The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception

“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.

IMG_7015 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.

IMG_6788Protection 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.

IMG_6784Ascending the long flight of stairs to the fortress, it was easy to see how the fortress gave sanctuary to the Spanish colonies on the Rio San Juan.

IMG_6785The 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.

IMG_6793However, 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!

IMG_6852At 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!

IMG_6807However, 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.

IMG_6821When 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.

IMG_6826Can 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.

IMG_6791One of the most surprising aspects of the fortress today, is the library in the top of the fortress. The librarian was very proud of this library and called it the best library in Nicaragua.

IMG_6805In 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!

IMG_6856After a trip to the medical clinic, a few laughs from the nurses experienced in removing fish barbs, and a painless recovery, Ron was ready for his next adventure.

ouch copyStay tuned for the two-part series…Do sidewalks connect communities?

7 thoughts on “The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception

  1. Love these old forts in Central and South America and your photo of the stone arches is terrific. I enjoyed stepping through history’s door today and learning about a new fortress, The Immaculate Conception. The pirates, far from being the dashing rascals of our childhood storybooks, have emerged through our research as brutal opportunists, thieves and murderers (although I’m not sure the Spanish were that much better!) How refreshing to have a heroine emerge in your post to save the day! Women are few and far between in the histories of Latin America. Anita

    • Anita, I am thrilled that I can spotlight a heroine in the history of the fortress. Surprisingly, I am reading about more and more women that took an active part in the revolutions in Nicaragua. I’ll have to write a post about them. Thanks, Anita.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson and great photos!

    The fish barb reminds me when I was a kid and a few of us went fishing. One of the kids cast his pole and the barb landed in the cheek of one of our friends. Happen to go straight thru! Part in his mouth the rest sticking out of his cheek.
    Not fun! I never did go fishing with then again!

    • Ouch! Ron wanted me to get a razor blade and remove the hook from his finger. I said, “Absolutely no way!” I finally convinced him to go to the clinic in El Castillo. The little clinic was impressive, and the nurse removed it efficiently and he never felt a thing. I’m glad you enjoyed the history. I always research the history of the places we visit. It is so fascinating to me.

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