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Santa Marta History

Pre-Colonialism, the region was inhabited by many indigenous communities. Because of Colonial plundering, little is known about the original inhabitants of the area. Most of our knowledge comes from the Tayrona. They were organized, having mid to large-sized population areas. Their cities were architectural masterpieces that had developed underground stone channels,  stone pathways, terraces, and protected waterways. Much of the land was reserved for agriculture: corn, pineapple, cassava, and other local crops. They also collected and traded salt – a phenomenal commodity to help them thrive. Archeologists have unearthed pottery, gold, and stonework that reveals the Tayrona’s high level of craftsmanship and development. And the pre-Colonial ruins and history is what draws many, many tourists.

Parque Tairona Parque Tairona

Santa Marta can boast being the oldest surviving Spanish settlement in Colombia as well as being one of the oldest cities on the American continent. It was founded on July 29, 1525 by the Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas and was Spain’s first settlement in Colombia. Settling at the base of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta was no mistake, as there were legends about the Tayrona Indians’ gold, and Bastidas wanted Spain’s share. The Tayrona people fought the Spanish off as much as they could, but by the end of the 16th century, Bastidas and the Spanish had decimated  the Tayronas and their gold had been melted and shipped to Spain.

Paseo de Bastidas Paseo de Bastidas

Santa Marta has always played the gateway role, today being a stopping place for Tayrona, Taganga and many other treasures. In the past, it was the door to the interior of Colombia. Jimenez de Quesada left Santa Marta to explore Colombia’s interior, two years later founding Bogota in 1538. (A phenomenal feat following the Magdalena Valley).
Santa Marta was one of Spain’s principal ports, so, in turn, open to constant pirate attacks and pillaging until its sister city, Cartagena, took its place as Spain’s most important port, leaving Santa Marta in relative peace. In the 20th century, it regained its place as a port being the place from where bananas (from the Uraba region) and coal were shipped to the exterior.

Taganga Taganga

It’s also known as being the death place of Simon Bolivar, the liberator responsible for freeing six countries (Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru) from Spain. Before leaving in exile to Europe, Bolivar died in Santa Marta on December 17, 1830.

The Banana Massacre: In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Jose Arcadia Segundo organizes banana workers to strike in protest of their horrific working conditions. The government invites over 3000 workers to meet with them. When the workers are gathered, soldiers surround the men and open fire on them with machine guns, killing them all. The bodies are piled onto a train and dumped into the sea.  

Museo Bolivariano Museo Bolivariano

Jose Arcadia was dumped on the train with the bodies, as the soldiers thought he was dead. He jumps off the train and returns to Macondo. When he tells his story, no one remembers about the massacre or believes him, so he slowly goes insane.

“But at the time when Úrsula went to lament by [José Arcadio Buendía's] side he had lost all contact with reality. She would bathe him bit by bit as he sat on his stool while she gave him news of the family. […] She thought she noticed, however, that her husband would grow sad with the bad news. Then she decided to lie to him. […] She got to be so sincere in the deception that she ended up by consoling herself with her own lies.” 100 Years of Solitude

Rodadero Rodadero

The Banana Massacre, in fiction, is based on fact.
In December of 1928, the banana workers went on strike, protesting horrific working conditions.  It was the largest labor movement in Colombia to date and involved Liberal, Socialist and Communist Parties.

The United States of America was particularly interested in the strike as the United Fruit Company was an American Company. The US sent telegrams to Colombia, demanding they get the strike under control or a US Marine regiment would have to invade to protect the United Fruit Company’s interests – if Colombia didn’t react to the strike. (There’s a series of telegrams from the US government to the Colombian government here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_massacre )

An army regiment was sent from Bogota commanded by General Cortez Vargas, to put the workers in their place. And on a Sunday morning in Cienegas, where workers, wives and children gathered to hear an address from the governor, the soldiers opened fire.

Calles Calles

General Cortez Vargas justified his actions saying he saw the US Marines ships and was concerned about United Fruit. His greatest criticizer in the senate was Senator Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the leader of the populist movement in Colombia whose later assassination would spark a ten year period called La Violencia – ten years of violence between the liberal and conservative party.

The banana massacre is one of the most brutal events in Colombian history.
As with so many things in Colombia, reality and fantasy blend,  memory is fragmented, fact becomes legend, and magical realism is born.

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