San Juan de Ulúa, also known as Castle of San Juan de Ulúa is a large complex of fortresses, prisons and one former palace on an island overlooking the seaport of Veracruz, Mexico.
It was built in the Spanish colonial New Spain era, with construction starting in 1565. It was expanded several times later.
In 1569, the Spanish Navy succeeded in trapping the English fleet of Sir John Hawkins, including the young Francis Drake, at San Juan de Ulúa. The English barely succeeded in making their escape, a humiliating experience which affected Drake’s later career.
Richard Hakluyt’s book, The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598–1600), claims Drake and Hawkins were on a private venture, peacefully trading with the local colonial Spaniards in violation of Spanish law, when a Spanish naval fleet arrived. Despite suspicion of treachery, they allowed the Spaniards to take shelter under truce, between San Juan de Ulúa island, on an otherwise open coastline. They were then attacked by surprise. In fact Drake and Hawkins were perfectly capable of raiding, which they had probably done elsewhere on that voyage. The trade was in African captives, who had been taken earlier from West Africa. But it does seem that they were trading at the time. The only real doubt is whether the colonists were doing so in case worse things should happen.
Hawkins and Drake escaped in “Minion” and “Judith,” while their larger ships were taken or destroyed. The attack and subsequent hardships were instrumental in hardening the attitude of Drake in particular towards Catholicism and Spain. He had earlier been forced to live in poverty after his farming family were displaced by a Catholic rebellion.
The fortress was the last point in New Spain to be held by Spain after the Mexican War of Independence. It was surrendered to General Miguel Barragán in November 1825.
For much of the nineteenth century it served as a prison, especially for political prisoners. Many prominent Mexican politicians spent time here while they were not in power. Currently it is a museum.
San Juan de Ulúa is also where parts of Romancing the Stone (1984), were filmed.
After Mexico’s independence in 1821, a large number of Spanish troops continued to occupy San Juan de Ulúa as late as 1825, when they were finally expelled by President Vicente Guerrero after a failed attempt at re-conquering the country.
Since then, San Juan de Ulúa would largely serve as a military and political symbol of Mexican resistance to foreign invasions and occupations, several of which took place during the nineteenth century. Finally in 1914, the last U.S. invasion, attack and occupation of the port of Veracruz took place. This earned the port and city of Veracruz the title of Heroic for the fourth time, after previously earning that same title after the 1836 French occupation, the 1848 U.S. occupation and the 1863 French occupation.
San Juan de Ulúa also served several times as the presidential palace, housing presidents such as Benito Juárez and Venustiano Carranza. Among its facilities, San Juan de Ulúa also held many of Mexico’s most famous prisoners at the time, mostly during the regime of President Porfirio Díaz. It is popularly said that in order to prevent prisoners from escaping, sharks were brought to the waters surrounding the island, so that they would kill anyone attempting to escape.
As occurred with many other fortresses in Latin American colonial cities, the complex was ultimately closed for all previous purposes. After several years of decay, the complex has recently been extensively renovated, and these renovations are still ongoing. San Juan de Ulúa later opened as a museum which now draws many tourists who visit Veracruz. The prisons and the fortresses are all open to the public, with the exception of the former presidential palace, which suffered severe decay and is still undergoing renovations. The complex is a very popular tourist attraction, not to be missed when visiting the city.