Castillo San Felipe del Morro owes its name to the headland on which it sits. El Morro literally means the headland, a high point of land that extends into a body of water. The castle has stood watch over the harbour since 1539; to pass through its gates is to step into the past.
Today, the National Park Service flies three flags over the fortifications at San Juan: the Burgundy Cross, the flag of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the flag of the United States of America. The Burgundy Cross was the Spanish military flag that flew here during most of the Spanish colonial period. It was adopted in 1506 by Philip I of Castile, to honour his mother, the Mary of Burgundy (at that time Burgundy was a territory of Spain).
The castle’s main plaza, Plaza de Armas, was completed around 1780. This square witnessed the activities of daily life in a Spanish fortress for more than a century and was a very busy place throughout the late 1700s and most of the 1800s. On the plaza floor, troops drilled, stood inspections and assembled for formal events.
The large, vaulted rooms surrounding the plaza, called casemates, housed a kitchen, a chapel, storage areas, officers’ quarters and barracks for enlisted men. Some of the outer casemates were used for firing cannons. The centre of the plaza contains a wellhead, from which soldiers would draw water from three large cisterns beneath.
The main gun deck is called the Santa Barbara Battery and was designed to fire cannon at enemy ships in the harbour entrance or in the ocean. The battery, as it is today, was not completed until approximately 1870 and saw combat only twice, once in 1797 against the British and again in 1898 against the Americans.
The second level of El Morro is the oldest part of the fortification and the walls in this area date back to 1539. When the earlier fortifications in San Juan proved inadecuate, Spain decided to fortify the city’s harbour entrance. A circular tower was designed and built to hold four cannon overlooking the channel mouth. The original embrasures (gunports) remain today. As threats from enemies grew in the 17th century, so did the fortifications. Eventually the massive fortress engulfed the original tower.
Visitors to El Morro can see the artillery evolution over three distinct periods of San Juan’s defensive arms. Embrasures, of gun openings, in the walls date from around 1780 and framed the cannon designed to control the harbour entrance. Below, the semi-circular track made of bricks was built to support cannon from the 1890s, allowing them to fire over the wall toward the ocean. A large mass of concrete behind the walls supported an anti-aircraft gun in the 1940s, during World War II.
- Information signs at Castillo de San Felipe del Morro