Historic Review of the Events and Persons Associated with the
Different Trans-Isthmian Crossings and Routes in Panama
from the Camino Real and Las Cruces Trail, the construction of
the Panama Railroad and the subsequent construction and
operation of the Panama Canal and the Trans-Isthmian Highway
Information Systems, Inc.
privately funded naval defense forces that sailed under
commissions, also called letters of marque, to protect British,
French and Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.
Investors paid for the ships and armed them. In return, the privateer crew paid the owners a percentage of
any ship or cargo they captured.
Spanish ships were the preferred target, as the Spanish
monarchy held a monopoly on all trade with its New World
Spanish trade ships were few, but were always heavily laden with
luxury items on the westbound journey and with gold, silver and
other treasures on the return trip.
In addition to the
ships, treasure held in Portobelo and Panama City was the target
of every privateer’s dream.
In addition to the
lure of treasure, hunger played an important part in the
raiders’ attacks as well as their success rate.
With hundreds of men to feed, many of their raids were to
acquire provisions, by either confiscating food or by holding
hostages for ransom payed in food.
The nature of sail-powered travel (long sea journeys,
uncooperative winds) frequently led to food shortages on board
and thus influenced the privateers’ decisions on when and
where to go ashore. When
they sought treasure on land, they carried heavy weaponry and
lightened their load by leaving the food behind.
They reasoned that they could steal food from their
victims or from the towns and farms they came upon.
The British had taken
Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and recruited privateers to
defend the island. But
by 1664, a new treaty prohibited privateers operating under
British letters of marque from attacking Spanish ships. The privateers refused to give up a chance to capture Spanish
goods and began operating under French or Dutch commissions,
leaving Jamaica with little naval protection and vulnerable to
attack by the privateers themselves.
The Jamaican governor, Sir Thomas Modyford, knew the only
way to entice the privateers back was to issue new commissions
that named Spanish ships as legitimate targets.
On March 4, 1666, he began to do so.
privateers captured a ship, their commission bound them to
return to Jamaica, where the booty was inventoried and approved
by the Admiralty Court. Detailed
rules dictated how the goods would be divided up among the crew,
according to rank and risks taken during battle.
First, however one tenth was separated out for payment to
the Duke of York (the Lord High Admiral of England and the
king’s younger brother) and one-fifteenth was due the King of
To benefit Jamaica,
certain Admiralty Court fees, including a fee to the governor,
had to be paid. Of the remainder, one fourth was separated for the respective
ships of the fleet and their owners, who were frequently
plantation men and other merchants based in Jamaica.
The remaining three-fourths was divided into shares and
distributed among the ship captain and crew.
For example, boys received a half-share, specialists such
as carpenters and surgeons received more than one share,
captains got two shares and the admiral received five shares.
It is important to
understand that commissions only addressed the division of goods
from ships taken at sea and did not mention anything about land operations. This
created great incentive for the privateers to attack on shore
under the pretense of following up on intelligence gathered from
Spanish ships. Booty
taken on land was not included in the rules and therefore did
not have to be shared with the king or ship owners.
This made Portobelo and Panama City even more desirable
Just two months after
Jamaica restored its privateer commissions, a Dutch privateer,
Captain Edward Mansfield, led the first expedition against the
Spanish. The taking
of Santa Catalina Island (called Providence by the Brits),
marked a new phase in the privateer war against Spain that
lasted for four and a half years and ended with Henry Morgan’s
sack of Panama. Technically,
Mansfield attacked the island (located just off the Caribbean
coast of Nicaragua) without an official commission, but he
reasoned that he was really just retaking it, since Spain had
captured the island from the British on May 25, 1641, exactly 25
English possession of
Santa Catalina gave the privateers a place to rest and
island was strategically close to Cartagena (Colombia), Panama
and the main route for Spanish gold.
After Mansfield took
Santa Catalina, he released the island’s Spanish governor, Don
Estevan de Ocampo, and his soldiers, who hastily retreated to
Fort San Lorenzo in Panama.
They reported to Don Juan Perez de Guzmán, Governor of
Panama and Captain-General of the province of Tierra Firme. Don Juan reacted quickly by sending a ship and successfully
retaking Catalina just three months later in August. The English prisoners were sent to Portobelo to work along
with Indian and black slaves to build a fort.
These events, the
British attack on Santa Catalina and the arrival of English
prisoners in Portobelo, set the scene for events that were still
seven years away. A
young Brit, Henry Morgan, was part of Mansfield’s crew, and
both he and the prisoners were later to play an important role
in the 1668 sack of Portobelo and the 1671 sack of Panama City.
Sir Henry Morgan
gained his fame and knighthood as a privateer and the first to
successfully devastate all three Spanish strongholds –
Portobelo, San Lorenzo and Panama City.
officially the only arrival point for Spanish ships carrying
luxury items, such as furniture and fine china, to the new
Spanish aristocracy in Peru and Panama.
During the rainy season – April to December – the
ships continued on to the fort at San Lorenzo.
Goods then traveled up the Chagres River by boat and then
continued by mule along the Las Cruces Trail to Panama City.
During the dry season, goods followed an all-land route
from Portobelo by mule train along the Camino Real trail to
Venta de Cruces and Panama City.
The two trails
paralleled each other as the led out of Panama City, one turning
northwest to the Chagres River, the other crossing the river and
heading northeast to Portobelo.
Peruvian silver usually followed the land route across
the isthmus. Sailing
from Lima be Spanish galleon, it arrived on the Pacific coast
and made the arduous crossing by mule to Portobelo for shipment
The governor of Panama
avoided using the water route because sending the king’s
fortune down the Chagres River and over the open ocean to
Portobelo exposed it to pirate attacks.
For many decades, Portobelo held a huge fair upon the
annual arrival of the royal fleet from Spain and,
simultaneously, Peruvian riches from Panama City.
The residents of Portobelo and Panama became wealthy from
this commerce, and at certain times of the year the vaults were
full of treasures awaiting passage to Spain.
Spanish castles, Santiago and San Felipe, and a garrison of
soldiers fortified Portobelo.
The Castle San Lorenzo guarded the sea entrance to the
Chagres River. Panama
City itself was not walled, as few ships other than the Spanish
galleons sailed the Pacific, and a successful land attack from
across the isthmus seemed unlikely.
During the 1660s, the garrison in Panama City held about
500 regular soldiers and relied on the additional services of
all able-bodied citizens and slaves.
Even with such a small number of soldiers, a serious
attempt on the city had not been made since the days of Sir
Frances Drake, more than five decades in the past.
In late 1667,
Mansfield was captured by the Spanish and killed.
Henry Morgan received a new commission with the rank of
admiral from the Jamaican governor.
Fearing the Spanish would attack Jamaica, the governor
permitted the privateers to apprehend Spanish ships under the
pretense of interrogating those on board about Spanish
intentions and movements. Morgan
set his sights on Portobelo first.
capture of Portobelo took less than a day.
Growing Spanish complacency, combined with a sneak
attack, contributed to its success.
With 12 ships in his fleet, Morgan knew he could not
approach Portobelo undetected.
As he approached from Nicaragua, he was surprised to meet
six Englishmen paddling in a canoe.
The men had escaped from Portobelo and some part of the
Catalina Island prisoners who were forced to build Fort San
Geronimo in Portobelo.
The escapees provided
invaluable information about the state of defenses in Portobelo
and gladly volunteered to take revenge on the Spanish.
They reported that there were less than 500 regular
soldiers at Portobelo, the guns and cannons at both forts had
been greatly neglected and the gunpowder was damaged by
Morgan’s fleet was
carrying 23 small boats that they had stolen in Cuba.
With 500 men, Morgan left the main fleet in Bocas del
Toro, 150 miles west of Portobelo, and paddled the small boats
down the coast of Panama under cover of night, escorted by just
one ship. During the voyage, the privateers came upon three men
of Indian-black mix, two of whom they killed.
The third saved his life by agreeing to lead them to a
safe landing near Portobelo.
They paddled for four nights, passed the castle at San
Lorenzo undetected and arrived at Orange Bay.
Remaining under cover, Morgan’s men marched across land
to reach Portobelo, arriving at the city just before dawn on
July 11, 1668.
They first had to pass
by the castle of Santiago, but their informants had already told
them the cannons were in disrepair.
Armed only with muskets and scabbards, the privateers
attacked the castle. Just
as reported, wet gunpowder caused many of the Spanish cannons to
misfire; others were blown off their tracks when they did fire. The panicked defenders contributed to the fiasco by
misloading the cannons or loading them with cannonballs meant
for firing at ships instead of grapeshot that was more lethal
for foot soldiers.
Morgan and his crew
passed by the castle to take the town first.
The citizens had scant warning of their arrival.
While some of the wealthy residents threw their valuables
into water cisterns or in holes hidden in walls, others turned
to their guns, only to find the gunpowder supply had been moved
to one of the forts to protect it from the humidity.
The privateers quickly rounded up the citizens and held
them at the church.
The castle at Santiago
still had to be taken, and the element of surprise was over.
After several unsuccessful assaults and heavy losses,
Morgan selected some of the town’s friars and nuns and used
them as shields to escort his men to the castle’s front gate.
The Spanish soldiers, after some hesitation, did fire on
the nuns and priests, but too late to succeed in stopping the
differ in the exact details of their demise.
Esquemeling’s eyewitness but embellished report says
that the religious captives carried ladders that the privateers
used to climb the fort’s walls.
Earle writes that the privateers used the captives as
shields to walk to the front gate, where the attackers set to
work hacking and burning their way through the door.
group staged a sneak attack from the opposite side of the
castle, which had remained almost unguarded.
One group entered the castle and planted a red flag, the
signal for the rest of the army to join in the attack.
The castle fell by 10 a.m. (according to Earle, 73), or
at least by nightfall (according to Esquemeling, 140) whereby
the privateers fell to celebrating with captured wine and with
the unfortunate lower-class female prisoners.
Morgan reportedly held upper class women apart for
ransom. In the end, Morgan’s men collected an estimated 250,000
pesos worth of goods and took control of 300 black slaves.
proceeded to torture the citizens to make them confess where
their valuables were hidden. Earle reports that Doña Agustina de Rojas, a lady of
Portobelo, was placed in an empty wine barrel that was then
filled with gunpowder. A
lit match was held to her face to persuade her to reveal the
location of her treasure. Another
woman was laid bare upon a baking stove and roasted because she
did not confess, although the money the privateers assumed many
of the citizens had hidden may not have existed at all.
Another torture, ‘woolding,’ involved the tying of a
band around the victim’s head and tightening it with a
rotating stick until his eyes popped out. (Earle, 74)
Morgan still had to
capture the remaining castle, San Felipe, which was manned by 49
men led by a young Castellan, Alexandro Manuel Pau y Rocaberti.
The castle had no stock of food to withstand a siege, but
their weapons were in good order.
They repulsed the first three attacks, killing five of
Morgan’s men. Then
some of the attackers found shelter under an overhanging rock on
the wall of the castle and began trying to set a wooden gate on
fire. To the surprise of his own men, Rocaberti panicked, sounded a
cease-fire and prepared to surrender.
While his own lieutenants were protesting the surrender,
the attackers swarmed up a ladder and opened up the main gate. Realizing he would be branded a coward for the rest of his
life, the Rocaberti begged his captors to bring him a flask of
vitriol, which he drank. He
died two days later.
Rocaberti was not the
only one to commit suicide, as the Constable of Artillery who
had neglected to maintain the weaponry and gunpowder at the
castle Santiago begged the English to shoot him instead of face
his disgrace. They
Within 24 hours, on
July 12, Panama City received news of the attack.
The acting governor of Panama was a young nobleman named
Don Agustin de Bracamonte.
(The appointed governor, Don Juan Perez de Guzmán, was
in jail in Peru, a victim of a jealous viceroy.)
Bracamonte immediately set out across the isthmus on
horseback with 800 soldiers and militia to aid in what he
assumed would be Portobelo’s defense, since he had not heard
of its fall. They
reached Venta de Cruces within a day, but in their haste to
leave had brought little food, and the mulatto militiamen had
even forgotten to bring their weapons and had no footwear.
The Spanish set up
camp and waited three days for food
and shoes to arrive.
At Pequení they met some of the Portobelo refugees, who
informed them of Portobelo’s fall. This shed a new light on their mission, and Bracamonte,
keenly aware of Spanish bureaucracy and the necessity of
documenting and justifying his every action, called a military junta
to decide how to proceed. The
majority agreed to continue their march.
Bracamonte sent a letter to Cartagena, Colombia,
requesting help. The
messenger traveled 19 days by foot and canoe before arriving in
Cartagena. By the
time a fleet of seven ships left Cartagena on August 31, Morgan
had already sailed from Panama.
During his occupation
of Portobelo, Morgan released one of the prisoners,
Sergeant-Major Antonio de Lara with a letter for the governor.
Morgan sent cordial greetings and informed the Spanish
that he would burn Portobelo to the ground and take all the
guns, munitions and prisoners unless he received a ransom of
This was a lot of the
Royal Crown’s money, much more than was being held in the
Spanish garrisons at the time. Because of the state of Spain’s finances at the time, the
soldiers at Portobelo had not received their pay for 18 months,
and no supply ship from Spain had arrived for almost a year.
However, the merchants of Portobelo and Panama City were
rejected Morgan’s demands, writing back, “I take you to be a
corsair and I reply that the vassals of the King of Spain do not
make treaties with inferior persons” (Earle, 83)
Morgan replied with
insolence, taunting Bracamonte to hurry up and arrive at
Portobelo or Morgan would have to go to Panama City.
He even offered to release his Spanish prisoners to help
Bracamonte’s inadequate army.
Morgan signed his letter with the epithet “Portobelo,
city of the King of England,” (Earle, 84) even though he did
not have an official British commission
to invade Spanish territory.
Both the Spanish and
Morgan’s troops began suffering from the unhealthy effects of
rainy season. Unbeknownst
to them, the swarms of mosquitoes were infecting them with
diseases like malaria and yellow fever, and men in both camps
began to sicken. Although
Morgan had only lost 19 men during the attack, many more began
to fall. In the
camp at Matapalo, just a mile or two outside Portobelo,
Bracamonte’s army began to literally bog down in their
A few skirmishes
resulted in the escape of some of the Spanish prisoners, the
taking of one English prisoner, and the death of eight Spaniards
and one of Morgan’s men.
Bracamonte interviewed two ‘escaped’ Spanish seamen,
who misinformed him that Morgan’s plan was to distract
Bracamonte at Portobelo while a group of French allies marched
across the isthmus to sack Panama.
(Morgan, during a previous council of war in Nicaragua,
had indeed invited the French to join him, but the French had
declined because they doubted he would be successful.)
The pressure was on
the young governor to make the right decision:
attack the English who had already taken Portobelo and
controlled the heavy artillery, or return to defend Panama City,
the stronghold of the Spanish and the vital link to Peru?
After another junta meeting, the majority of the
officers voted to return to Panama City.
Records officially note the lack of food and troop
illness as additional circumstances, in case their superiors
ever questioned the retreat.
They left Captain
Francisco de Aricaga to try to negotiate with Morgan.
And negotiate he did, assuring Morgan that 100,000 pesos
worth of silver and gold was the highest possible amount they
could produce. Aricaga
had the nerve to say the Spanish would pay only 50,000 pesos in
cash and the rest in a note of credit from a Genoese slave
Morgan scoffed at the
idea of receiving a note of credit, but kept quiet about his
concern that further delay would allow sickness to debilitate
his already weak men and the Spanish would take back Portobelo.
He continued to negotiate with the commander of the
rearguard, Cristoval Garcia Niño, and came to an agreement for
the payment of the entire 100,000 pesos and a prisoner exchange
within ten days. Garcia
suggested that the English should show good faith by leaving
Portobelo first and then receiving the money and handing over
the prisoners from their ships. Morgan would have none of that, but he did agree to take
payment at Portobelo and allow the Spanish hostages to inspect
the castle guns to ensure they were not sabotaged.
Garcia hastened back
to Panama to report to a grateful Bracamonte, who had found not
one French privateer near Panama City and was anxious to find a
way to avoid receiving a reprimand for abandoning his rescue
mission at Portobelo.
Some of the ransom
came from the Royal Treasury, but the majority was borrowed from
private citizens. However,
the governor decreed that the city of Portobelo had to pay the
money back from the profit made on the next trade. The citizens of Portobelo would loudly protest this decree
when they were at last freed, and many would later file lawsuits
protesting the measure.
August 3, 1668, two mule trains crossed the isthmus carrying 27
bars of silver worth 43,000 pesos, several chests of silver
plate worth 13,000 pesos, 4,000 pesos in gold coins and 40,000
in silver coins. Morgan,
who was well known for his gentlemanly way of speaking, formally
thanked the Spaniards, loaded up the ransom with all the other
loot he had gathered, and sailed away less than one month after
Morgan had mistimed
his attack on Portobelo at about the midpoint of a two-year
cycle between the Spanish fleet’s arrival from Europe and
Peru. The next
arrival was scheduled for October 1669.
Viceroy Conde de Lemos released Governor Don Juan Perez
de Guzmán from prison, and Don Juan arrived in Panama as
preparations were being made for the fleet’s arrival from
Lima. He found the
city of Panama guarded by only 200 regular soldiers augmented by
the town’s militia groups organized by race – white, black,
mulatto (white/black) and zambo (black/Indian).
He immediately sent letters to Spain asking for more
troops, but help never came.
When the Peruvian
treasure arrived, mule trains carried 5 million pesos of
merchandise and over 17 million pesos of silver coin and bullion
over the Las Cruces trail to Portobelo. (Earle 140)
Now was the time for the pirates to attack before the
royal fleet arrived from Spain!
But the fleet arrived, the treasures were loaded safely
and the ships sailed away in early December.
During that brief time, 450 men died of fevers contracted
in Cartagena and Portobelo.
The ships had arrived in Panama at the peak of the heavy
rains, when disease-carrying mosquitoes were at their height.
Earle writes that the
designs of the original castles in Portobelo and San Lorenzo
broke many of the rules of good military architecture.
The Santiago castle was surrounded by higher ground that
provided good attack positions for snipers.
Another problem was the lack of good construction stone
and lime. Most of
the castle blocks were made of cut coral reef.
On the other hand, San
Lorenzo’s exterior was built of timber palisades reinforced
with sand and earth, and the living quarters were made of earth
and straw with palm-thatch roofs. Governor Guzmán tried to improve defenses at San Lorenzo,
but lacked funds. He
did build a new gun platform at sea level to augment defenses
stationed at the castle at the top of the cliff.
The fort’s wooden palisades and thatch roofs would
later contribute to the fall of San Lorenzo under the attack of
Sir Henry Morgan and the largest gathering of privateers ever.
In 1670, Morgan
amassed a fleet of 38 ships and some 2,000 men for one last
attack on the Spanish. They
knew that news of an official declaration of peace between
England and Spain would soon arrive in the Caribbean.
During a summit meeting, the privateers chose Panama as
their final target over Santiago, Cuba; Veracruz, Mexico; and
Cartagena, Colombia. On
Christmas Eve, they attacked Santa Catalina Island, which fell
without losses on either side.
Reports say the frightened defenders of the island sent
word to Morgan that they would prefer to stage a mock defense,
firing into the air, in order to fall with honor instead of
surrendering. (Esquemeling, Earle, Minter)
The privateers’ next
target was the fort at San Lorenzo, Panama.
San Lorenzo had to be taken before the great pirate fleet
could sail up the Chagres River.
Morgan knew their arrival and huge fleet size would
immediately be reported to Panama.
Instead, he sent only three ships and 400 men under the
command of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bradley to take San
Lorenzo. Morgan and
the remaining ships stayed at Santa Carolina a few days more,
passing the time by systematically destroying the island’s
fortifications and guns.
Bradley and his 400
men landed east of the castle and hacked their way through dense
undergrowth until reaching a large cleared area next to the
attempted an attack across the clearing in broad daylight.
But accurate Spanish cannon fire and gunfire, accompanied
by a shower of arrows, caused heavy casualties, and they fell
back into the trees. An
hour later, they attacked a second time, only to be beaten back
again. Near sunset,
the privateers successfully reached a ravine near one of the
walls in their third attack.
In the failing light, it was harder for the Spanish to
pick out their attackers in the ravine, but the sun setting
behind the fort made it easy for the privateers to spot the
Spanish soldiers’ silhouettes.
Among the attackers
was a group of grenadiers who prepared and threw pots containing
burning oil, an early-day Molotov Cocktail.
The January dry season had dried out the fort’s
palm-leaf roof, and the explosives ignited the thatch.
The fire caused an explosion in a storage room containing
arms and gunpowder and the wooden palisades began to burn and
Much is known of this
attack from a published account of and eyewitness and
participant in the attack.
John Esquemeling, who served as a barber-surgeon to the
privateers, published his account in Dutch in 1678.
The book was very popular, and recounts how the battle
turned in favor of the English.
It seems an English musketeer wrenched an arrow from his
own shoulder, wrapped a cotton wad around the arrow and fired it
from his musket onto the fort’s palm-leaf thatch.
The gun’s blast ignited the cotton, which began to burn
the thatch. Other
privateers fired more burning arrows, and the Spanish were soon
trying to put out fires with a bucket brigade.
But luck was not with
Their prize bronze
cannon that had inflicted much damage blew up, ripping up the
palisades below it and collapsing a long section of wall on
either side. The
grenadiers took advantage of the hole and threw more burning oil
pots. One landed on
the main gunpowder room, causing a great explosion.
The fires and explosions devastated and demoralized the
Spanish. Many began
to retreat down the cliff and make their way to canoes at the
With only 150
Spaniards defending the castle, Bradley attacked again at dawn.
He suffered heavy casualties in the first two assaults,
but on the third attempt, the attackers entered the fort.
The Spaniard in charge, Don Pedro de Elizalde, and some
70 loyal men refused to surrender and fought until they were all
killed. Equemeling maintains that 30 remained alive and informed the
privateers that the Spanish had fortified the way stations along
the trail to Panama City.
Despite their success,
Colonel Bradley and 76 others suffered fatal wounds in the
others were killed outright.
While waiting for Morgan to arrive, the remaining
privateers began rebuilding portions of the fort with the help
of the slaves they had brought from Santa Catalina or captured
from a nearby village. They
had to make the fort defendable in order to guard against a
description of the battle at Castle San Lorenzo (pages 189-190)
“At last, after many
doubts and disputes, resolving to hazard the assault and their
lives desperately, they advanced towards the castle with their
swords in one hand, and fireballs in the other. The Spaniards defended themselves very briskly, ceasing not
to fire at them continually; crying withal, “Come on, ye
English dogs! Enemies to God and our king; and let your other
companions that are behind come on too, ye shall not go to
Panama this bout.” The
pirates making some trial to climb the walls, were forced to
retreat, resting themselves till night.
This being come, they returned to the assault, to try, by
the help of their fire-balls, to destroy the pales before the
wall; and while they were about it, there happened a very
remarkable accident, which occasioned their victory.
One of the pirates being wounded with an arrow in his
back, which pierced his body through, he pulled it out boldly at
the side of his breast, and winding a little cotton about it, he
put it into his musket, and shot it back to the castle; but the
cotton being kindled by the powder, fired two or three houses in
the castle, being thatched with palm-leaves, which the Spaniards
perceived not so soon as was necessary; for this fire meeting
with a parcel of powder, blew it up, thereby causing great ruin,
and no less consternation to the Spaniards, who were not able to
put a stop to it, not having seen it time enough.” (Esquemeling,
“The pirates perceiving
the effect of the arrow, and the misfortunes of the Spaniards,
were infinitely glad; and while they were busied in quenching
the fire, which caused a great confusion for want of water, the
pirates took this opportunity, setting fire likewise to the
palisades. The fire
thus seen at once in several parts about the castle, gave them
great advantage against the Spaniards, many breaches being made
by the fire among the pales, great heaps of earth falling into
the ditch. Then the
pirates climbing up, got over into the castle, though those
Spaniards, who were not busy about the fire, cast down many
flaming pots full of combustible matter, and odious smells,
which destroyed many of the English.” (Esquemeling, 190)
“The Spaniards, with all
their resistance, could not hinder the palisades from being
burnt down before midnight. Meanwhile the pirates continued in
their intention of taking the castle; and though the fire was
very great, they would creep on the ground, as near as they
could, and shoot amidst the flames against the Spaniards on the
other side, and thus killed many from the walls. When day was
come, they observed all the movable earth, that lay betwixt the
pales, to be fallen into the ditch; so that now those within the
castle lay equally exposed to them without, as had been on the
contrary before; whereupon the pirates continued shooting very
furiously, and killed many Spaniards; for the governor had
charged them to make good those posts, answering to the heaps of
earth fallen into the ditch, and caused the artillery to be
transported to the breaches.” (Equemeling, 191)
“The fire within the
castle still continuing, the pirates from abroad did what they
could to hinder its progress, by shooting incessantly against
it; one party of them was employed only for this, while another
watched all the motions of the Spaniards. About noon the English
gained a breach, which the governor himself defended with
twenty-five soldiers. Here
was made a very courageous resistance by the Spaniards, with
muskets, pikes, stones and swords; but through all these the
pirates fought their way, till they gained the castle. The
Spaniards, who remained alive, cast themselves down from the
castle into the sea, choosing rather to die thus (few or none
surviving the fall) than to ask quarter for their lives. The
governor himself retreated to the corps du gard, before which
were placed two pieces of cannon: here he still defended
himself, not demanding any quarter, till he was killed with a
musket-shot in the head.” (Esquemeling, 191)
On January 12, Morgan
and 33 ships arrived from Santa Catalina.
They sighted the English flag flying and their comrades
lining the walls of the fort and began cheering.
The crew on Morgan’s flagship, the Satisfaction,
were so enthusiastic that they did not notice the shallow Laja
Reef lying at the entrance to the mouth of the Chagres River. The Satisfaction
ran right up onto the reef, and, like some slow-motion freeway
pileup, four more ships followed.
The most feared pirates in the region were soon
frantically trying to recover from their own self-destruction.
All five ships were a total loss, but the crew and most
of their provisions were saved.
prepared to sail further up the Chagres River.
He left Captain Richard Norman in charge of 300 men to
guard his rear flank at San Lorenzo.
On January 19, 1671, Morgan sailed with more than 1,400
men in seven small ships and 36 boats and canoes.
They planned to follow the Chagres to the Las Cruces
Trail to Panama City. But
they did not know the start of dry season triggered a drop in
the river’s water level.
Soon the shallow water forced them to abandon the ships
and rely on small boats to carry the equipment while the men
marched along the banks.
Word of the attack on
San Lorenzo had reached Panama City within 24 hours.
The unlucky Governor Guzmán was bedridden with a
terrible fever, but rallied and began organizing the city’s
defense. He sent
Francisco Gonzalez Salado and 400 men out to ambush Morgan along
the Chagres. Gonzalez
and his men prepared four defense sites along the banks of the
river at Barbacoas, Caño Quebrada, Tornomarcos and Barro
Colorado. Most of
his men were blacks, half-castes and Indians who were
well-suited for ambush assaults because of their jungle
Gonzalez was waiting
at an advance post at Dos Brazos when they heard cannons firing
at San Lorenzo. When
the wounded deserters began filtering upriver, however, Gonzalez
faltered and retreated further upriver to the nearest
fortification at Barro Colorado.
When he heard next of the castle’s fall, he left
Captain Luis de Castillo in command and retreated as he sent all
of his men from the other stations to Barro Colorado.
Castillo himself cowered at Barbacoas, the fortification
furthest from the approaching privateers.
At this point, the
Spanish still though Morgan’s force numbered only about 400
men. When the first
group of advance Spanish scouts saw the huge flotilla coming up
the river, they were so surprised that they kept hidden. Instead of attacking, the two companies of about 300 men
tried to retreat to a lookout further upstream.
On the way, they conveniently “got lost” for the
remainder of the altercation.
For the privateers,
following the river was difficult, since water levels were low.
When Morgan reached Barro Colorado, some of his men made
a sneak attack on the site’s fortification, only to find that
Castillo and his men had abandoned the fort and burned it and
any food that they could not carry away.
After the disappearance of the 300 advance scouts,
Castillo had just 216 remaining men at Barro Colorado when he
learned of the true size of Morgan’s army.
The Spanish had lost their nerve and retreated even
proceeded unopposed by men, but nature in the form of fallen
trees and other debris blocked his progress on the river bank.
The privateers took to land, carrying their weapons but
leaving their food behind.
They assumed they would be able to shoot game and steal
food from the Spanish and native villages as they made their way
across the isthmus.
But everyone fleeing
in their path systematically carried away or hid their food
supplies, and the game retreated in front of their noisy
began to weaken the more than 1,000 men.
At one point, they came upon some empty leather pouches.
In desperation, they cut them up into pieces and boiled
and ate them. Then
they found a barn full of dried corn that they devoured raw.
On Sunday, January 25,
they had been marching three days without food when they finally
reached the beginning of the Las Cruces Trail to Panama.
Here they expected to meet resistance, but again Gonzalez
and Castillo had burned the village of Cruces, taken all the
food and retreated. If
only they had known how weakened Morgan’s men were from
hunger, they could have successfully ambushed them and turned
them back at this point.
At the Cruces
settlement, the privateers found a few unfortunate dogs that
were immediately turned into meals and 16 jars of Peruvian wine.
After drinking the wine, the majority of the men became
ill and declared that the Spaniards had poisoned it.
Most likely, however, the revolting combination of
leather, raw corn and wine in their stomachs was the real cause
Now the attackers had
the Las Cruces road to march on.
As they progressed, they were ambushes several times, but
suffered only light casualties.
Most of their attackers were arrow-wielding Indians who
were loyal to the Spanish.
Fortunately, the arrows were not tipped with the potent
poison commonly used in the area.
On the fifth day of
their march without food, the privateers caught their first
sight of the Pacific Ocean and entered a field of cattle and
horses that they immediately proceeded to butcher and eat only
half cooked. The
Spaniards’ careless oversight of this food source greatly
contributed to their eventual downfall, as the abundant meat
soon restored the privateers’ energy and resolve.
Meanwhile in the city,
Governor Guzman’s health had deteriorated, but he continued to
rally the 800 or so remaining defenses.
The Spanish pitched camp at Guayabal, about 16 miles from
Panama City. But
when news arrived that over 1,000 hungry, bloodthirsty pirates
were on their way, two-thirds of the men deserted.
Guzman was forced to retreat to the city, and he set his
forces up on a cleared area just outside of town.
devised a secret weapon – a herd of 2,000 wild bulls held in a
corral. The plan
was to stampede them toward the enemy.
As the attack began, the Spanish infantry horses bogged
down in the mud and Morgan’s men decimated their riders.
The wild bulls were released and began running toward the
trumpeters turned and commenced blasting on their horns, and the
racket frightened the animals into turning in another direction.
Seeing that the enemy
was gaining the upper hand, the Spanish retreated.
As the privateers advanced on the city, the citizens and
clergy gathered up many of their valuables and sailed away in
several ships. Those
left behind felt the wrath of the attackers.
Earle reports that the
Spanish themselves set fire to the city before leaving, but
Esquemeling (208) reports that Morgan ordered the fires set.
At any rate, most of the city burned, destroying much of
the remaining valuables and food.
Instead of commandeering a ship and following the
escapees, Morgan’s men began to open the wine stores and revel
in their victory. They
had finally sacked Panama City!
When they did come to
their senses, they sailed about looking for the escaped ships,
but were never able to locate the one that held the king’s
treasure and gold ornaments from the church.
As a result, the booty collected from the city was small
in comparison with the great effort and sacrifice made to obtain
it. Morgan and his
men remained in Panama City for a month, torturing citizens to
extract every last hiding place for their valuables.
Meanwhile at San
Lorenzo, the privateers patrolled nearby waters looking for
ships carrying supplies. They
chased a Spanish ship into the Chagres harbor and happily
unloaded its food supply. On
February 24, Morgan’s group left Panama with 275 mules and
about 600 prisoners. They
followed the trail back to Cruces and sailed down the Chagres to
San Lorenzo. But
before reaching the fort, Morgan had every privateer, including
himself, searched for hidden valuables.
None were found, but his privateers were offended by the
show of mistrust.
Back at the fort,
Morgan sent the prisoners to Portobelo with a ransom note for
100,000 pieces of eight, which the governor refused to pay.
Morgan let the prisoners free anyway and prepared to
since his men were unhappy about the small amount of loot taken,
Morgan secretly loaded up his own ships with all the food and
the best of the valuables and sailed away, leaving most of his
followers behind. (Esquemeling, Minter)
Although their ships were intact, those remaining at San
Lorenzo could not leave for quite a while before they could
amass enough food to sustain them on a long journey.
Morgan returned to
Jamaica, only to be sent to England in chains.
However, when he sent King Charles II a large amount of
treasure taken from Panama, Morgan recovered his good standing.
The king knighted Morgan and appointed him lieutenant
governor of Jamaica, where Morgan returned to live out his final
days in luxury. He
died in 1688.
monopoly on ships allowed to trade in Panama, English and French
smugglers established a black market cleverly timed to coincide
with the Portobelo fair. The
smuggler ships would anchor in hidden coves between San Lorenzo
and San Felipe and sell slaves and goods without charging
Spanish taxes. Generous
gifts to local officials ensured they reported that the coast
remained smuggler-free. However, when illicit trade outstripped Portobelo fair
revenue by an estimated five to one in 1624, Spain finally
reacted by adding smuggling and accepting smuggler’s bribes to
the list of Spanish Inquisition sins.
By 1700, English frustration contributed to the War of
the Spanish Succession, which ended in 1713 with a treaty giving
the English an exclusive contract for slave trade to the Spanish
The treaty also
permitted just one 500-ton British ship to attend the annual
Portobelo fair. The
enterprising Brits sent a convoy escort with the fully loaded navio
de permiso (authorized ship).
Just outside the harbor, the smaller ships transferred
even more goods onto the mother ship, which in turn unloaded all
unessential cargo, including most of its sails, crew and its
heavy anchor. A
skeleton crew sailed the mother ship under one sail to the
Portobelo pier. But
English patience with this token bit of commerce soon wore thin
and ended in outright attack.
In November 1739,
British Admiral Edward Vernon attacked Portobelo with six ships,
taking Fort San Felipe. Vernon then loaded the best of Portobelo’s cannons onto his
ships and proceeded to destroy the rest of the fort.
The walls of the fort were so thick (nine feet) that it
took 16 to 18 days of blasting to destroy the fort.
Britain reacted to the
success that it proclaimed Vernon’s birthday a holiday.
One of Vernon’s aides was Lawrence Washington, from
Virginia in the English colonies and brother of George
Washington, the future first president of the United States.
The Washington family honored their son’s participation
in the destruction of Portobelo by naming their Virginia estate
Spurred on by success,
Vernon returned to attack the San Lorenzo castle again in March
1740, using the very same cannons he had taken from Portobelo.
For two days and nights he bombarded the fort, but the
Spanish refused to surrender.
In the end, Vernon completely decimated the fortress and
all defending it.
These two victories
broke the Spanish trade monopoly.
Thereafter the merchant mariners of England could acquire
licenses to trade in Spanish American ports.
The fair at Portobelo was discontinued, but San Lorenzo
was rebuilt stronger than ever to become the new clearing point
for ship traffic. The
Chagres River - Las Cruces Trail became the preferred route
across the isthmus, and the harbor at San Lorenzo became the
Atlantic terminus for trade goods.
A full 300 years after
Spaniards laid claim to Panama, the British were still trying to
grab some of its riches. In 1819, the British filibuster Gregor MacGregor led 500
mercenaries on a successful attack of Portobelo. London investors backed MacGregor’s expedition, and his
plan was to also take Panama City and sell control over the
trans-isthmian route to the British government.
But MacGregor was defenseless against Panama’s deadly
but invisible ally – mosquito-born fevers that laid the group
flat on their backs before they could march out of Portobelo.
While the mercenaries were recovering, Spanish troops
arrived from Panama City and literally chased them back onto
their ships. (Minter, 189)
Just two years later, Panama gained its independence and
Spain lost control over the isthmus.
However, Fort San
Lorenzo lingered as a Spanish stronghold and may have been
occupied by the Spanish until 1840. (Minter, 193)
The San Lorenzo ruins that visitors see today are the
remains of the fortress that was rebuilt after Vernon’s attack
As early as 1532, the
Spanish began thinking of digging an all-water route across the
Charles (Carlos V) ordered the first survey of the best route
across Panama isthmus. A
royal cedula signed on March 12, 1532, ordered the
governor to clear the Chagres River to its last navigable point
and open a road from there to Panama City.
Another cedula signed on February 20, 1534,
commanded the governor to send surveyors to study the land
between the Chagres River and the Pacific for the possibility of
making an all-water route.
The resulting report
called such an undertaking impossible and recommended improving
the existing Chagres route instead.
Perhaps more importantly, King Charles recognized the
value of maintaining the Spanish monopoly on South American
trade and access to the Pacific by not
opening a canal. Subsequent
monarchs followed the same line of thinking, and no further
surveys for building a water route were made until the early
part of the nineteenth century.
But the king’s will
did not keep others from speculating.
In his memoirs in 1555, Antonio Galvao, a Portuguese
governor in the Moluccas (South Pacific islands) writes of
meeting Alvaro de Saavedra, a cousin of Hernan Cortez (the
conqueror of Mexico). Saavedra
was in the Moluccas searching for cloves and spoke of four
possible routes for a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific
Two of his proposed
routes crossed Panama, one in the Darien between the gulfs of
San Miguel and Urabá and the other on a route between Nombre de
Dios and Panama City. The
other two possibilities were across Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua
and across the isthmus of Teohuantapec in Mexico.
(Howarth, 57) Less
than 50 years after the European discovery of the Pacific Ocean,
the Spanish had mapped the New World accurately enough to
identify four best choices for building a canal across it.
Later surveys would confirm the viability of these four
explored Central America in the early nineteenth century and
enthusiastically spoke of the potential for building a canal
across Mexico, Nicaragua or Panama.
Inspired, the Spanish monarch passed a decree in 1814
authorizing the construction of a canal across Panama.
Despite this optimism,
no action was taken except for a growing resistance to Spain’s
dominance. By 1819,
Latin America was rebelling against Spain; by 1823, all of the
Spanish colonies had established their independence. On November 28, 1821, Panama became part of New Granada,
which encompassed modern-day Colombia and Ecuador as well.
Several canal route
surveys were conducted between 1824 and 1840, but nothing came
of them. In 1838,
New Granada granted a concession to a French company to
construct a railway or canal with the Pacific terminus at Panama
City. But the wary
French forfeited the concession when detailed surveys revealed
the magnitude of the job. In
1848, New Granada signed a treaty for the United States to
provide transport across the isthmus under the condition of
neutrality for all wishing to use it.
Instead of a water route, the project took the form of
railroad tracks that roughly followed the route of historical
trails across the isthmus and robbed the Chagres River – Las
Cruces Trail route of its importance.