Closeup of the original Portuguese fortress, from a Dutch view, 1607

The remains of the Portuguese tower

Coral, volcanic block and limed mortar common to the walls of most Spice Islands Forts

The Ternatean monument - topped by a giant clove - of the day they took Kastella back from the Portuguese after a 5 year siege

Looking west at the remains of Kastella's San Juan Bastion

Looking towards Bastion San Lorenzo and the north wall of the Portuguese fort

The grandfather of them all…

The oldest of the Spice Island fortifications, Kastella was built from 1522 in response to the departure from Spain of Magellan’s  expedition. The Portuguese monarch, Manuel I, ordered its construction to reinforce his title to the riches of the Molucca’s in the face of competing Spanish claims. Jorge de Brito appointed to command the 1521 fleet from Lisbon and build the fort died en-route to the Islands, and was succeeded by his brother, Antonio de Brito, who laid the first stone on the feast day of Sao Joao Baptista, giving the fort its original name.

Dutch view of Spanish Kastella 1607

The rulers of Ternate, Tidore, Makian and Bacian had all competed for a Portuguese fort to be built in their domains, seeing a strong Portuguese base as a useful asset in the never-ending struggle for regional mastery. In the end, the fact that Portuguese traders had operated from Ternate since 1512 swung the deal in their favour.

The location chosen was close to the Sultans court on the south-western coast, but around 9km/ 6mi from Ternate’s best harbour, at Talangame. Small openings through reefs which fringed the shore at the fort site allowed careful passage by smaller junks and caravels, but prevented larger vessels from closing sufficiently to bombard the work and this was likely the principal determinant.

Looking north showing the remains of the north wall of the Portuguese fort, Gammalamma volcano behind

Looking north showing the remains of the north wall of the Portuguese fort, Gammalamma volcano behind

Despite de Brito bringing a master mason and stone masons from Portugal, construction progressed slowly. Local enthusiasm for the project had died with the previous Sultan, construction was difficult, proper materials hard to obtain, and manpower scarce.  Not to mention the blasting tropical sun deterring such hard labour. Timbers of the wrecked Spanish Trinidad, once Magellan’s flagship but captured by the Portuguese and lost at Ternate in a storm, were used in the building process, and her guns were used as armament.

Contemporary chroniclers agreed that the early fort was poorly built and militarily ineffective. Gradually the defences were improved however; two stone towers were added and the perimeter wall – roughly 60m/200ft square – was thickened and extended to over 5m/16ft in height.  By 1570, relations between the Portuguese and the Ternateans had deteriorated to open warfare, with the locals laying siege to the fort.

That the Portuguese managed to hold the defences for five years suggests a lack of energetic prosecution of the siege by the locals, but also some degree of effectiveness of the walls and bastions, and the weapons with which they were armed. Successive expeditions from Goa and Malacca to relieve the fortress were unsuccessful, and eventually conditions inside deteriorated to the point where the Portuguese were forced to surrender, abandoning their stronghold in humiliation.

Sultan Baab Ullah took possession of a virtual ruin, but he anticipated the return of the Portuguese, so with the help of engineers from Java set about strengthening the defences. The perimeter was greatly extended, walled and provided with a number of substantial bastions. In the 1602 Spanish/ Portuguese attempt to batter the Sultan into submission, the works were described thus:

“….for the enemy overlooked, and was strengthened by a stone Cavalier, which is that of Our Lady (later Bastion Nuestra Senora) next to the Sea. Under it was a Ravelin with seven heavy pieces of cannon which did, and threatened greater harm to our camp. The Cavalier was all Rampart, 4 fathoms high and a fathom and a half broad…On the land side the curtain of the wall ran as far as Cachil Tulo (Bastion), fortified outwards with massy timbers on which there were three large guns, and two on the wall from this Bulwark to that of Our Lady. These forts also had a large number of Falconets and Drakes (small cannons).”

That Acuna, Spanish Governor of the Philippines, was able to take Kastella in 1606 fairly speedily was probably more a result of lack of steadfast defenders than the effectiveness of the defences themselves. As his forces closed in on Kastella and siege guns were brought up, a force of his bolder troops first reduced some outer defences then, pursuing the fleeing Ternateans managed to mount the curtain wall. With this, most defenders fled, though a last stronghold at the perimeter of the old Portuguese fort resisted for a time, before also abandoning the fight. The Iberians had their castle back after 30 years. It was the only time in its 500 year history that Kastella was stormed.

Acuna set about improving and modifying the defences, further expanding the perimeter to accommodate a residential quarter, improving bastions and gates, and adding earthworks, all in contemporary style. He also ordered a fort built on a small hill above Kastella, commanding the fort and already with some defences, to be completed. This became known as Fort Novo.

The Spanish defences were continually improved over time. The emergence of the powerful Dutch Fort Orange from 1607, just 10km/6mi away overland was an incentive. Dutch Admiral van Caerden, captured by the Spanish in the Molucca’s and for a time incarcerated in Kastella, declared the defences to be invulnerable in 1610. In any case, the Spanish were not troubled for a half century, finally abandoning and partly destroying the work in 1663 when they pulled out of the Spice Islands and returned to Manilla.

Today Kastella’s ruins lie forgotten in a distant corner of Ternate, facing the setting sun from where the galleons used to appear. Surprisingly, although the round-island road runs right through it, sections of the Portuguese fort are clearly visible, including the base of the Tower and other structures, and the northern wall. Bashing through scrub you can follow the foundation line of the old jetty to the Sea tower, now both on dry land.   The wet-season creek that formed the East border of the main fortifications has not moved appreciably in 500 years. Ruins of Bastions San Lorenzo, San Juan and Cachil Tulo can also be identified, shaded by coconut groves. A monument to the Portuguese defeat in 1575 topped by a huge clove stands in the grounds. 

Arti, a wiry, grinning Benteng “keeper” or guardian can often be found up a coconut tree nearby, maintaining a watch over the jumbled stones and ghosts of the past.

Known today geographically as Kastella, this fort has had several names – according to its owners at the time. The Portuguese formally called it St John the Baptist because construction began on the Saints day, 24 June 1522. Colloquially in the 16th Century it was referred to as Kastella, derived from Castle. The locals referred to it as Gammalamma after the local town that developed nearby, and the volcano that towered above it.
The Spanish rebuilding it in 1606 referred to it as City of the Rosary.
And the Dutch, taking over the ruins in 1663 when abandoned by the Spanish used a derivative of the local name Gamulamo.