Castillo de San Marcos (Saint Augustine, Florida)

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This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS.

Our story today tells of ships, explorers, pirate attacks and wars.

It is the story of an old military base, the Castillo de San Marcos. It was built in the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States -- Saint Augustine, in the southern state of Florida.To reach the Castillo de San Marcos you must drive through part of the city of Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine is in northeastern Florida near the Atlantic Ocean.

You drive on a small, narrow road with vehicles slowly going both ways. On one side of the road is water. On the other side is the city.

You pass businesses, eating places, stores and hotels. And then you see it, just as the road turns to the left. It looks like a hill of rock rising out of the ground. It seems fierce. And it looks very foreign. There can be no mistake about what it is. It is a very old military base -- the kind that is called a fort. It looks like it should be in some European country, not on the coast of Florida.

Near the entrance is an area to leave your car. A large sign says "National Park Service, Castillo de San Marcos." In English the name means the "Castle of Saint Mark."

A National Park Service worker sells us a ticket to enter the old fort. It only costs a few dollars. Slowly we make our way across a wide, water-filled area called a moat.

Passing through the huge walls of the fort is a little like walking back in time. Sounds from the street and the city of Saint Augustine do not reach inside. The fort is very much like it was when its builders completed most of it in 1695. There are ancient guns here. Most of the huge cannon are made of bronze. They are a green color because of their great age. Some have deep marks showing the gun was made by the royal weapons factory in Spain. Others are British.

If you could look down at the fort from above, you would see it is shaped like a star with four large points. The fort has more than 20 rooms. Some rooms were used to store weapons, medical supplies and food. One of the rooms was used to hold religious services. Soldiers lived in others.

The Spanish built nine forts in this area before they built San Marcos. They needed some kind of strong protection after they arrived in 1565. That was when explorers first claimed the area for Spain. Soldiers were left there to provide protection for Spanish treasure ships sailing from the Americas back to Spain. They were also there to protect Spain's claim to Florida.

The first forts were made of wood. They were not very strong. One of the early ones was burned in 1586 by the famous British sea captain, Francis Drake. The Florida heat and insects quickly destroyed other wood forts.

Spanish military officials in Florida knew they needed more protection. They asked Spain for the money to build a stronger fort. Each time they asked, however, they were refused.

The need for a stronger fort became clear on the night of May 28, 1668.

Earlier that day, a ship sailed near Saint Augustine. The townspeople thought it was Spanish. It was not. That night, pirates attacked the town and the wooden fort. The Spanish soldiers were able to keep the pirates from capturing the wooden fort, but they could not protect the town.

Many people in Saint Augustine were killed or captured. The pirates left when they could find nothing else to steal. They destroyed much of the town.

Spanish officials immediately began sending money to build a stronger fort. They also sent workers to Saint Augustine to replace the wooden fort with something that offered more protection.

Workers found a nearby area where they could begin cutting thick stone to build the fort. It took almost four years to gather enough money and to prepare the land for the fort. But on October second, 1672, Governor Don Manuel de Cendoya held a special ceremony to observe the beginning of the work.

The Castillo de San Marcos grew very slowly. It took 23 years to complete. There never seemed to be enough money to pay the workers. There never seemed to be enough workers. Disease often struck the builders. The fierce heat of Florida's summer months slowed the work each year. The work was extremely difficult, but the new fort was finished just in time. War was soon declared.The year 1702 was the first real test of the Castillo's strength. The War of Spanish Succession had begun in Europe. Britain, Austria and their allies were fighting Spain and France to prevent a French prince from becoming the King of Spain.

The governor of the British colony of Carolina was James Moore. He hoped to capture the fort to prevent a possible attack by Spanish or French forces on his British colony further up the coast. Governor Moore commanded 500 British troops and 300 Indians in his invading army.

The Spanish army only had 230 soldiers and 180 Indian allies at Castillo de San Marcos. Moore's army arrived with eight small ships, and blocked the harbor of Saint Augustine. The people of the town fled into the Castillo.

Governor Moore could make no progress in his attack. The huge new fort was too strong. Then, several Spanish war ships arrived to help the Spanish soldiers. Moore burned his small ships and retreated to the north. He burned the town of Saint Augustine before he left. But the Spanish soldiers and the people of the town had survived in the fort. The battle had lasted for 50 days.

The Spanish again strengthened the fort after the British attack. This time they made a wall of earth around Saint Augustine to protect the town. They also improved the fort's defenses. Saint Augustine became a walled city.

In 1740, the British again attacked Castillo San Marcos. For 27 days they fired huge shells at the fort. The shelling had little effect. The British withdrew.

In 1763, Spain gave up its claim to Florida. The British took control. Castillo de San Marcos soon became Fort Saint Mark. The British occupied the fort during the American Revolution. When the war ended, Florida was once again returned to Spain.

Spain held Florida until 1821. Then, tensions between Spain and the United States caused Spain to give up its claim to Florida. The name of the old fort was changed again. It was now called Fort Marion.

During the next 100 years the fort was used as a prison to hold American Indians from the western States. It was also used as a military prison.

In 1924, Fort Marion was declared a national historical monument. In 1933, the United States War Department gave the old fort to the National Park Service. The National Park service changed its name back to Castillo de San Marcos.Today, the Castillo de San Marcos still seems to protect the city of Saint Augustine. However, no enemy has attacked since the year 1740. Each day hundreds of people do what no enemy was ever able to do. They enter the fort.

The National Park Service representatives lead small groups of visitors through the fort. They explain how it was built. And they tell stories of the people who built it.

They also tell of pirates and English invaders. They explain why it was so very difficult for even a strong enemy to capture the fort. Children play near the huge old guns that are no longer dangerous. They play that they are fighting against fierce invaders.

Most visitors have cameras and take pictures. Everyone enjoys looking at the beautiful surroundings from the top of the old fort's walls. Many visitors stand inside the small guard rooms at each point of the star. Inside the guard room, you can look out the little windows at the ocean, much the same way Spanish soldiers watched for enemies.

Then, for a few moments, Castillo de San Marcos may seem again to be protecting the city of Saint Augustine, and the treasure ships returning to Spain.This Special English program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Holly Capehart. This is Shirley Griffith. And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.