The historical background of El Rompido (Huelva)

The first signs of habitation of the region start appearing in the Phoenician epoch, thousands of years BCE, or Before Common Era. Cartaya’s name derives from the Phoenician word Carteia. The Roman presence left behind evidence of settlement excavated in El Rompido’s town centre, as well as a fish salting operation nearby.

However, the the area was prone to repeated and intense attack by Berber and Norman pirates, and this insecurity delayed the consolidation of the town until the 15th century. At that moment, it was necessary to build a town capable of protecting ships heading for the río Piedras river. This security measure was established by the Marques de Gibraleón    who, after many legal wrangles with the authorities in Ayamonte on the Portuguese-Spanish border, resolved the defence issue in favour of El Rompido and Cartaya. In 1453 Don Pedro de Zuñiga was charged with the construction of a castle to keep vigil over the entry to the inlet of the ría Piedras. The 16th century saw the start of an economic boom that gradually, with the disappearance of the Medieval settlements, began to decline. The population began to rise again in the 17th century, with an economy now firmly, and safely, based in fishing and agriculture.

The townsfolk were actively involved in crewing the many voyages to the newly-discovered Americas that set sail from this coast. Today this is a community in which history and culture are very much alive in the present. Its peaceful existence, as a maritime town, is what preserves its charm.

Apart from its possible origins in the remote times of the Phoenicians and in the historical reality, not fully understood, of other eras, El Rompido was actually founded under an entirely different name, San Miguel de Arca de Buey. This was one of many examples of a process of repopulation during the middle of the 15th century in the area known as la Baja (lower) Andalucía (the area covered by the provinces of Huelva, Seville and Cádiz). During this period many ‘new towns’ appeared in an initiative spearheaded by the monarchy, town councils, or the aristocracy in their respective territories, to revitalize the areas emptied by the expulsion of the Muslim population.

The founding charter of San Miguel de Arca de Buey was drawn up on 6 April 1458 by order of Álvaro de Zúñiga. The origin of the new settlers is unknown, although it is believed they would have arrived from the north of Spain and from Portugal.

The years of 1510 to 1534 were an era of crisis for all of the people under the Marques of Gibraleón. In San Miguel the population fell by 31 per cent, due, above all, to the siren song of the new American territories influencing the neighbours in nearby Huelva, even though a succession of poor harvests and epidemics also added their grain of sand.

But from 1534 to 1637 the population rose again and in all of the province – barring San Miguel. The town was sacked many times, as the continuous and highly profitable expeditions loaded with riches that returned from the Americas to the Andalucían ports also attracted the attention of pirates, who were the sailors’ nightmare and would attack undefended towns and villages, even cities such as Cádiz and Gibraltar.

It was for this that king Felipe II ordered the organization of a defence for the coastline with the construction of fortifications, one in Punta Umbría and another next to the Laguna del Portil. He also wanted to build more in other positions, including San Miguel de Arca de Buey.

Nevertheless on 10 August 1577 Luis Bravo Laguna recommended that the fort of San Miguel be repaired, adding a torrejoncillo (castellated tower) to serve both as a lighthouse and to communicate with other towers along the coast. The sackings continued, further causing the depopulation of San Miguel and leading to a new charter to repopulate the village in 1597. Despite these brave attempts to fortify the village, in 1630 the inhabitants abandoned the village completely.

It t wasn’t until January 1651, when Cartaya took possession of San Miguel, on exactly the first of January, under powers given to the Duque de Bejar as magistrate and chief justice of Gibraleón, that the village of San Miguel de Arca de Buey passed into the control of his title. The final misfortune to strike the area was the earthquake which in 1755 destroyed all of the church, with its tower, El Faro, left as the most representative monument to the original building. Constructed in 1861 in the industrial style of the 19th century, and declared of local interest, it was replaced by another lighthouse in the middle of the 1970s. The Dehesa (pastoral area) of San Miguel, where El Rompido now sits, is catalogued by the Diputación Provincial as a zone of ongoing archeological excavation.

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