El Castillo and The Battle for the Río San Juan de Nicaragua

El Castillo and The Battle for the Río San Juan de Nicaragua—-
Rafaela Herrera—

By Ira Stephenson

For the English,the goal was to sail up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua and capture the town of Granada, which would effectively cut Spanish America in half as well as provide potential access to the Pacific Ocean. The first and greatest obstacle to success was to capture the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception(El Castillo).

A combined British force headed towards the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception on the San Juan River. The attacking force consisted of two thousand men and more than fifty boats, while the soldiers at the fortress numbered only around a hundred. To make matters worse, the invaders threatened the region at a time when the commander of the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, José Herrera, was mortally ill. As he lay on his deathbed, Rafaela made a solemn oath to her father that she would defend the fortress at the cost of her life if necessary. The elder Herrera died and Lieutenant Don Juan de Aguilar y Santa Cruz assumed temporary command of the garrison.

A lookout on duty heard cannon fire from the east, in the direction of an observation post. Shortly thereafter, the invaders captured the observation post and its defenders. The British commander learned from the Spanish prisoners that the fortress was in disarray due to the recent death of its commander. A few hours later, with his fleet anchored in the river, the British commander sent an envoy to demand the unconditional surrender of the fortress .The second in command of the garrison, a sergeant, was about to grant the request when the 19-year-old Herrera intervened. Seeing what she perceived as the cowardly attitude of the defenders, Herrera chided: “Have you forgotten the duties imposed by military honor? Are you going to allow the enemy to steal this fortress, which is the safeguard of the Province of Nicaragua and of your families?”

She strongly opposed the surrender of the fort and insisting that each soldier take his place fighting. She ordered the gates of the fortress to be locked, took the keys and placed sentries.

In response to the rejection of their demands, the British formed a skirmish line, believing that this would be sufficient to achieve the desired effect. Herrera, trained in the handling of weapons, fired one of the cannons and managed to kill the British commander with the third volley of cannon fire. Enraged by the death of their boss, the British hoisted their battle ensign and began a vigorous attack upon the fortress which continued throughout the night. The garrison, energized by Herrera’s heroism, mounted a fierce resistance which inflicted great losses to the British men and boats. At nightfall, Herrera ordered the troops to throw some sheets soaked with alcohol into the river on floating branches and set on fire. The current dragged the burning material towards the enemy craft. This unexpected action forced the invading British troops to suspend their attack for the rest of the night and retreat to defensive positions. The next day the British tried to besiege the fortress, with little progress and many casualties on their side.

Inspired by Herrera’s acts of heroism, Lieutenant Juan de Aguilar, the garrison commander, led the defenders to victory in a battle that lasted six days. Herrera handled the cannons of the fortress and the Spanish managed not only to defend the strategic position but also to defeat a much larger and better trained military force. The British finally lifted their siege and retreated on August 3, 1762.

Herrera later married Don Pablo Mora, a citizen of Granada. The couple bore five children, of whom two were paralyzed. Her husband died after the birth of their fifth child, and the family lived in poverty in barrio Corinto (a poor neighborhood in Granada) until 1781. On November 11, 1781, King Charles III of Spain issued a royal decree granting Herrera a pension for life as a reward for her heroic actions during the Battle for the Río San Juan de Nicaragua; she received some land and a pension of 600 pesos in payment for her merits.