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Complexities of the Castle at St Augustine

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By Roli S
During our road journey from Raleigh to Orlando, we stopped at two places of interest. I have already written about one of them, Charleston, the city I knew because of the Movie “Gone With the Wind”. The other stop that we took on the way was at St Augustine. This town was less than an hour short of Orlando and we reached the place at night fall. I had heard about the town and vaguely knew that it was an important historical town, but had no clear idea as to what would actually interest me as a traveller or tourist.
After searching on the internet and discussing within the group, we came to know that it lays claim to being the oldest city in the US, and is known for its Spanish colonial architecture as well as Atlantic Ocean beaches, like the sandy St Augustine Beach and tranquil Crescent Beach. St Augustine also boasts of attractions like military forts, stately castles, and Gilded-Age hotels. Visitors can explore a spiralling lighthouse, scenic nature trails, hear the sounds of the city, from horse hooves on brick-paved streets to the roar of cannon fire; the hustle and bustle of a living community. There is enough to explore in fascinating museums or by taking a scary ghost tour. Historical re-enactments, recreations, artefacts and relics can be found at every corner, bringing to life the timeless stories of other eras. All in all, we came to know that St Augustine offers to the tourist, both, adventure and a cultural experience, and we had to choose between the two.
Since we had only a few hours on hand next day in the city, we decided to visit the Castillo de San Marcos of St Augustine, which is considered to be a “walk-in” park and a monument not only of stone and mortar but of human determination and endurance.
After a night stay in a road side St Augustine motel, we were ready to start our day, which was fortunately sunny and bright.
We started early in the day so we got parking space near the Castillo de San Marcos. At the entrance, as usual, we were greeted by the friendly and warm staff who guided us towards the Castillo.
As a group we decided to sit through the informative documentary that was being played in one of the rooms of the Castillo. We came to know that the Castillo de San Marcos symbolises the clash between cultures which ultimately resulted in the unified nation. Still resonant with the struggles of an earlier time, the original walls provide tangible evidence of America’s sometimes grim but remarkable history. The evidence of this history is presented at the Castillo in the forms of written and pictorial evidence, barracks that portrayed the lifestyle of soldiers during that time, the room where gun powder was stored, small dark and dingy jails or prisons where offenders were kept away from other soldiers, etc.
We also came to know that the Castillo de San Marcos, though a remote outpost, weathered many attacks during the almost incessant colonial wars.
The Castle had a lot to tell and show in terms of history and culture, but few things stood out for me personally. An enduring legacy of the craftsmanship and skill of the engineers, artisans and labourers who built it really fascinated me.
The Castillo de San Marcos is unique in North American architecture. As a 17th century military construction in the country and one of the oldest masonry fortresses in the United States, it is a prime example of the “bastion system” of fortification, the culmination of hundreds of years of military defence engineering.
It is also unique for the material used in its construction. The Castillo is one of the few fortifications in the world built out of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina. The coquina quarries on Anastasia Island supplied the Spanish with building materials for over 200 years. Given its light and porous nature, coquina would seem to be a poor choice of building material for a fort. However, the Spanish had few other options; it was the only stone available on the northeast coast of La Florida. However, coquina’s porosity turned out to have an unexpected benefit. Because of its conglomerate mixture, coquina contains millions of microscopic air pockets making it compressible. A cannon ball fired at more solid material, such as granite or brick would shatter the wall into flying shards, but cannon balls fired at the walls of the Castillo burrowed their way into the rock and stuck there, much like a cricket ball would if fired into Styrofoam. So the thick coquina walls absorbed or deflected projectiles rather than yielding to them, providing a surprisingly long-lived fortress.
The other thing that I found intriguing after taking the tour of the Castillo was – ‘Was it a Fort or Castle?’ Definition of a castle accepted amongst academics is a ‘private fortified residence’ and the Oxford English Dictionary says it is “a large building, typically of the medieval period, fortified against attack with thick walls, battlements, towers, and in many cases a moat.”
The Castillo de San Marcos fits all of those definitions in one way, at one time or another. When it was first built, the Governor of St Augustine resided inside the building, which would make it a “private fortified residence”. It is most definitely a large, fortified building that provided a retreat safe against invasion for the people of St Augustine (at one time, it housed over 1,500 people for 51 days when the English laid siege!). And it also has thick walls, battlements, towers, and a moat.
Moreover, I also came to know that most of the fortifications the Spanish built in the New World were named Castillos. Perhaps it is a hold-over from medieval times, meant to inspire their people and instil fear in their enemies?
Also interesting is the fact that Castillo de San Marcos does later become referred to as a fort at one point of time in the history when the British gained Florida through the 1763 Treaty of Paris. They renamed the building Fort Saint Mark. Later, it is learnt that the United States Army decided in 1825 to call it Fort Marion. Under those occupations, it was indeed used for purely military functions but The National Park Service and United States Congress decided to restore its original name in 1942, in honour of its unique Spanish history, so it went back to being Castillo de San Marcos for good. My curiosity regarding the nomenclature satisfied, I came out of this historically important and unique monument very informed and wised up about the North American history.
And I concluded that any castle, and all it represents, will always be with us. Once it was born, once the stone was made living, the repository of power made real, the idea could never be unmade, that is why Castillo de San Marcos in the State of Florida stands to preserve and interpret the history and cultural influences of various groups associated with the site including Native Americans, English, Spanish, Colonial African Americans, and the United States.