On my second evening in Cartagena I take a stroll around the old walled city, which despite its colonial style and nostalgic elegance is sadly heading in the same direction as every other tourist destination in the developing world. The old triangular square that contained the slave market for over 200 years is now used by the descendants of those slaves working in the sex trade (female, as far as I could determine but, I have been informed, you can never be sure until the moment of truth). They congregate in little groups and totter around on heels, checking mobile phones sheathed in brightly coloured holders.
But even watching the rituals of the night unfold can be exhausting in this heat, so I head back to my small hotel in Getsemaní, just outside the old walls.
I arrived the day before yesterday and had been in Cartagena for three hours and been through as many changes of shirt. The air was like hot soup, and, once settled in my room, with the air-conditioning finally working, I foolishly left my haven to wade through the soup on a shopping mission. I went to one of the many stalls selling phones and electrical accessories in Getsemaní market to buy batteries. The girl serving me broke into a smile, told me to wait, and went to the back of the shop, returning with half a dozen tissues, gesticulating towards my face. I thanked her nervously. I remember that I was once referred to as a ‘sweaty Welshman’, but that was a scurrilous euphemism and I do not think I perspire more freely than most. But this heat is something else.
And air-conditioning, for all its ecological hazards, is a blessing. Last night I stayed up writing and at 2.30 a.m. stepped out onto the veranda running past my room to be wrapped at once in sweetly florid heat. The flowers and creeping plants had taken over the air, and the streets outside were silent apart from the barking of an insomniac dog.
This is the Caribbean, and there is a more laid-back and open attitude among the locals than one generally finds among the rather dour highlanders in Bogotá. People are immediately welcoming, and this is done in such an entirely guileless way that early suspicions are soon erased. A young man wants to show me where to get a charger for my camera: he leads me down an alley, across a park, into a shopping mall, introduces me to the shopkeeper and then leaves, shaking my hand and wishing me well.
On my first evening, strolling in the old town, I had noticed a strange little window in the side of an old palace. An inscription plate informed me it was at this spot that informers could report the misdeeds of their neighbours to the inquisitors, for this was the Palace of the Inquisition. So, any grudge against the person next door, I imagine – or if one’s cow stops giving milk, for instance – might be twisted into an accusation of witchcraft. The next day I visit the museum that now occupies the Palace. It is a chamber of horrors, peculiarly filtered through rhetoric which claims that the Inquisitors were nicer to people here than they were elsewhere, and that although their methods were not always pleasant, their ultimate intention was a good one: to help heretics make peace with god before meeting with him in person. My guide book tells me that over 800 were executed by the Inquisition between 1776 and 1821. The museum information mitigates this by saying that ‘only five’ heretics were burnt to death and the ‘the Inquisition did not oppress the Indigenous population.’
The commonest accusations were concerned with heresy and specifically, witchcraft. A list of the 33 questions routinely asked in the interrogation of suspect witches hangs on the wall of the museum. Examples include: ‘What animals have you killed or put under a curse and why have you done it? ‘On which children have you cast the spell of the evil eye, and why have you done it?’ ‘Why does the devil strike you blows at night?’ ‘How do you fly through the air at night?’ I am not a lawyer, but I believe that these might be termed leading questions.
Some of the instruments of torture used to extract confessions are also on display. They include the two devices shown below. The first, called in Spanish the Fork of Heresy, prohibited all movement of the head but offered the victim the chance to murmur his or her confession; the second, an invention horribly called the ‘Breast Piercer’, was used on women ‘who had committed heresy, blasphemy, adultery, or other libidinous acts such as provoking abortions, practising erotic magic and other crimes.’
As though to cleanse myself of these horrors, I wander down to the Convent of the good priest San Pedro Claver. For almost forty years, this Jesuit from the Catalan village of Verdú, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes, worked in Cartagena, apparently defending, protecting and nursing newly arrived African slaves in the city. His munificence was legendary, at a time when black people were regarded as little more than beasts of burden by their dealers and owners. Here he is, the great white guardian, a placebo against all the terrors and ignominies of slavery:
The museum that honours him in the old convent reconstructs his modest cell, his living quarters, and houses an exhibition of the most terrible paintings imaginable – so terrible they are fascinating – celebrating his good deeds among the slave population – who are here depicted as almost imbecilic caricatures:
But at least there is a way out. On a wall, apparently unrelated to anything around it, I find the sign ‘Portal de las Animas’: Portal of Souls. Now, where’s the damn switch . . .