Sir Henry Morgan: The Pirate’s Pirate And His Legendary Raid On Panama Viejo

Had the gods of chance seen fit to use differently mixed clay in the molding of Henry Morgan, the history of Spanish America would have taken a sharp upward curve after the sack of Maracaibo. However ever since his raid on Porto Belo Morgan had harbored a secret desire to attack Panama. He had never put the desire into words because even to he, it had seemed a presumptuous thought. Now, however, with fate beckoning him on the grand finale of his career, after which the rest of his life of necessity would be spent on the downhill grade of drab respectability, the idea began to shape up as a possibility. After all-it was his only chance.

Panama was said to be impregnable to attack, of course, but what of that? Morgan was confident after all of his successful raids on invulnerable towns such as Puerto Principe, Portobelo, And Maracaibo. Governor Moodyford, lacking the fiery self-confidence that was one of Morgan’s chief characteristics, was inclined to be dubious of this venture. He was not disposed to throw any real obstacles in the path of his buccaneer partner, however. He had been proven wrong too often in his estimate of Morgan’s ability in a pinch. It looked like a suicide try up to the very day of departure, although in a half-hearted way; because he did not really believe his own fears. Over-riding his apprehensions was the secret conviction that if Henry Morgan ever made up his mind to capture Panama, he was quite likely to do it.

Such was the reputation of Morgan as a leader, this was his calling. For some time on the Isle De La Vaca he recruited men from the four corners of the earth. From France, Holland, England, and from every pirate stronghold in the West Indies they came…ragged, hungry, empty in pocket; their baggage only the clothes on their backs and the guns in their hands. What they lacked in worldly goods, they more than made up in enthusiasm.

When Morgan arrived at the Isle De La Vaca he found a sprawling disreputable ragged-robin beach city awaiting him. Palm-thatched huts, canvas shelters, dingy tents, leaf-covered lean-tos…for a mile it squatted raggedly along the coast, sheltering two-thousand desperate reckless men who had been drawn into this jungle rendezvous by the compelling magnet of Henry Morgan’s name.

In the harbor rode a veritable armada of fighting ships large and small, each heavily gunned but lacking provisions. Thirty-seven ominous looking men-of-war whose gun strength ranged from four to twenty-four, with the captain’s mounting twenty-eight. It was a formidable ever seen in the Caribbean and Morgan’s heart beat high with the pride and exultation as he swept it with his telescope from the lofty quarter-deck of his flagship. A grim smile tightened on his lips. What a far cry back to the day when a frightened cabin boy cowered under kicks and curses on the Saucy Nell!

Turning briskly toward business details with his remarkable flair of organization, Morgan immediately dispatched various raiding parties commissioned with the task of getting provisions together for the expedition. Feeding two thousand men for two or three months required careful planning. Several hundred men were accordingly sent to Santo Domingo to salt and dry a meat supply. Others were dispatched to various farming sections to raid for corn, sugar and tobacco. These supplies were to augment what they would seize in the various regions they passed through.

The night before the anchors were raised, Morgan called a general meeting to complete the final details for the venture. Squatting on the sand between the sea and the black jungle behind, massed were hundreds of rough, battle-scarred men; the guttering flames of oil lanterns throwing their bronzed features, hairy chests and brawny arms into eerie relief. It was as villainous a band as ever to build a campfire under the stars but Morgan looked upon them well content. They were exactly what he was looking for to carry out the job at hand.

Agreements must be signed, regulations laid down, penalties and punishments announced. Tersely Morgan snapped out what he had to say, interspersing his remarks with sporadic bursts of profane eloquence to raise his listeners’ enthusiasm for the task ahead. At every pause in his harangue the assembled mob bellowed its enthusiastic approval.

First he enumerated the payments for injuries sustained in action. If a man lost a hand or foot he should receive six hundred pieces-of-eight or six slaves, the choice to be his. Both legs entitled him to fifteen hundred pieces-of-eight or fifteen slaves; both hands were eighteen hundred. One eye was worth two hundred pieces-of-eight; both eyes two thousand.

Agreement with these conditions was a hoarse yell of such volume that it rocked the jungle blackness and sent night birds scurrying from their nests overhead.

Then the contract: no man was to take or keep anything for himself; all booty to be held in a common fund and divided after the affair was ended. Recompense for an injury was to be paid first, and then rewards for various stipulated services and feats of bravery. After these deductions the captain should one-hundredth of the remaining booty, the rest being partitioned equally among the men. The crowd roared its contentment with the terms.

With narrow shifting eyes glinting like red coals in the firelight, each captain signed the articles for the men under him, and the die was cast. As soon as the morning sun should bow its fiery disc out of the Atlantic, the fleet would spread its armored wings and soar away on its odyssey of ruin and destruction. It was to be a devious and winding trail with gutted towns, wrecked homes, broken bodies and untold human suffering strewn thickly in its wake; a cruel, bloody trail which was to culminate at last in the smoking ruins of Spain’s proudest new world possession.. the City of Panama.

The proposed route passed near Isla Santa Catalina, which was owned by the Spaniards. Morgan ordered an attack on the island to prevent the possibility of a warning of his proposed attack on Panama. Morgan also knew it would be a dangerous stronghold to have at his rear, so better to pull its fangs. Perhaps, too, he might find someone in their prison who would know the way from San Lorenzo to Panama. He was steering clear of the gold road from Portobelo, figuring that his plan for a surprise attack would have better chance of success if he made part of his journey up the Rio Chagres in small boats and finished the trip overland using Indian trails leading down the Pacific slope of the continental divide.

The fall of Santa Catalina was accomplished through a skirmish of wits rather than by an expenditure of ammunition.

Morgan’s reputation was such that the blood of the little garrison fairly turned to water when his great cannon-bristling armada dropped anchor in the harbor one day in late December 1670. A mighty floating armada it was; and their garrison was numbered only two-hundred men with a limited supply of ammunition. Resistance was futile and they, as well as Morgan, knew it.

When the buccaneer chief sent over his thunderous ultimatum for an immediate surrender, the governor took stock of the situation and asked for a conference. The captain, preferring a bloodless victory to one where he would waste ammunition and have wounded men on his hands, consented to a parlay.

After an exchange of hostages as a sign of good faith, the governor asked for a bit of connivance from the buccaneers in return for complete surrender. He explained that his reputation as a soldier would be smirched forever if he capitulated without resistance, however futile. If the people of the town had reported back home that he had given up without making a stand for defense, he would never dare show his face again in Spain.

He further admitted frankly that he had no hopes whatsoever of defeating such a formidable host. To save useless bloodshed, therefore, he would surrender provided that the captain would cooperate in a scheme which he had thought out; one which would cause no pointless waste of life on either side, but would at the same time deceive the towns people and preserve the military pride of the garrison intact. Morgan, wryly amused, consented.

After considerable palavering the conditions were agreed upon. They would stage a battle to be contested by both factions, but would only use powder and blank cartridges. After this show of brave resistance the fort could surrender without losing face when the report of the affair was sent back home to Spain.

All through the night the battle raged. The island stillness was shattered by thunderous blasts of powder charged cannons, great sheets of flame splitting through the blackness of the night. It was a convincing exhibition of bitter resistance which the island’s civilian population, huddled in the town nearby, would describe in glowing detail when they wrote their friends in Spain. Only the soldiers of the fort knew of the deception and they would never tell, since it was at their insistence that the plan was put into effect.

At dawn the fortress ran up the white flag. The first barrier in the buccaneers’ long trail leading to Panama had been successfully hurdled.

Since Panama was to be subjected to a surprise assault, Morgan decided on a ruse to deceive any spies who might be reporting his movements to the Spaniards. He accordingly dispatched his second in command Joseph Bradley with four hundred men to subdue Castillo San Lorenzo, the fortress at the mouth of the Chagres River, while Morgan remained, in full view, at Santa Catalina with the main body of the fleet. The guns at Castillo San Lorenzo must be silenced before an attack on Panama could be made. Bradley, a courageous man, was the one and only man that Morgan could trust for this important mission.

Castillo San Lorenzo was an impregnable fortress guarding the mouth of the Chagres River, the river was almost half of the route to Panama. The fort was located at the top of a sheer precipice that made it absolutely secure from attack by sea. A high wall and deep moat at its base held off intruders who might seek attack by land. With its drawbridge raised and its guns raining death from above, its capture was not to be an easy task.

Any band less determined than the buccaneers would have been routed by the withering blasts of cannon fire which sent them reeling back from the first assault with dozens killed and even more wounded. The pirates were of the devils own breed and were led by a man of indomitable courage and stubborn determination. They did not know the meaning retreat.

The incessant fire from the fort compelled the attackers to lie for hours ambushed in the swampy, snake-infested river flats as the tropic sun climbed into its sizzling midday heat. Perspiring, sticky mud-encrusted, suffering from thirst and bitten by swarms of insects, they agonized the hours away, listening to insulting taunts shouted from the Spaniards…"English dogs, the Spaniards await you on Panama’s savannas, but you’ll never pass this fort to keep your appointment!"

Finally, long into the afternoon, desperate because of their unbearable position, the attackers decided on a rush assault. Sticks, stones, fire pots, and bullets drove them backward, cursing and stumbling, with more casualties to add to those already dead or wounded. It was plainly evident that this was to be no repetition of the easy win at Santa Catalina.

The fortress was walled by a double row of pilings, the space between was filled with dirt. This rose sheer from the moat and to scale it, the attackers would have to swim the water in the ditch, while being subjected to attack from above. It could, simply, not be done. With the drawbridge up, they were definitely at bay. Any other leader then and there would have sent for the main fleet for reinforcements, but that was not Bradley’s way. He had been sent to capture this fort and, somehow, he was going to do it.

The day waned and the darkness came on with neither side having gained an inch. It was an unexpected freak of circumstance which finally gave the buccaneers their long needed break.

One of the attackers who had been struck by an arrow, jerked it from his body and in a fury of retaliation, wrapped a wad of cotton around it, poured some gun powder and shot it, burning, straight back at the stronghold from whence it came. It happened to land on the outer row of pilings and set them afire. This fire remained unnoticed by the defenders of the fort. Soon the outer row was blazing and as the burning timbers gave way, the dirt inside slid slowly across the moat, filling it sufficiently to form a passage across.

The inner row of pilings caught fire too, soon made an open break toward which the buccaneers made a furious rush. They however met a thunderous storm of lead which blasted them to a standstill and sent them rocking back out of musket range, leaving more than a score of dead and wounded behind them.

Bradley was struck, both legs being torn away by a cannon ball. Even though bleeding to death he had himself propped up and bravely continued directing the fight until he himself finally died.

The main fortress inside the walls was brick, but flanking it were many mud huts with palm-thatched roofs, now tinder brittle from weeks of the dry season’s blistering sun. Bradley ordered fire balls shot at them with almost his last breath, and the roofs were soon blazing like an inferno. Some of the sparks reached the piles of gunpowder supplying the gunners on the walls…and marked the beginning of the end.

The explosion turned the fortress into a roaring furnace, with the brave defenders then forced to battle two enemies instead of one. The pirates swarmed forward. Straight through a murderous hail of bullets that dropped them like flies they charged; cursing, yelling, stumbling, falling, to reach the opening in the wall.

Like madmen the defenders inside worked their guns until they could no longer be loaded and then they met the attack with sword, pikes, clubbed rifle butts, sticks, stones; anything that could be used to fight. It was a hopeless stand. They were gradually pushed back, fighting for every step. Out-numbered and hopeless of winning, they stood their ground until their brave leader fell with a bullet through the head. Only then did they surrender.

Though Castillo San Lorenzo fell, the story of its defense will burn forever to the glory of Spain. Only thirty men surrendered and all but ten of them were wounded. Many others leaped to their death over the cliff into the sea below rather than submit to capture. Out of three hundred twenty men the garrison only the few prisoners were left alive, the rest being either dead of so desperately wounded that they died shortly after for lack of medical attention. It was not the buccaneers way to waste time or effort administering aid to the wounded enemy.

The victory was a dear one for the buccaneers, for they had lost more than half their force. A hundred of them had been killed in the initial assault and more than that were wounded, many too seriously for recovery.

From the prisoners the buccaneers learned one disconcerting piece of news. Morgan’s elaborate camouflage of his designs against was all so much a wasted effort; the Spaniards having known for three weeks that he was on the way. The governor of Panama had been warned and had strengthened his defenses and increasing his garrison.

To their utter disgust, the victors were further informed that the route to Panama was lined with ambushes. Should they by lucky chance win through these obstacles they would find a formidable army of four thousand men awaiting them on the savannas outside the town. This pleasant collection of facts, along with the news of victory, was hurriedly sent to Morgan who was waiting impatiently for news at Santa Catalina.

Elated at the news of victory, grieved over the death of Bradley who had been his right hand man, and chagrined at the Spaniards’ discovery of his plans, Morgan prepared to move forward at once with the main body of the fleet.

Before leaving Santa Catalina he made sure that it would not be used to Spanish advantage after his departure. The fortress was destroyed, the guns which could not be taken along, being either wrecked beyond repair or sunk in the bay. All the hogs, cattle and poultry went onto his ships along with the entire population of the island as prisoners. He didn’t want a hostile force of enemies behind him. Then, too, they might prove useful as carriers in the march across the Isthmus if he decided to use such.

When at the end of a tiresome eight day journey they sighted British colors fluttering from the bastions of Castillo San Lorenzo, the entire fleet broke into wild cheers of jubilation. Wine kegs rolled out and heavy boots began to beat time to music. To the accompaniment of booming cannons and rattling pistol shots, hoarse voices were raised in song; drowning out the sound of the surf beyond the whistling trade winds overhead as the pirate fleet came to anchor in the safe haven of the Chagres estuary.

With the air of a conquistador setting foot on vanquished soil Morgan leaped ashore and strode toward the castle where cheering, yelling men leaned over the parapets to hail their approaching comrades. On the way hither he passed a cleared plot filled with freshly heaped mounds…the graves of the men who had so dearly brought his victory for him. Heading this mute regiment was a rough tablet erected to him who had led so bravely in that last desperate charge.

The graves were pointed out to Morgan. He glanced indifferently at them without stopping and strode on toward the fort. Not for him either the yesterdays or the tomorrows…only the compelling urge of today!

After allowing his men the first night for a wild celebration ashore, Morgan set energetically about the preparations for the trip to Panama. First the Chagres fort must be put back into commission and manned in order to guard against a Spanish attack from the rear. The palisades were laboriously rebuilt by the prisoners from Santa Catalina who were driven night and day to the cruel task. Guns were then remounted, manned and ammunition magazines were restocked from the stores carried by the fleet.

One-hundred fifty men were left to guard the ships, with another five-hundred guarding the fort when the march began a week later. An attack on the Chagres would be logical on the part of the enemy and the buccaneer chief intended to be prepared for it.

At the head of the twelve-hundred intrepid followers Morgan started his hazardous trip up the Rio Chagres toward Panama on the 12th of January 1671. The men were crowded into the inadequate supply of canoes and row boats which the fleet carried, augmented by a few Indian cayucas which they found near the fort. They took no provisions, expecting to live by raiding the country through which they would pass. That omission was Morgan’s greatest blunder; hunger and privation proving far more formidable enemies along the route than the Spaniards.

From the very beginning the trip was a nightmare of discouragement and hardship. The river was full of snags and hidden sandbars, keeping the overloaded boats on constant danger of capsizing in the caiman infested water. All day under the tropical sun the men cursed and sweat at the oars, tormented by pangs of hunger and with no way to satisfy them.

The jungle country through which they passed had been thoroughly desolated; was completely devoid of food of any kind. When they pulled their boats ashore for the night they could only tighten their belts and aching with hunger, lie down on the wet, soggy ground to sleep, smarting under the swarms of stinging insects which blackened the humid air around them.

In the morning they made a bleak, start without breakfast and spent a second day of excruciating hardship. The few villages they passed were deserted and empty, the inhabitants having burned or destroyed everything they could not move when they fled before the pirates’ approach. The Spaniards had cut trees and set them in the river to impede the approach of the pirates.

A second night they crawled ashore using the last of their waning strength to drag their sore, itching sunburned bodies to a muddy resting place on the rivers bank. Even though they had been without food for two days, they saw no slightest prospect of finding any.

the third morning they had to tighten their belts still further and decided to try advancing on foot rather than battle longer in the murderous current. Leaving their boats, therefore, they started through the matted jungle so thick that they had to hack every step of the way. Fighting for breath in the stifling heat, constantly tormented by black swarms of insects, they struggles forward until the muddy footing plunged them waist deep into the swampy muck which grew worse with each foot they moved forward.

Deciding the jungle even worse than the current in the river, they turned back, their strength and determination so nearly exhausted that two-hundred courageous Spaniards could have shot down the entire band.

The Spaniards, however, did not appear. Morgan had been warned of ambushes along his proposed route but none materialized during the entire trip. Occasionally they were struck by flights of arrows from Indians who shot at them through the underbrush along the banks.

Had the Spaniards had as much spirit as the Indians it is quite likely that the pirates would have been repelled or wiped out.

Again embarking in the boats they toiled painfully forward, part of the men now so weakened by hunger that they couldn’t lift an oar. On shore they frantically turned over stones, tore bark from rotting logs, dug into heaps of fallen leaves…looking for grubs and worms to devour. They gnawed twigs, bark, leaves…anything that would fill the terrible aching void of their stomachs.

At one of the deserted settlements they found a few leather bags which they cut into strips and ate greedily, so frantic with hunger they were by then. It was on the fifth day of their travel that they found temporary relief in a storehouse of grain which the Spanish negligence had failed to destroy. The starving buccaneers pounced onto it like wild beasts, devouring it as though it were manna from heaven.

Had it not been for Morgan’s indomitable will power the band would have given up in despair many times, but he kept urging them on. glowingly he held out a promise of easy days ahead if they would hold on to their courage for the present. Only for a day or so more, he promised, and they could make up all of their suffering by reveling in the fatness of Panama’s well stocked storehouses. The men, reinspired to a new courage, struggled on.

When the boats were finally abandoned for the mule trail which led over the continental divide and down the Pacific slope, the danger of attack increased. One narrow gorge through which they had to pass was a veritable death trap if the Spaniards had had the foresight to use it.

Why the Spaniards did not attack will forever remain a mystery. Their scouts carried mile by mile reports of the pirates advance, describing in detail the weakened condition of the ragged, unshaven, half-starved army. With colossal stupidity, however not a move was made against them during their entire journey. In their weakened condition, where every advantage would have been with the Spaniards, not a pirate should have reached Panama alive. Had the Spaniards used a little initiative and ingenuity the pirates would have been stopped dead in their tracks.

It was in a state of almost total collapse that the disreputable band staggered to the top of a small hill on the afternoon of the ninth day and saw the Pacific gleaming in the distance. Below them lay a rolling expanse of fertile farm land where fat cattle grazed in the lush grass; and where fruit trees held out promise of other delights in the offing.

Leaving the cattle on the plains to feed the starved pirates was probably the most stupid thing the Spaniards had done thus far. At sight the pirates drew their pistols and rushed forward like the starved maniacs they were. Hacking great chunks of raw meat from the scarcely lifeless cattle they ate like famished wolves, cramming it again and again into their mouths; the blood matting their dirty bearded faces and dripping down upon the filthy, tattered rags of their shirts. Bestial, filth-covered, but content, they at last threw themselves and slept like tired dogs.

That night around roaring campfires they roasted meat, cleaned and oiled their guns and planned their attack on the city which loomed ghost-like in the moonlit shimmering bay which lay beyond it. Posting guards they slept through the night without any molestation from the Spaniards. Another mistake on the part of the cities defenders.

Governor de Guzman was an egotistical, fatuous man but he must also have been a stupid unimaginative one as well. He allowed the pirate band free undisputed passage across the Isthmus and took no unusual measures to defend his city. Perhaps Morgan’s estimate of him, formed two years before at Porto Belo, was correct…that such a man in charge of a cities defenses would be a help rather than hindrance to a clever foe planning an attack on it.

All through the night as the buccaneers slept peacefully beyond range, the heavy cannons of Panama City thundered volley after volley. They were aiming at no particular target, they were just firing. The gunpowder they wasted could have been of real use the following day.

The next morning when Morgan marched toward Panama he was beset with graver misgivings than at any time of his stormy career. Beyond him on the plains before the city waited an army of about four thousand smartly uniformed, well armed soldiers; infantry, cavalry and artillery. To meet them he had somewhat more than a thousand raged scarecrows who bore no slightest resemblance to organized troops.

Terrifying as was the prospect in front, however, that behind was worse. Spaniards afoot or on horseback might be formidable adversaries when the odds were three or four to one, but the jungle behind was infinitely more to be dreaded. Having to choose between the two foes, the buccaneers resolutely faced forward. Anything, no matter how bad, was better than having to tackle that jungle again.

With the total lack of resourcefulness which characterized every move the Spaniards made, they had placed their largest guns along the main road leading into the city. The buccaneers, noting this, simply changed their line of approach; skirted a small hill and came toward the city from the opposite direction. This upset the defenders ruinously. They had envisioned the enemy as approaching only by the road. When they did not, the elaborate gun emplacements, which could not be moved, were utterly useless.

Although a dozen new world cities had fallen to pirates because the Spanish method of fighting in block formation was no match for the rough-and-tumble tactics of the attackers, de Guzman employed the same stiff, suicidal strategy. Not once did he alter his plans to fit the type of assault launched against him.

As for two forces approached one another the pirates leaped into a long ditch with underbrush beyond; a splendidly protected retreat for defense. De Guzman ordered the cavalry to charge and they trotted forward in close formation; four hundred of the finest mounted troops in America.

Morgan placed two hundred of his picked musketeers in the front row with orders to fire only from close range, so resting on one knee with guns steadily at sight, they waited. When the horsemen were almost within speaking distance, they fired. Even indifferent shots could hardly have missed at such range…and these were the deadliest marksmen in the world.

The slaughter was horrible, men and horses kicking and struggling in a bloody tangle on the ground; the ones at the rear stumbling and falling over the wounded to add to the general confusion. The pirates, yelling like fiends possessed, kept up their deadly fire.

The ragged remnants of the cavalry retreated out of gun range and re-formed their line. Senselessly brave they again rode in close formation straight toward that spitting wall of death. Again they retreated, horribly decimated. Not once did they break the line; retreating, closing, advancing, until not a man of the gallant troop was left. The pirates were scarcely scratched.

As he cavalry was depleted, the infantry troops moved forward, again adhering strictly o the Spanish battle code. Fighting close together in the open they fell like grain before a sickle under the deadly fire of a foe they could not even see.

As the blazing tropic sun rode high into the coppery sky the battle continued; growing more one-sided as the day advanced. The buccaneers fought from behind trees, stumps, mounds of earth; anything that would furnish shelter. The defenders stayed strictly in formation out in the open. The result was wholesale slaughter on a gigantic and totally unjustified scale.

Seeing the tide of battle turning unfavorably against him, de Guzman finally sprang what we had planned as the master stoke of his entire campaign. He had had two thousand wild bulls brought into the city a few days before, with the fantastic intention of driving them straight at the pirate horde and trampling them to death. To stem the unfavorable turn the battle seemed to be taking, he new ordered the spectacular charge of the bulls.

Driven by shouting, yelling cowboys, the bulls came bellowing across the field. The pirates, unshaken, paid not the slightest attention to the charging herd. They simply shot the cowboys and a few of the leading animals. The rest, bellowing in terror, charged for the distant hills as though urged forward by the devil himself.

From then on, the battle turned to a shambles of yelling, cursing, dying men. The defenders, hopelessly outnumbered because of their terrific losses, finally threw away their guns and fled pell-mell for the citye e had, hotly pursued by the shots of the howling buccaneers who panted at their heels.

Fighting from house to house the defenders tried again and again to make a stand but their morale was completely shattered and they finally gave up. In less than eight hours from the firing of the first shot, the stately, wealthy city was in the hand of the buccaneers.

It was during the frightful pandemonium of shots, shouts, screams of women and groans of wounded men which accompanied the fall of Panama, that a messenger came hurriedly to Morgan with news that a fire had broken out in one section of his captured city. It was a disastrous fire and was already out of control.

While most of the churches, convents, and government buildings of Panama were brick the elegant homes of the residential districts were built of cedar and other aromatic woods. The poorer sections were palm thatched huts which burned like straw once the flames reached them. With the strong winds of the dry season, the fire was impossible to control.

Half naked, sweating, smoke-begrimed and working shoulder to shoulder like madmen, the buccaneers as well as the townspeople tried to stop the wave of fire which raged over the city. Their frantic efforts had little or no effect. The dry season winds and blazing tropic sun had baked the wooden buildings tinder dry and they burned like match wood. Block after block of beautiful homes filled with the finest furnishings which money could but went up in monstrous waves of flame and black smoke which rose into the sky. Some buildings were dynamited to form fire breaks but they helped very little. The whistling winds of the dry season blew until practically all of the city was in ruins. Only a few squares in the center of town, and some of the residential suburbs were saved.

Morgan has been widely blamed for the burning of Panama. It is probably one of the few crimes credited to him, of which he is innocent. He was not incapable of such a deed, but after such a long journey, he would have waited until the city had been plundered before lighting the fire.

Beautiful rugs, tapestries, family plates and other fittings of wealthy homes were a greater source of riches than the actual gold and silver collected in a raid of this sort and Morgan had counted on getting a rich haul of such plunder from Panama. It was widely celebrated for it’s elegance and a man as grasping as Henry Morgan would never have set fire to its homes until he had emptied them of their treasures.

Some historians credit the Spaniards with firing their city to cheat the invaders, but this theory in unreasonable. The most logical explanation is that in the mad confusion of the battle, a lit stove was knocked over. The dry season winds blow fiercely at that time during the year and a fire once started would have been extremely difficult to stop by the time that the fire was noticed.

Morgan cursing bitterly, counted as lost not only what the homes had contained, but the sums he could have demanded as a ransom under the threat of fire if he were not paid. Such threats paid him well in the past but they were of little or no use now.

Fearing Spanish reprisals, Morgan tried to keep his men sober by telling his men that he had information that the wine had been poisoned, as it surely would have been had the Spaniards been on the alert. His warnings did not have the slightest effect. The men went on a roaring spree and if the bands of Spaniards lurking on the outskirts of the city had made a stand under a courageous leader, they could have wiped out the buccaneers while they were drunk. Only a handful of the buccaneers, including Morgan, remained sober.

From the prisoners Morgan had one piece of news which rocked his hair-trigger self control to its foundation. The day before he arrived in Panama the galleon Trinity had sailed for Peru with fifteen hundred people aboard. These included the women, children, nuns, and the richest people of Panama who would have been capable of paying a healthy ransom. The ship also carried roughly half of Panama’s wealth that could be loaded aboard the galleon. The cargo was probably worth millions. The ship, being so heavily laden, would be traveling slowly, it could be possible for the buccaneers to overtake it and seize the ship and all cargo.

While he and his men went to work torturing, pillaging and looting the unburned houses, he sent an expedition under the command of Captain Daniel Searles in search of the runaway treasure ship. Since it had headed toward Taboga island a few miles away from the city of Panama, Searles headed for Taboga.

When Searles landed on the island, unknown to the buccaneers, the Spaniards were taking on water and provisions on the other side of the island. The towns people offered their wine to the buccaneers so that they would get drunk and the Spaniards could have a chance to escape.

When Searles and crew sobered up the following morning the Buccaneers learned that the ship was out on the high seas and unable to catch. Searles went off into a fit of anger at his own negligence but he was unable to do anything about it now.

Although he had lost the treasure ship, Searles brought back a lovely woman by the name of Maria Eleanora Lopez y Ganero in the hopes that Morgan would forgive the loss of the treasure and turn his attention to this woman. She was brought before Morgan and he showed very little indifference. He did, however, hold her for a ransom of thirty thousand dollars which was paid shortly before their return to Castle Chagres.

Finally the day came to leave the city of Panama. It had been over a month since they had left the Castle Chagres and the men in garrison there, fearful of Spanish attack were growing restless. Many of the men were talking about sacking towns in Peru, unless Morgan put a stop to it he could lose some of his men and find himself shorthanded for the return trip.

It took one hundred seventy five pack mules to carry the spoils across the isthmus. Morgan hated only having to use so few mules, he had planned on using ten times as many. Portobelo had yielded two hundred fifty thousand dollars in plundered merchandise alone and Panama would have produced a dozen times that much had it not been for the two disasters of the treasure ship escaping and the other being the fire. Altogether, Panama had not been overly successful.

In addition to the plunder from the city, Morgan had selected six hundred prisoners to take along when he left. Part of them were Negro slaves who would bring a good price in Jamaica. Others were citizens who would share the same fate unless they paid the ransoms set for their release.

It was a caravan of sullen, disgruntled followers who accompanied Morgan on the long grilling march back to the Castle Chagres. There was missing the wine of anticipation which had led them to Panama. At that time each man’s individual imagination was the sole measure of what the future might bring them. Now they had only a stark realism of what actually happened, and it was nothing to bring much joy to their souls.

The plunder they had captured was a terrific disappointment; was considerably less than that of Portobelo or Maracaibo, when they had counted on it being ten times as much. In spite of the most exquisite tortures they had been able to extract a very meager sum from Panama’s populace. It was really a substantially smaller amount, considering the number of men whom it was be divided. If each man received two hundred pieces of eight he would be lucky.

Their leader was not to blame for the galleon’s escape or the burning of the city. Nevertheless they identified him with the general disappointment and bore a grudge accordingly. He was now looked upon almost as an enemy by most of the buccaneers. This was fueled by the fact that before they left Panama Morgan had to tale some harsh disciplinary action. Several days before they were to leave for the Chagres he learned that nearly half of his men were going to desert and join a raiding expedition in the direction of Peru.

The loss of so many men would weaken his band seriously and probably encourage a Spanish attack on the way back. Furiously angry when he got wind of the plot, he took immediate action to stop it. He had all of their boats and provisions destroyed and the leaders of the desertion put into irons. The rest were resentful and their discontent increased the general atmosphere of grumbling dissatisfaction.

The grilling hardships of the journey back did little to improve tempers or to promote harmony between commander and men. The already unpleasant situation atmosphere was clouded still by an incident that occurred the day before they reached the Chagres. Morgan knew many of the men had hidden valuables about their persons; a violation of the code signed at De La Vaca. Therefore, he called a halt before they reached their destination and announced that there would be a thorough search of every one in the band.

Loud and profane objections from the majority of the men proved his surmises correct. However, because Morgan had announced that he would be searched first, the others could not refuse. The pile of hidden loot thus brought to light amounted to thousands of dollars but increased the general feeling of animosity toward their already unpopular commander.

Back at the Chagres matters grew worse instead of better. Everywhere Morgan turned he was met with sullen looks, muttered imprecations, disregard of discipline and outright defiance of orders. All of this he could understand but when he discovered that a few of the men were plotting his death, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Calling a secret meeting of the small group who were loyal to him, he laid plans for a move which branded him as a traitor of his men. He had intentionally delayed dividing the loot which was held in one of the well guarded storehouses. He appointed his clique of friends as a committee to sort and classify the loot; gold and bullion in one pile, jewels in another, and merchandise in another. Meantime he had three of the most seaworthy ships quietly put into commission, all of the rest were being disables sufficiently to necessitate a few days’ repair before they could be put into service.

These arrangements completed, Morgan announced that the following day the spoils would be divided and this night would be a grand celebration. Morgan opened the first keg and proposed a toast to the spoils of Panama and to the spoils of their next adventure. More toasts and more kegs were opened but Morgan and his clique drank very little. The rest of the men got roaring drunk and finally succumbed to the stupor that always marked the climax of their spree.

As soon as the loud snores of the men proclaimed the field safe for action, the chests of jewels, coins and bullion were hastily trundled aboard the ships which had been secretly provisioned during the day. The more valuable bales of merchandise were carried aboard until the three ships were full.

As soon as the cargo was safely loaded, the vessels were quietly propelled by the current, the sails were unfurled and the trade winds speeded the ships on their journey back to Port Royal, Jamaica. Morgan neither knew nor cared about what happened to the men left behind.

The following day when the remaining men woke, they found out what had happened and prepared to go after Morgan but upon finding the state of the remaining vessels the men realized that Morgan had not only taken the most valuable portion of the loot, but he had taken all of the provisions and most of the ammunition as well.

The remaining buccaneers freed all of the prisoners. The Spaniards mostly headed toward Portobelo and eventually Panama while the black slaves headed directly toward Panama. They stopped just before the continental divide and founded a town of San Juan, which still stands today.

With the town of Panama Viejo in ruins, the remaining Spaniards rebuilt the town a few miles west in the present day area of Santa Ana and San Felipe near the area of the Presidential Palace. The city was never again sacked by pirates.


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