Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (9)


Morgan now had the pretext he needed for what was to be the great achievement of his life, the rape of Panamá, and he had the largest assembly of privateers yet seen in the West Indies. He wrote to Modyford in December to say he had thirty six ships with 1,800 men, including several hundred Frenchmen from Tortuga. He then sailed to Santa Catalina, or Providence Island, and took it back again after a mock battle. Exquemelin says that the mock battle was pre-arranged to save the honour of the Spanish governor. Morgan's cook, Juan de Lao, says it was due to an agreement between the French privateers and Spanish defenders not to shed blood that day, which happened - according to the Gregorian calendar in use in Catholic countries but not yet in England - to be Christmas day.

Morgan planned to attack Panamá along the river Chagre, which was protected by a fort, San Lorenzo. He sent three ships ahead under the command of Lt Col Joseph Bradley, to reduce the fort before the main body of the privateers would follow. The Spanish, however, had long been aware of the possibility of an attack on Panamá. The President was now once again Don Juan Perez de Guzmán, the man who had ordered the recapture of Santa Catalina in the only impressive Spanish military action in the whole period under discussion. He had been exonerated of the charges brought against him and was now out of prison. After the fall of Panamá he was to be tried for negligence and there was a long, very detailed, discussion of the preparations he had made. Peter Earle uses this extensively for his account. Earle broadly agrees with the court which finally decided he had made great efforts against overwhelming odds, including his own illness, since Panamá, like Portobello, was a very unhealthy place.

At Lake Maracaibo we have seen that Morgan initially encountered a well-built fort manned by a pathetically small garrison. At San Lorenzo, Bradley encountered a badly built fort manned by a garrison that was both strong - equal in numbers to Bradley's force - and well led. But the fort was built of wood and straw, and the privateers succeeded, probably to their own amazement, in setting it alight. Bradley died as a result of the attack together with over a hundred of his men. Morgan arrived some days later in his flagship, The Satisfaction, which, together with the four ships following, sailed straight on to a reef and broke up. Peter Earle wonders if the seamanship of the buccaneers was always all it was cracked up to be.

What follows - the march to Panamá on the west side of the isthmus, was a monument to dogged determination and courage in facing the unknown. From the Spanish sources we know that the means at Guzmán's disposal were pitifully inadequate, but the pirates did not know that. They did know that Panamá was the city that had successfully repelled Drake and his deputy, Sir Thomas Baskerville. The trek across the isthmus was hellish. Morgan had expected the jungle to be full of game and had wanted his men to travel light so, once the boats had been abandoned, they were not carrying food. In fact the jungle yielded nothing they could recognise as being edible and the Spaniards were retreating before them destroying any possible source of provisions as they went. This could have been a masterly tactic but in fact it appears to have been a result of fear at the enormity of the pirate army - still well over a thousand strong. Periodically they were attacked by Indians, always too fast to be caught by them. Exquemelin, who participated in the march, gives the impression that these were wild Indians but they seem from Earle's account to have been working for Guzmán. After four days without food, the pirate army was a disorganised rabble which could probably have been routed easily. But, alas for the Spanish, no sooner did they leave the jungle than they encountered a plain full of cattle.

Panamá lay before them - an open city without fortifications. It looked very grand, but in fact, like Portobello, it only derived its importance from the occasional appearances of the treasure fleet. Also like Portobello it was situated in a fever-ridden swamp. It was an area without limestone so the great majority of the houses were made of wood. Guzmán had had very few professional soldiers under his command and had lost the best of them in the defence of San Lorenzo. The 'army' standing between the pirates and Panamá, though numerous, was made up of the more courageous citizens together with a large number of black slaves and Indians. Guzmán had also hoped to throw the English into disarray with a stampede of bulls (in the event the bulls were scared off by the noise of the battle). Now that the pirates were fed and rested this was all simply feeble, the more so because Guzmán had neglected to defend a small hill on his right flank. Once the English had seized that, the victory was won. To quote Earle: 'By the time they had finished, some four or five hundred Spaniards, negroes, Indians and half-castes lay dead or wounded upon the field, a quarter of Don Juan's army. Just fifteen of the privateers had fallen. It was a very easy victory.'

It was followed by a scene from hell as the citizenry, crazed with fear, set fire to the town. Historians have questioned if this was the work of the English or the Spanish but the Spanish accounts leave no room for doubt. It was not at all in the interests of the English to find themselves presiding over a heap of charred timber in the middle of a disease-ridden swamp. There was the usual job to be done rounding up the citizens and torturing them to get hold of their valuables, but the biggest prizes had disappeared on three ships which had been loaded and got away before the city fell. What was left was small fry. This time the Spanish literature does refer to the torture and Earle remarks that 'Such comments are unusual. The Spaniards were used to torture. What shocked them was that so many tortured men should die, and it is this that is the true measure of the privateers' misfortune.' (i.e. of the poor pickings to be had in Panamá)


On 24th February, after an occupation that had lasted four weeks, they left together with six hundred Spanish prisoners, most of them blacks, who were all regarded as slaves, since the English mind had difficulty grasping the idea that a black man could be a free citizen. A ransom was as usual demanded for white prisoners but, reflecting the low level of expectations, it was surprisingly reasonable. The pickings were low and had to be divided among a much larger number of privateers than usual. Many of them, including Exquemelin, felt cheated.

Inevitably, Morgan's army broke up. Some were shipwrecked on the central American coast. Many ended up log-cutting in the jungle of Nicaragua and Honduras - part of the pre-history of 'British Honduras', or Belize. Long's History of Jamaica tells us that 'In 1671, when the fleet commanded by Sir Henry Morgan returned from that coast, his crews brought with them the malignant fever of Portobello, and the greater part of them died of it; the contagion spread to those on shore where it produced a terrible mortality.' The sack of Panamá was of course a very glorious feat, registering Morgan's name among the immortals, but from the point of view of his political intentions - if we can guess what they were - we may wonder if it really succeeded. Although piracy in the region was to have a great future ahead of it and Jamaica remained at the centre of it, Panamá marked the end of the policy of piracy sponsored as a matter of government policy. Morgan and Modyford may have wanted to sabotage the peace, but they did not succeed. 

Under the new treaty, the Spanish recognised for the first time the legitimacy of the English possessions in the region:

'The king of Great Britain, his heirs and successors shall have, hold and possess, for ever, with full right of sovereign dominion, property and possession, all lands, countries, islands, colonies and dominions whatever, situated in the West Indies, or any part of America, which the said king of Great Britain and his subjects, do, at this present, hold and possess so that in regard thereof, or upon any colour or pretence whatever, nothing may or ought ever to be urged, nor any question or controversy moved concerning the same hereafter.'

Perhaps Morgan thought that was bad news and was hoping to inspire an all out war in the area which, given the weakness of the Spanish interest, might have resulted in a straightforward English takeover (though it would certainly have involved endless war with the French and Dutch). But though the English word of honour had lost all credibility at the Spanish court, the Spanish knew they had no possibility of taking the sort of revenge their sense of grievance would have required. The main effect of Morgan's action was simply that the English lost most of the benefits in trade, legal or illegal, that had long been enjoyed by the Dutch after the treaty of 1648. South American Spaniards at all levels, from governor to privateer (and Pardal was to have an increasing number of imitators) took every opportunity to annoy and harrass Englishmen. But the peace treaty held nonetheless; the Cromwellian perspective of an English conquest of Spanish America faded and together with it the prospect of a Jamaica made rich by plunder.