An obligatory stop in Cuba's slave route: The San Severino Castle

Among the many, magical, interesting and thought-provoking sites to visit in the city of Matanzas, El Castillo de San Severino stands out as the only remaining witness of the city’s foundation. Located in the vicinity of Varadero, this castle is one historic attraction you should include in your list of places to see in Matanzas.

An obligatory stop in Cuba's slave route: The San Severino Castle

The castle houses the first Slave Route Museum or "Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo" in the Americas. You mustn’t miss the unrivalled views over the Matanzas bay from the castle’s battlements – simply breathtaking! The museum’s main attractions are its ancient rocks and the collection of pieces comprising 374 years of slavery in Cuba. Both take us on a long and complex journey back in time through the island’s past.

In my humble opinion, "El Castillo de San Severino"; should rank up high on the list of anyone touring Matanzas. This grand fortress is the sole prevailing witness to the founding of one of Cuba’s most important cities, which came into being on 12th October 1693.

Every year in October; along with other historians from my hometown, I visit this fortress to celebrate the anniversary of “the city of bridges and rivers”, as Matanzas is often referred as. The occasion is certainly an appropriate one to also commemorate the laying of the fortress’ foundation stone. This castle has been described by my good friend, historian Silvia Teresita Godoy (who has devoted a fair share of her life to study it) as “the insomniac sentry” of Matanzas’s bay.

A fortress’ story

According to most Matanzas historians, towards 1682, the Spanish monarchy; agreed to the foundation of the city of "San Carlos y San Severino de Matanzas", as well as to the construction of a fortress to protect and defend it from possible enemy attack. The initial project was conceived by military engineer Juan de Císcara, but as my aforementioned friend discovered, eight years later de Císcara died, and engineer Juan de Herrera Sotomayor took his place, modifying the previous project and becoming the main executioner of the construction works.

It is known that on 13th October 1693, after the official ceremony of the founding of Matanzas, Diego Evelino de Compostela; Bishop of Cuba and Capitán General (Governor) Severino de Manzaneda, went to the place where the fortress’s plan had been previously outlined, to bless the laying of its foundation stone.

It’s been roughly established that the construction of the castle, which was named "San Severino", after one of the city’s patron saints and the island’s governor, was finished around 1745.

But, what you cannot leave the castle without knowing is that it was once left in ruins when the English took hold of Havana during an invasion back in 1762. Upon hearing the news, the fortress’ commander García Solís made the rash decision of blowing the castle up, to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. This, rather inevitably, caused significant damage to the castle’s substructure.

This incident was followed by a long period of neglect. A decade later; works to restore the fortress began in 1772. Four years later, the majority of the work was done, but minor constructive works continued until 1789. Thus, the building you can admire today, is centuries-old, but not the original.

Purposes which the fortress has served.

During the 18th century, "el Castillo de San Severino" not only protected the city of Matanzas from the enemies of Spain and its colonies; it was also a prison and it served as such until the 20th century. Within its walls, many a prisoner; ranging from military deserters to common delinquents, heroic individuals from Cuba’s War of Independence against Spain, as well as blacks and mulattos involved in the movement for slavery abolition in Cuba; served sentences or even died here.

Three old commemorative stone plaques can still be observed on the fortress’ exterior. To the right of the current entrance, one of them attests to the castle’s founding. The second one shows the visitor, the cell in which the great patriot Antonio López Coloma was confined in, and the third; cites the names of the many Cuban pro-independence individuals, executed here by Spanish firing squads.

The fortress was declared a National Monument in 1978, only to be neglected during the following decade. This abandonment lasted until 1998, when the government decided to turn it into a museum, as part of a UNESCO project named "La Ruta del Esclavo" (The Slave’s Route).

The Route of the Slave Museum.

I’d like you to know that the first "Museo de la Ruta del Esclavo" (The Slave’s Route Museum) in the American continent, opened in June 2009, after an arduous restoring effort, and patient archeological work, which currently continues in a significant part of the fortress. The idea had officially; begun to brew in Ouidah, Benín; in 1994. Its main promoters were determined to delve into the slave trade, and thus expand the African-American dialogue which had so forcibly begun 500 hundred years before.

The two showrooms open to visitors; which you must not fail to tour, display exhibits from renowned Cuban artists Nelson Domínguez and Wifredo Lam. The latter consists in a series of paints from this artist, donated by outstanding Cuban painter Alexis Leyva Machado, a.k.a Kcho. You’ll find "las Salas de la Esclavitud y de los Orishas", o "Deidades Afrocubanas" (the Slavery Showroom and the Afro-Cuban Deities Showroom) in the former residence of the commander of the fortress. The Afro-Cuban Deities Showroom, brings the rich and diverse African religion to life, forever mixed with other unique components that make up Cuban culture and character.

I suggest you pay special attention to the "Sala de la Esclavitud"; which, according to specialists, portrays the human misery of the so-called slave trade, but also the alternatives that the African slaves; as well as their descendants, found to make their lives more bearable. Various archeological pieces tell about the life of these serfs in the sugar cane and coffee plantations. Shackles, padlocks and locks, testify to the conditions in which they lived. Other evidence such as; "machetes", vessels and smoking pipes, show how the slaves became "cimarrones" (runaway slaves), how they fled, "machete" in hand, from the colonial farms and headed to the wilderness, to inhabit nearby caves and create their so-called "palenques" (hiding places to live in). Within these, they were able to survive, growing crops or stealing from those who had once forced them into hard labour.

Visiting "el Castillo de San Severino", from which you’ll get to enjoy a remarkable view of the Matanzas bay; one of Cuba’s deepest and most significant, will surely turn out to be a fascinating adventure, a passionate journey through history, and a unique opportunity to learn the details surrounding the infamous slave traffic in the Americas, which, sadly, lasted for several centuries.

Location: Zona Industrial de Matanzas (Matanzas’s Industrial Zone), Reparto Dubrocq, in the vicinity of the harbour.
An ideal visit for those who love castles and colonial fortresses.

You must not miss: The incomparable view of the bay perceived from the fortress, and the exceptional pieces that related to slavery in Cuba, are exhibited in its showrooms.

Open: Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p. m.

Entry Price: 2 CUC per person, but you must pay another 2 CUC if you wish to take photos or videos. 

Ernesto Alvarez

Ernesto Alvarez

Passionate Historian

Being the author of The History of Tourism in Varadero and a resident there, Ernesto hoards an...

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