“Justice is an unassailable fortress, built on the brow of a mountain which cannot be overthrown by violence of torrents, nor demolished by the force of armies.” ~ Joseph Addison
No fortress in Central America has seen more drama than the crumbling Fortress of the Immaculate Conception that sits on the brow of a hill overlooking a strategic bend in the Rio San Juan among torrents of whitewater.
Centuries ago, the San Juan was deep enough to carry large vessels and it served as a vital lifeline for Spanish settlements in Central America. It also served as a tempting route for marauding pirates, who in 1665 traveled its length, crossed Lake Cocibolca, and attacked Granada, the capital city. Doing what pirates do, they sacked and burned Granada.
Protection from the attack of foreign as well as tribunal enemies necessitated the construction of a mighty fortress. On royal orders in 1672, its main purpose was to stop foreign invaders and rebellious tribes from reaching Granada. For 100 years, the imposing fortress challenged the warring pirates, who chose not to attempt more attacks on Granada or the rest of Spanish Nicaragua. Justice prevailed.
We walked past the shrine of the Immaculate Conception blanketed in an arbor of Bougainvillea. Located at the base of the fortress, this was the hospital, now a crumbling reminder of those maimed and injured from attacks on the fort during the 18th century.
The first major attack on the fortress took place in 1762, when Britain and Spain clashed over the control of the San Juan River and Lake Cocibolca, the prizes in the conflict. Any conquering force first needed to capture the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, no easy feat because the builders of the fort were all about strategic location, location, location.
However, the 1762 attack by the British was thwarted by the valor of 19-year-old Rafaela Herrera, who was the daughter of a recently deceased captain of the Spanish troop that was in charge of protecting the area.
Although the British soldiers outnumbered the Spanish, brave Rafaela, trained in firing weapons, fired a volley of cannon balls. The third cannonball managed to kill the British commander. But, her fight was not over yet!
At nightfall, motivated by Rafaela’s heroism, she ordered the troops to soak sheets in alcohol, wrap them around floating logs, ignite them, and throw them into the San Juan River. The British made a hasty retreat. To this day, she is a national heroine of Nicaragua. Way to go Rafaela!
However, the British renewed their interest in the Rio San Juan, and in 1780 they planned and initiated their second attack on the fortress. Their leader was Horatio Nelson, a young captain of the royal navy.
British troops cut the fort’s water supply, besieged it for 17 days and finally seized it. But the British force was ravaged by disease and overwhelmed by rain, which falls here at the rate of 200 inches a year. So weakened that survivors could not muster enough strength to bury their dead, the British were unable to advance and extend their power into the heart of Central America. Spain’s hold on the region was secure.
When the fortress was built, its spaces were used for a variety of purposes. It had three barracks, a chapel, an armory, several towers, a prison, and many bulwarks. There is a wide, beautiful view of the river, the intimidating El Diablo (the devil) rapids, and the surrounding jungles on the other side of the fortress.
Can you imagine the battles that took place? This spot had another encounter with destiny when gold was discovered in California in 1849. Thousands of fevered prospectors made their way across Nicaragua, rather than risk their lives over Indian attacks on the Great Plains and the treacherous passes through the Rocky Mountains.
Because of the rapids in El Castillo, all passengers had to disembark here. In 1856, American adventurers under the command of William Walker, who had declared himself President of Nicaragua, held the fortress for a time, hoping to use it as a base from which to build a slave holding empire. But, they were ousted by Costa Rican troops in a battle that proved a fatal blow to Walker’s outlandish dream.
In my last post, I said to stay tuned for pirates, cannons, rapids, river battles, and a trip to the local medical clinic. Fishing hooked Ron from an early age, and so it was not surprising in fighting a battle with an aggressive Machaca, nicknamed “mini-tarpon” , that he was hooked…literally!