Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
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Old Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Fortaleza Ozama

©By Danny Aquino
Translation by Gerald Singer
Photos by Gerald Singer & Habiba Hussein

The Fortaleza Ozama is the oldest fort in America. It is called Ozama because it was built on the banks of the Ozama River. Ozama is a Taino word, which means navigable waters or wetlands.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The Ozama River begins in the north and flows toward the south where it empties into the Caribbean Sea just a few hundred yards from the fort. The river is 104 kilometers long and is one of the most important of the 108 rivers that exist in the Dominican Republic.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The Fortaleza Ozama was constructed between 1502 and 1508 by order of the Governor of Hispaniola, Frey Nicholas de Ovando, the founder of the city of Santo Domingo. It was built in order to defend the city against attacks by pirates and privateers. The Fortaleza Ozama has the distinction of never having been taken by force of arms, notwithstanding all the military interventions that the city has withstood over the centuries.

To the left of the entrance to the fort is the statue of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, who was sent from Salamanca, Spain to Santo Domingo to occupy the position of captain of the fort and warden of the prison there.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Statue of Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo was a man of many talents. He was an anthropologist, interested in the study of man; he was an ethnologist, interested in the study of races; he was a chronicler and historian, author of the important Historia Natural y General de las Indias (Natural and General History of the Indies) and he was a naturalist who documented and sketched the flora and fauna of the islands.

Oviedo apparently took his position as warden of the prison seriously. After spending 25 years at his post, he died at the entrance to the fort. He was still holding the keys to the prison clutched in his hand, and it is said that even in death, it was extremely difficult to take the keys away from him.

The statue is made of bronze and is hollow. Sculpted by Joaquín Vaquero, the statue was a gift from the King and Queen of Spain on their first visit to Santo Domingo in 1976. A year later the statue was sent by boat and erected on the grounds of the fort.

On the right side of the fort is the Polvorín de Santa Bárbara, the armory where gunpowder, armaments and ammunition were stored. The armory was constructed in 1787 during the reign of Carlos III, the King of Spain.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The armory was designed to resemble a church in order to trick the pirates. All the walls are three meters feet thick, except the one the one in back that borders the river; that one being only one meter in thickness. This was done so that if there was an explosion it would explode out toward the river, thus limiting the potential damage.

At the entrance to the armory there is an image of Santa Bárbara, the patron saint of artillerymen in Spain, Italy, Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The inside of the armory is small due to the thickness of the walls.

The cannons that are now at the fort were never used at the fort. All the original armaments were stolen by Sir Francis Drake, an English privateer, when he invaded Santo Domingo in 1586.

The cannons at the fort came from sunken ships. At the back of the fort, facing the river, are two cannons. The one on the left is English and the one on the right is Spanish. They are both still in working order. The cart between the two cannons was used to move them from place to place.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The castle-like structure is the Torre del Homenaje or Tower of Homage. It was built in medieval style rising to a height of 18.5 meters. It was built utilizing the labor of enslaved Tainos and Africans.

It is called Tower of Homage to glorify the Spanish conquistadors, who came here from Spain to conquer and colonize the newly discovered lands. It was from this fort in Old Santo Domingo that the famous expeditions of conquest began; Hernán Cortés in México, Diego Velásquez in Cuba, Francisco Pizarro in Perú, Alonso de Hojeda in Venezuela, Pazco Núñez Balboa’s in Panamá and Ponce de León in of Puerto Rico.

Fortaleza Santo Domingo

The tower was made of coral rock, which having the property of absorbing moisture, keeps the interior of the structure cool. No metals were used in the construction and the cement made of gypsum, clay, lime and the blood of animals, becomes stronger with the passage of time.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Coral Rock

The walls of the Torre del Homenaje are a meter and half thick and the structure has proved to be a secure refuge during hurricanes and earthquakes.

The nature of the construction is that it continues compacting making it stronger with the passage of time. Even though it is more than 500 years old it is considered safer and longer lasting than many modern buildings.

The doors and windows in the Torre del Homenaje are not original. They are replicas made out of mahogany. The flower of the mahogany tree is the national flower of the Dominican Republic.

The doors and windows in the Torre del Homenaje are not original. They are replicas made out of mahogany. The flower of the mahogany tree is the national flower of the Dominican Republic.

On the second level you can observe that some of the doorways are shorter than the door opening today. This is because the people of that time were shorter than people today.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The roof of the tower is considered, having been only partially restored over the centuries.

La Torre del Homenaje is also known as the Torre de la Vigía, Tower of Vigilance because from the top of the tower one can observe the entrance to the river and the Caribbean coast.

The flags of all the nations that have intervened in the Dominican Republic over the course of its modern history, Spain, England, France, Greater Colombia, Haiti and the United States of America, have flown rom the top of the tower.

Diego Colón, the son of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) and his wife María de Toledo, temporarily lived in the Torre del Homenaje, occupying all of the second level, while their servants lived on the first level. The couple remained there for two years.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Bedroom of Diego Colón and his wife María de Toledo

The room was lit by openings in the walls designed to let in sunlight. t night it was illuminated with torches.

The bedroom is now bare, as all of the furniture was brought to their new residence when Diego Colón and María de Toledo moved to their new residence, the Casa del Cordón, which is known as the first European-style private house in America.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Casa del Cordón, the first European-style private house in America.

Later they lived at what is now called the Alcázar de Colón which served as the as his headquarters as Viceroy of Santo Domingo.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Alcázar de Colón

The Torre del Homenaje served as a prison until 1970. Several well known political figures were incarcerated there, men such as Peña Gómez, Juan Bosch and Bienvenido Peynado. In the courtyard of the tower there is a dungeon where Juan Pablo Duarte was imprisoned during the Haitian occupation until his release in 1836.

There is a window from where you can now look down into the dungeon below. It was not there in the days when the room served as a prison.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The dungeon where Juan Pablo Duarte was imprisoned

Prisoners were let down on a rope from a hole at the top of the dungeon, as was there food and water.

The tower was designed with an ingenious method of observation and vigilance called ojos magicos or magic eyes whereby a person within the tower could observe what was going on outside but someone looking from outside in would see nothing at all. This is phenomenon is the result of the contrast of the greater light outside with the relative dark within.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Ojo Magico seen from within the tower

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Ojo Magico seen from outside the tower

Rainwater falling on the walled courtyard floors is drained and expelled through holes in the walls with extensions called gargolas or gargoyles. The ones in the fort are plain, others are in the form of mythological beings whose purpose is to frighten away evil spirits and demons.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

gargolas

Although Diego Colon and his wife, María de Toledo, once temporarily occupied a room in the Torre del Homenaje, later on all of the rooms served as a jail cells and each cell had a name. During the rule of the dictator Trujillo there was one cell called la celda del último adiós or the cell of the last goodbye. This cell as the name implies was reserved for those who were condemned to death.

All the rooms in the Torre del Homenaje are equipped with openings called aspilleras that are set at a 90 degree angle giving a wide range of vision looking out, but very little looking in. From here artillerymen could fire at their targets while enjoying the protection of the thick stone walls.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Elias showing us an aspillera

From the window on the side of the tower one can see the walls or murallas. Some of these walls are original and at one time they surrounded the city which was at the time one square kilometer in area. The cannons have been placed in their original positions where they once defended the city against attack.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

The higher wall dates only to the time of Trujillo, constructed by the Puerto Rican Félix Benito. The purpose of the wall was to separate the fort from the newly constructed port facility. Before the river was dredged to create the port, the water come close to the old walls. The port and the highway are built on land that was created from fill from the river bottom.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Muralla de Felix Benito

One of the structures that make up the Forteleza Ozama is the Fuerte Santaigo.This was the primary defense of the for the greater fort. Today one can still see the garitas or guard towers that were used as a place where soldiers would stand a 24-hour watch over the entrance to the city.

Close to the Fuerte Santiago are the remains of a provisional fort that was built by order of Ovando, as a preliminary during the construction of the larger Forteleza Ozama.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Fuerte Santiago

Christopher Columbus founded the city of Isabela on the north coast of the island in 1494. Bartolomé Colón, his brother, founded Nueva Isabela on the eastern shore of the Río Ozama in 1498. Nueva Isabela was all but destroyed by a hurricane and subsequently devastated by an invasion of Caribbean ants. All that remains of Nueva Isabela is the old cathedral, which can be seen from the Tower.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Nueva Isabela

When Frey Nicolás de Ovando arrived from the Extremadura area of Spain, he decided to rebuild the city on the other side of the river to avoid the ants. He named the city Santo Domingo de Guzmán in honor of a patron saint of Spain.

The tower is said to be almenada as the outer courtyard walls of the tower have a series of high and low wall heights, providing gunners with the ability to shoot at their target and then seek the protection of the higher section of wall, called almenas or merlones.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

almenas

The entrance of the fort is original, but the doors were replaced in 1533 during the time that Oviedo was captain and warden, again in 1608 during the governorship of Osorio and then in 1787 by the order of Carlos III of Spain. They are made out of African ebony which is resistant to rot and impervious to insects because it contains elements poisonous to such pests as termites and moths.

The doors swing easily on pivots despite their the fact that they are immensely heavy. They are not hinged as hinges could not easily support such a great weight.

There are holes in the doors due to the impact of bullets fired during a civil war fought here in 1965. This was the occasion of the second intervention in the Dominican Republic by the United States of America. Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States at the time sent 42,000 marines to protect US interests during the rebellion.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

There exist in the Americas two similar doors, also by order of Carlos III, in the El Morro de La Habana, in Havana, Cuba, in the old EL Morro de Puerto Rico in San Juan. The style of door is neoclassical renaissance with a Baroque detail on the outside. Four cannons from the last century are partly buried on both sides of the doors.

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Cannon partially buried at the entrance to the fort

Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Entance to the fort

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