What happened in the San Juan de Ulua fortress?

The island of San Juan de Ulua was the most protected point in the Gulf; from there travelers and cargo were transferred in small barges to the mainland; thus, San Juan de Ulua was a forced passage to reach New Spain.

What happened in the San Juan de Ulua fortress?
Local Museum of the Fort of San Juan de Ulua. Photo: INAH

On the islet of San Juan de Ulúa the fortress of the same name was built, an extraordinary example of Spanish military architecture in New Spain. After the landing of Juan de Grijalva in that natural form as part of the discovery of the zone and the later colonization campaign of Hernán Cortés, the construction of the military building began around 1535 with materials of the region; the constructive process was concluded until the XVII century.

At first, it was used to protect maritime vessels since Veracruz became an important commercial port, a category that attracted pirates from Spain's enemy powers that sought to assault the place, so the fortress also resisted the attacks of the "thieves of the sea".

In 1755 by royal orders it began to function as a prison until 1915, among its cells were important characters of Mexico's history such as Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, Mariano Abasolo, Benito Juárez, Salvador Díaz Mirón, and the famous bandit Juan Arriaga better known as "Chucho el Roto" (Chucho the Broken). In 1914 Venustiano Carranza established the seat of his government in the fortress.

In 1962 the building was declared a historic monument and given to INAH for safekeeping. At present, it houses a museum inaugurated in 1984 in which you can find important archaeological pieces of the region of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as weapons and armor from the XVI to XIX centuries that, together with the tour through the fortress, allow to know an important part of Veracruz and Mexico.

The diet of soldiers at Fort San Juan de Ulúa

Archaeological excavations at the Fort of San Juan de Ulua, in Veracruz, which have yielded, among other materials, almost seven thousand fragments of animal bones, have made it possible to learn about the diet of the Spanish soldiers who lived in this fortification during the 18th century.

The bone remains of various animal species found in the fort's moat have provided a guideline for calculating the quantities of meat eaten by a high-ranking military commander or a modest soldier. Among the findings, almost seven thousand fragments of cow and lamb bones were identified, which were cut into standardized portions, by the quantities assigned to the inhabitants of the fortress according to their hierarchy.

In the comparisons that have been made, based on archaeological findings and existing historical sources, it was determined that a military man, an engineer, or a doctor could eat 300 grams of meat, while a soldier of lower rank was only entitled to 60 grams. To this ration of meat was added the menestras, which were a kind of soup prepared with beans, chickpeas, beans, and rice, plus a portion of bread, which also, depending on their rank, could be from 224 to 700 grams, divided into three meals per day.

To face a six-month siege, the engineers made estimates to keep the military garrison supplied and sent them to the viceroyalty government so that it could supply them with provisions. Thus, for example, in 1779, for 1,340 men, about three cubic meters of salt were required, which were used both for cooking and for the brining of meat or for preserving 12,000 eggs between layers of sand with salt for the sick in the hospital. The diet of the high command included sausages, wine, brandy, and hams.

Regarding the water supply, they had masonry cisterns that allowed them to collect the rain, but to store it, many methods were used to guarantee the cleanliness of the vital liquid, since the health of the population of the Fort depended on it. The fortress of San Juan de Ulua had a fluctuating population between the 16th and late 18th centuries. During the 16th century, there were only 150 slaves and 10 Spaniards, and by the end of the 18th century, the number of men totaled around 1,500.

Details have been found not only on the food of the military and other high-ranking inhabitants but also of the forced laborers, who were prisoners forced to work in the fortification. Regarding the food and clothing of a forced laborer, he was entitled to a 2-ounce cookie (56 grams), rice, chickpeas, and sometimes meat for breakfast and dinner; while his clothing consisted of two uniforms per year (pants and shirt), a belt and a hat.

The Fort of San Juan de Ulúa began its first stage of construction between 1535 and 1542 by orders of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, to protect ships from pirate attacks. In addition to being a fortress, it was the seat of the Federal Executive Power in 1915, under Venustiano Carranza, and a prison where Benito Juárez, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, and Francisco Xavier Clavijero were imprisoned.