Monday, June 11, 2012

Fort Niebla

We are spending the long weekend of the 21st of May (the celebration of the Glorias Navales of 1879) with four Chilean friends in the small coastal city of Valdivia.  

Once upon a time, Valdivia was the most fortified city in Spanish America.  Valdivia was where sailors stopped for the last fresh water before the Horn, and where they found the first fresh water after the Horn.  The city was prized accordingly.  Everybody wanted it.  And the Spanish were determined to hold it.
            On Sunday we visited the ruins of Fort Niebla - a twelve-gun battery on a cliff, one of the ferocious teeth in a network of fourteen forts that the Spanish built in the 16th century to defend the mouth of the Corral Bay against any and all comers.  A map in a small museum  on the site showed us the overlapped fields of fire - that narrow stretch of water was bracketed fourteen ways from hell in a net of batteries that would - and should - in theory - turn that narrow stretch of water into a charnel ground.
            Valdivia was never taken - I'm not certain that it was even attempted - until the Corral Bay was breached by Admiral Thomas Cochrane, during in the Chilean war of Independence in 1820.
            After 300 years of secure martial superiority, the Spanish were complacent and overconfident, and simultaneously - what with the whole of their South American viceroyalties trying to pitch them back across the ocean - deeply short of morale. In high contrast, Lord Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was riding on a high -a naval hero who had just come off the Napoleonic Wars in a cloud of splendid notoriety, and Bernardo O'Higgins, the Great Chilean Liberator, had hired him to head his embryo navy.
            On his own initiative Cochrane decided to take Valdivia as a prize for the Chileans.  Which he duly did - at night in a pea soup fog, with two ships sailing under Spanish flags.
            Lord Cochrane was a man of such splendid naval prowess that he has been inspiring sea-writers for the past two centuries.  Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower are two of his namesakes.  Reality lives up to fiction: flying Spanish flags, Cochrane waited for a fog, took the shore-most batteries on the south side of the bay from the direction that the guns were not aimed - in a land assault. He couldn't avoid a head-on assault of Fort Niebla, but when he arrived he found the fort deserted. The Spanish had fled.  And that was that.  Valdivia belonged to the Chileans.

Lord Cochrane took seven of Fort Niebla's twelve guns away with him as booty, and rendered the rest inoperable, and left them there to moulder there, next to their ovens.

There are two dome-roof'd brick ovens behind the gun emplacements, built to heat cannon-balls red hot before they were fired.   More sporting raiders than Lord Cochrane would have attempted the bay in broad daylight or under a full moon, and they would have faced a two-phase attack.  First a volley of chain-shot - two small balls linked by a stout chain, to tear down the yards and masts of their ships, and then a barrage of cannonballs heated to a glowing cherry-red heat, to set fire to their decks and hulls and leave the raiders floating in a charred wreck, picked off easily by the smaller guns.
            Today the place is sunny and serene and Fort Niebla drowses in the sun, habituated only by the wandering tourists who clamber over the cliffs and scratch their names in the cliffs of mud-stone rock that the fort was built out of.  The stone is so soft that thorny weeds down on the gun emplacements have cut circular grooves in the rock as the branches are blown about by the wind.

In the afternoon we found a small boat to take us out to Isla Mancera - the master-fort in the center of the bay that for 300 years commanded the whole lethal panopoly.  We'd heard rumors that there was an underground dungeon there - still complete - dank and solid and explore-able.
            Isla Mancera today is sleepier even than Fort Niebla.  Only 52 people live in the island, in wooden houses painted in bright colors behind low rail fences. 

The little boat left us on a landing and promised to be back in an hour.  We walked up a grass lane, unmarked - no tires had passed this way in months, if ever - with a narrow paved sidewalk along one edge for when the lane was wet and muddy.  

At the top of a hill we found a small church and a high stone wall:  the wall of the Castillo de San Pedro de Alcántara.
            A door in the wall took us down a passage through the stones and out onto a plateau.  The edge of the island had been leveled and we stood on a grass-paved stage that faced out across  the mouth of the bay.  It was a splendid fortified position - almost all of the bay's defenses would have been directly visible from this place.   And it was a Place: a place of tremendous serenity - there was a palpable, forceful, and unbudgeable placidity there - a seated presence with a spine of iron and a lifted chin and a repose that a Buddha could have wrapped steel bars around and used to build walls. 

There were only us - and it. The building were ruins, studded with moss and crowned with grass-flowers.  The dungeon was barred by a solid modern grate, and a small flock of white sheep cropped at the grass.  We stepped quietly, and then, when we'd learned that we couldn't disturb it, we ran and hooted and climbed the walls to walk the ramparts and the place flowed around us like water.

After a time, the light began to dim and turn purple.  A pair of teenage girls came to collect the sheep and took them away.  We circled the place on foot, and made our goodbyes, and we walked back through the wall into the island. Out in the water, our little boat was chugging toward us.  

It wasn't as cold as the previous nights had been.  We went home.

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