What attracts people to Cartagena? What attracts YOU to Cartagena? The old part of the City is, in places, one of the most beautiful cities in Spain, but, outside of the rightly popular museums and landmarks, how many people actually look up to see the beauty of its historical architecture, the majesty of its city walls or its historical buildings? Do you have an understanding of how the part of Cartagena that once rested within the 5km of city walls, actually came to be the city that it now is?
Have you had your photograph taken next to the statue of the woman sitting on the bench in Calle Carmen?
Do you know who she was and why Calle Carmen is named after her? You may also have had your photograph taken on the sea-front next to the magnificent brooding statue called ‘El Zulo’, but what is its significance?
What is that submarine doing on a roundabout in Calle Alphonso XIII – and who on earth was Alphonso XIII?
Over the coming months we will bring you articles about the City and the surrounding areas in which you live, putting the role of Cartagena into the wider Spanish historical scene and detailing things that have happened here and which, unless you are Spanish, you may know very little about – not the Romans and Carthaginians. There is a mass of information available about them and every year they have the international re-enactment festival. Instead, we will look at some of the lesser-known, wider history of Spain; in many instances how the British have been involved in the history of Cartagena and how, historically and sometimes in living memory, Cartagena and the surrounding area has been the centre of Spanish hopes, aspirations and progress. We will also occasionally wander along ‘The Costas’, a relatively recent addition to the Spanish landscape, when there is an historical anniversary of particular note.
The historic town of Cartagena is part of what is now a sprawling cosmopolitan city. Historically it was bordered by what is now Calle Alphonso XIII on the north side and the sea front and marina on the south. The naval port/base within The Arsenal lies to the west and to the east are what historically were the fishing pueblos of El Batel and Santa Lucia and now the entrance to the commercial port. Between 1765 and 1789, in tandem with the development of the naval and artillery/military facilities, Cartagena’s massive and magnificent 5km of defensive walls were built. Initially encircling the entire town, around 70% are still intact and they are still known as ‘La Muralla de Carlos III’ after the monarch at the time they were built.
Cartagena is blessed with so much important history which it now proudly displays. Much of it is open to the public either in one of the many free or inexpensive museums and displays, or by simply walking around the City centre. There are also a number of well-regarded historians, volunteers and researchers who are trying to safeguard that history and endeavour to get as much information as they can into the public domain.
Mindful of the travel restrictions that are in place at the time of writing (January, 2021) and understanding the need of people to be able to get out of their homes, we are starting with a free museum in Cartagena. It is not as widely known as the Amphitheatre or Naval Museum, but it holds a number of national collections, a four-times Guinness Book of Records winning collection and architecture that in itself is quite astounding AND it’s not only open at the moment, but admission is free.
The Military Museum At Cartagena
To explain the origins of the Museo Historico Militar de Cartagena, it is necessary to give some historical background to it being built. From the end of the 17th century into early 18th century, Spain was at the centre of an international conflict (The War of Spanish Succession) between the Bourbons, the rulers of France and other parts of Europe and the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs which, in 1714, the Bourbons won, enabling the British government, which had latterly switched sides to support the Bourbons, to consolidate their hold on their newly acquired possessions of Gibraltar and Menorca.
King Philip V was put on the throne bringing a French-style centralist attitude to Spanish government, basing himself in Madrid, rather than the devolved ‘hands-off’ approach of the previous monarchs. As a result, the government looked at the strategic and logistical importance of the various natural deep-anchorage ports around the peninsular, Cartagena, El Ferrol and Cadiz, developing them to become the three major naval and artillery bases on the mainland, a role they broadly fulfilled until the end of the Franco era.
Initially, from 1716, Cartagena was used to service naval galleys, developing over time to become the base of the Mediterranean galley fleet. When Spain switched to using sailing ships in its navy, Cartagena became the Armada’s major Mediterranean base having its own squadron of ships and huge shipbuilding and repair facilities. The naval base, The Arsenal, was finished in 1782 and many of the port’s original buildings and walls are still intact with The Arsenal remaining the major Mediterranean naval base of the Spanish Navy.
In parallel to the naval base, a major artillery base intended to serve the whole of South-Eastern Spain was being built. It was originally built as ‘El Real Parque y Maestranza de Artilleria’ during the reign of Carlos III. Building started in 1767 and finally finished on 25th August, 1786 and, like parts of The Arsenal, it was designed and built by Ferignán-Vodopitch, one of Europe’s leading military architects and engineers, who was also responsible for finishing The Arsenal.
Despite severe damage during the Cantonal War and the Spanish Civil War, many of the artillery and naval buildings of this period have remained intact and in use and several are now used for education or Museum purposes
The Military Museum of Cartagena was opened as a Museum on 11th June 1997 in what, for over 200 years, had been the major artillery and supply/logistical base and the headquarters of various artillery and sometimes infantry regiments across South-East Spain. It is one of a number of similar military museums around the country, all of which are on the military establishment.
The Museum comprises several parts. The upper galleries show the development of Cartagena old town and the history of the artillery park. There are some stunning scale models of the city throughout the centuries and explanations of the City’s history on wall boards with some audio-visual programmes in Spanish and English. These are in rooms dedicated to various events in Spain and Cartagena’s history; eg the Cantonal War of 1873/1874.
In August 1873 Cartagena declared independence from the central government. When Cartagena finally surrendered in January 1874, only 17 buildings were left intact, the town having been pounded by almost 27,000 shells from the surrounding 12 Government artillery batteries. The end of the rebellion came when a lucky shot from a government artillery position hit the artillery base’s magazine. The subsequent massive explosion killed 400 and injured over 1,000 inhabitants. The Museum is housed in the part of the Artillery Park not razed by that explosion.
Another room is dedicated to the Civil War and the circumstances which surrounded the tragic and unnecessary sinking of the ‘Castillo de Olite’, a Nationalist troop and transport carrier. On 7th March 1939, shortly before the end of the Civil War, the ship was sunk close to Cartagena harbour leading to the deaths of 1,499 Nationalist soldiers. A 152, 4/50 Vickers gun, similar to the gun which sunk the ship, is on display in The Museum.
The upper galleries also house the collections of Spanish flags (banderas), uniforms and small arms and, an Airfix kit builder’s dream, the Guinness world-record holding collection of military miniatures which currently stands at over 3,000 items with more in the pipeline!
The lower level has two parts; the first is the ‘quiet area’ where there are displays of medical equipment. Military engineering equipment can be found in the projectile room with displays ranging from stone cannon-balls to modern missiles and the internationally important Chapel, dedicated to St Barbara, the patron saint of Artillery personnel worldwide and of what was The REME in the British Army.
The Museum also holds the national collection of equipment, parts, motors and everything needed to operate the integrated artillery system installations bought from Vickers in the UK as part of the 1926 Defence Plan. The guns were installed in the four major naval/artillery bases around Spain, some of which are still in place, eg in Portman.
In the main lower halls, is one of the finest collections of large military hardware in Europe. It ranges from the muzzle-loading cannon of the 17th century, through the whole range of cannon of every description built over four centuries, to the Roland missile launchers of recent times, many pieces originating in the UK.
The Cartagena Museum’s core staff are three serving army officers, a team of civilian guardians/security staff and a team who maintain the building. However, all the conservation, repair and research work and much of the curating of the collections is carried out by Spanish and British volunteers through a registered cultural association “Amigos del Museo Historico Militar de Cartagena”. It is the volunteers who do everything from restoring, repairing and maintaining the artillery pieces, to painting the exhibits, to making an 80 year-old tank engine run for the first time in 60 years, to curating the small-arms collection and the Guinness Book of Records registered collection of military miniatures. Guides also offer organised tours in several languages and there are both a Spanish and a British researcher working on various aspects of the City’s and Museum’s history. The ‘Amigos’ are always looking for new volunteers to help in the Museum. For further details you can contact me at email@example.com
It is really impossible to adequately describe The Museum. The main courtyard is a delight and The Museum could be visited ten times and you would still be finding new things and new pieces of information.
Please note that, even though there are restrictions in place at present for visitors to The Museum, it is still open to the public. Small groups of 5 or less, even single visitors, can arrange to have a guided tour of The Museum via the email address above.
All photographs are copyright of the Gobierno de Espana/Ministerio de Defensa and are used with the permission of the Director of the Museum, Commandante (Major) Juan Antonio Martinez Sanchez.