazo, there are at least 400 ship drawings in El Morro, most likely from the 1700s to the first half of the 20th century. Personally seeing the graffittis however was very rewarding in itself, touching these etches was like doing Braille on what could have been on these conquistadores‘ mind.

I chanced on the graffittis when I walked in the tronera, a few meters from where the brass canyons were wedged. The tronera is virtually a vertical hole carved into the wall just enough for one sentry to wiggle through. The info posted near the tronera says the following:

Armed with a musket, a sentry stood guard at this post. In the event of an attack, the sentry could scurry down the narrow tunnel to a concealed firing position. Here he could fire his musket and reload under cover.

While sitting in this claustrophobic hole, I looked down and saw the first evidence of the sentry’s presence. Etched at the base where the gun might have been put were two line scratches and a hole. I thought that although these looked like Wolverine’s claw marks, there should be a  plausible explanation for this. I figured that the small hole could have been where the metal balls and gunpowder were placed while the two “claw marks” were used for striking a fire.

The hole and the “claw marks”

When I saw this, I started looking around and saw non-utilitarian graffiti written on the walls. I surveyed the walls and found three of the more than 400 ship drawings in El Morro. There were also religious symbols, badges, and outlines of a face.

Sketch of a Ship 1

Sketch of Ship 1 (same as above)

Sketch of Ship 2

Sketch of Ship 3

These three ship drawings were only visible from the digital camera’s screen. It is barely visible if one is looking at it with the naked eye because of the darkness and the burrito-like situation inside the tunnel. Aside from these ship drawings, there were other interesting sketches too:

Sketch of Face 1

Sketch of Face 2 (with only one tooth)

Catholic religious symbols and outlines of coat of arms were also found in the tronera. Which could be interpreted as visual evidence of a deeply religious sentry or a frightened conquistador. There are stories among Puerto Ricans too (or at least my partner believes it) about ghostly apparitions in the fort. These symbols might have been used as a talisman to ward off evil spirits. Or alternatively, the sentry might just have been bored and doodled anything that crossed his mind to while away time in a dreary wait for the next shift.

Sketch of a Marian Rose

Sketch of Cross 1

Sketch of Cross 2

Outline of What Appears to be a Coat of Arms

Drawing of a Heart?

These drawings are windows into the mind of the Spanish Crown’s foot soldiers. I am sure sketches can also be found in Intramuros, Fort Santiago, Fort San Pedro, and other Spanish-era fortifications in the Philippines and other former colonies. All we need is to wean ourselves from written documents and investigate the past in novel ways.

As it is, history books are often written from the point of view of the power elites of the era because historians use their official records and documents. There’s an inherent bias in choosing which sources historians rely on thus making historical interpretations perilous.  The squiggly scribbles of lowly sentries are thus critical in understanding the colonizing process, if only to provide a well-rounded interpretation of what has happened.

The time has come indeed to cast a light on the doodles of the past.


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