Who were Pedro Heredia and La India Catalina?

Visitors to Cartagena can hardly fail to notice the larger-than-life bronze statues of a semi-naked Indian maiden that stands on a traffic island near Chambacu, and an equally impressive statue of a Conquistador that stands in the Plaza de los Coches. Their true lives are shrouded in mystery and legend, though enough facts have survived to ensure their immortality as a historical figures.


Don Pedro de Heredia: Spanish Conquistador, and founder of Cartagena.

As a young man, son of a rich family in Madrid, six men tried to assassinate him but he was able to defend himself. The fight left him with a disfigured face. He hunted down three of his attackers and killed them before fleeing to Santo Domingo, and later Santa Marta in Colombia. In 1532 he returned to Spain, where he gained royal approval to invade the Bay of Cartagena and found a city. He landed on 1 June 1533, with 150 men and 22 horses. At that time there were several villages of the Mocana Indians, including the villages of Cospique in present-day Mamonal, Bahaire on Isla Baru, Carex on Isla Tierrabomba, and Calamari, the largest village, stood on the sandy inner shore of Cartagena Bay, the site of present day Centro Cartagena. Heredia attacked their stockades, which were fortified with palisades of wooden stakes on which the Indians often displayed the impaled decapitated heads of their enemies. The leaders of the Native Indians were Codego and Carex, with whom he eventually negotiated a pecae treaty. He befriended an old man named Corinche and persuaded him to guide him to Galerazamba, but the he led him to an ambush in Turbaco that nearly cost Heredia's life. A 22 year old Indian woman slew eight Conquistadores with her own hands, and Heredia was saved from certain death only by the brave intervention of his comrade Francisco Cesar. With the help of "La India Catalina", a Native Indian Princess fluent in both the Spanish and Indian tongues, he set about conquering and ruling the area around Cartagena, including Turbaco and the Magdalena River. He looted Indian graves in the Sinu River area, and his spoils from Galerazamba (now known as Zamba, just a few miles from Cartagena, near Totumo) included a solid gold porcupine weighing 132 pounds - the heaviest gold object plundered durung the Conquest.

Heredia was once taken prisoner by another conquistador, Sebastian de Belalcazar. He led several long and arduous expeditions into the mountains of Antioquia, and was governor of Cartagena for 22 years. Recalled to Spain to face charges that he had abused his power, he sailed for Spain in 1544, but the ship sank within sight of Cadiz. He tried to swim ashore, but his body was never found. His statue, erected in 1963, was sculpted by Juan Avalos.

La India Catalina: Indian Princess, caught between two cultures.


According to an early account written by Juan de Castellanos, Catalina was a young girl, and daughter of a cacique, or native chief, when she was taken prisoner by Spanish Captain Diego de Nicuesa, in Galerazamba, not far from Cartagena. Nicuesa took her to Santo Domingo where she was sold as an orphan to a high ranking Spanish official. He baptised and educated her, raising her as if she was his own. When her adoptive mother died, and her only sister was about to marry, she fell in love with a Captain who promised to bring her to her homeland again. Heredia took her aboard in Santa Marta with the knowledge that she was fluent in both Spanish and the native tongue, when he came to found the city of Cartagena, and conquer and plunder the tribes living nearby. Catalina was 26 years old when she arrived. Although Heredia used her as an interpreter in his successful campaigns to subjugate the natives, the death toll probably would have been higher had Catalina not been present. A rumour persists to this day that she and Heredia were lovers. Whatever relationship she had would have came to an end when she married Heredia's nephew, Alonso Monta˝Ús. Later, as chronicled in the writing of Maria Del Carmen Gomez, she testified against Heredia when he faced charges including theft of gold and mistreatment of Indians. Catalina moved to Seville in Spain where she disappears from the historical record. Today, her 190 kg, 2.95m tall bronze statue sculpted by Hector Tito Lombana and Eladio Gil Zambrana is synonymous with Cartagena and its annual International Film Festival. It stands just outside the city wall, on Avenida Venezuela, near the bridge over Laguna de Chambac˙, Cartagena.

- written by Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat through Mexico and Central America' is available from Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short