Jerónimo Bustamante, Castillo de la Real Fuerza, constructed 1558-1577, shown here mid-18th c. (Illustration by Francisco Bedoya Pereda, n.d.)
In the sixteenth century, Havana served as the principal port for Spanish fleets traveling to the “Indies.” The Spanish Crown recognized the importance of fortifying the city to protect it from attack. The Governor of Cuba, Diego de Mazariegos, began construction of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza — on the Plaza de Armas (Havana’s oldest plaza) — in 1558 with the aid of enslaved laborers. Soon thereafter, they required free men of color to join the construction or face punishment by whipping (Weiss 1979a, 33).
The Real Fuerza follows classicist Renaissance models of architecture with emphasis on geometric precision and symmetry. Four bastions form sharp corners where men could scope or engage in battle, making it the first bastioned fortress in the Americas. A moat surrounds the fortress, and a wooden bridge provides access to the structure. The later addition, in the 1630s, of a bell tower features a weather vane of a woman who holds a palm in her right arm and a staff with a Calatrava cross. Of the palm, only the stem remains.
The Real Fuerza, along with the fortresses El Morro and La Punta, comprised the city’s first defensive system. Aponte represents the Real Fuerza on láminas 8-9 and lámina 23 in his “book of paintings.” For residents of Havana who could circulate freely (whites, free people of color, or working enslaved individuals), the Real Fuerza comprised an important part of the urban landscape on the city’s oldest plaza. Aponte undoubtedly knew of the Real Fuerza’s importance as the oldest fortress as he had served in the local colonial militias of blacks and mulattos. As historian Matt Childs writes, Aponte ultimately turned his “military training at the service of Spanish colonialism into a weapon to destroy it” (Childs 2006, 187).