Panama: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

In the Days of the Buccaneers

As the railway journey between Colon and Panama is so interesting, cheap, and comfortable, we shall make our headquarters alternately at which ever of the two cities happens to be the more convenient starting-place from which to proceed with our programme.

We are now going to make some excursions that will help us to understand the general condition of the Isthmus of Panama when the Canal was started by the French; during these trips we shall talk about the history of the Isthmus onwards from the time when Old Panama city became one of the richest and most famous places on the Spanish Main, owing to its favourable situation as a distribution port for the wealth of the west coast of South America.

On the first of these expeditions we are setting forth from Colon by launch, and our destination is Portobello, which has many historic associations, and some ruins to carry us back to the days of long ago. Among the memorable and tragic events which happened at Portobello was the death of the greatest of Elizabethan sailors, Sir Francis Drake.

Although contemporary European Powers were envious of the growing wealth of Spain, no nation challenged the supreme power of the New World to prove whether she could retain by might the lands which she claimed by a "find 'ems, keeps 'em" right of title. But numerous adventurers, acting individually, tried either to relieve Spain of some of her plunder, or to share in the trade with the rich Spanish Colonies. As the Spaniards claimed the sole right of trading with the whole of America, except Brazil, which belonged to Portugal, they regarded as pirates any foreigners who dared to sail in New World waters. Two of the principal adventurers whose exploits undermined the power of Spain as an Empire builder were Francis Drake and Henry Morgan.

Francis Drake, who was born in 1540 near Tavistock, in Devonshire, was the son of very poor people. At an early age he was apprenticed to the master of a small coasting vessel. In 1565 he sailed to the Spanish Main, and the experience fired him with the ambition to make a bid for fortune in a part of the world where there were boundless opportunities for daring exploits that might lead to wealth and glory. In 1567 he sailed under Hawkins, who was making an enormous income by trading in slaves with the West Indies. But at last Spain managed to wreak vengeance on that prosperous foreign competitor in the slave traffic. Hawkins was attacked by the Spanish Fleet, and badly beaten. Two of his smaller vessels managed to escape to England; of one of these Drake was in command.

But although Drake determined to have nothing more to do with the slave trade, he busied himself with new schemes for winning treasure from the Spaniards. Strictly speaking, he was now filled with the desire to become a pirate; but as King Philip of Spain persecuted Protestants, Drake considered that by plundering the Catholic Monarch's rich colonies he would not only be doing himself a good turn, but would be serving England and championing the Protestant cause. In 1572 he sailed, with two small vessels, as captain of a pirate band which was bent on sacking Old Panama. Upon reaching Nombre de Dios the expedition was attacked by the Spaniards. During the conflict Drake burned Portobello, and captured and destroyed many Spanish ships. A view of the Pacific, which he obtained by climbing a tall tree, filled him with an eager longing to sail an English ship on its waters, but before he had time to set about realizing this ambition he was seriously wounded. His men carried him to the boats, and the expedition escaped to England. Drake was enthusiastically welcomed home as a hero.

In 1577 Drake started on another voyage to the New World, taking with him five small vessels. He sailed down the east coast of South America and through the Straits of Magellan. But as he entered the Pacific a terrible gale arose, and when the storm abated his ship was alone on the strange waters—the other four vessels had either foundered or were making for home. Drake sailed along the western coast of South America, plundering as he went, and securing much valuable booty. Leaving Cape Francisco he sailed homewards across the Pacific, and after a long and adventurous voyage he reached England, thereby achieving the feat of circumnavigating the globe. Queen Elizabeth led the applause with which he was greeted home; she visited him on board his ship and knighted him. The magnificent welcome he received was inspired not only by natural appreciation of pluck and national pride in a great sailor, but by the patriotism that calls for an outburst of thanksgiving at the discovery of the right man to tackle an enemy at a critical period—the fearsome Spain, with her formidable fleet, was menacing England.

All of you, of course, are familiar with the story of how Drake was sent to Cadiz to stop the preparations which Spain was making to invade England; of how in one night he burnt, sank, and captured so many of the enemy's vessels that the fleet had to postpone sailing, thereby giving England considerable time for making further preparations to defend her shores; and of how, when the "Invincible "Armada eventually appeared off the Lizard, Drake calmly finished playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe, then, boarding his ship, led the British fleet to the victory which made England "Mistress of the Seas."

In 1595 Drake again set sail for South America. Once more he landed on the Isthmus of Panama; this time the Spaniards who attacked him killed so many of his men that he decided to retreat. He reached his ship safely, but fell ill with dysentery, and died, off Portobello, on January 28, 1596. His body was placed in a leaden coffin and committed to the deep.

Drake the Pirate


When England was encouraged by the ambitious Queen Elizabeth to carry on the work of Empire-building that had been begun by the Cabots, the policy for colonial expansion was more in favour of founding new colonies in America than of fighting for the possession of the Spanish colonies. To the north of Mexico Spain had not settled in any of the districts on the Atlantic coast; whilst Drake was playing pirate in South America, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh were doing pioneer work in laying the foundations of Canada and the United States. And although Drake, transformed by patriotism and opportunity from a buccaneer into a highly respectable Admiral, undermined the power of Spain, his country-men of his own and succeeding ages did not make any concerted attempt to conquer the Spanish-American colonies by force of arms. They zealously pursued the policy of establishing British colonies in North America, foreseeing, doubtless, that Spain's power in the New World would naturally dwindle, and finally flicker out, when her colonies realized that she was unable to keep a firm hold on them, and when they consequently began to secede and to quarrel amongst themselves.

But although England did not trouble Spain in South America, several Englishmen added to her discomfiture during the seventeenth century by their piratical exploits. The most daring and successful of these buccaneers was Henry Morgan.

Morgan cared nothing for glory, but was game for any adventure that might bring him money. Morgan and his pirate band had their headquarters at Jamaica. Thence they set out in 1668 to plunder Portobello as a first step towards looting Old Panama. A good idea of the booty they were after, and of the difficulties that had to be encountered, may be gathered from even one short extract from a history of the buccaneers' exploits, as recorded by one of the pirates:

"Portobello is judged to be the strongest place that the King of Spain possesses in all the West Indies, excepting two, that is to say, Havana and Cartagena. Here are two castles, almost inexpugnable, that defend the city, being situated at the entry of the port; so that no ship or boat can pass without permission. The garrison consists of three hundred soldiers, and the town constantly inhabited by four hundred families, more or less. The merchants dwell not here, but only reside for a while, when the galleons come or go from Spain; by reasons of the unhealthiness of the air, occasioned by certain vapours, that exhale from the mountains. Notwithstanding, their chief warehouses are at Portobello, howbeit their habitations be all the year long at Panama, whence they bring the plate upon mules at such times as the fair begins and when the ships, belonging to the Company of Negroes, arrive here to sell slaves."

The pirates landed on the Isthmus of Panama at a spot not far from Portobello, and under cover of night they surrounded the castle near the city. The commander of this castle and his soldiers offered a stubborn resistance, but were at last obliged to surrender; the pirates then locked the garrison in the castle and blew up prison and prisoners. Next they fell on the city, and although the brave Governor put up a splendid defence, they eventually possessed themselves of his castle, too; whereupon they fell to work at pillaging, feasting, torturing their prisoners to find out where treasure had been hidden, and destroying property. The President of Panama marched with a body of soldiers to the relief of Portobello, but the pirates compelled the Spaniards to retreat. The miserable citizens of Portobello then unearthed their valuables, and made up the rich ransom which Morgan demanded of them. The buccaneers sailed off to divide the spoil and make merry in Jamaica.

From the historic ruins of Portobello we make our way back to Colon, to follow the adventures of Morgan and his men when they paid a second visit to the Isthmus, in 1670.

By a launch-trip on the River Chagres we visit Fort San Lorenzo where the pirates in crossing the Isthmus would in all probability have been forced by the desperately brave Spaniards to retreat, but for an accident that set fire to the castle.

Again we cross the Isthmus from Colon to Panama. The train frequently skirts the route by which the pirates had to fight their way through the Bush, and in a starving condition encounter the Spaniards and Indians who lay in wait for them.

From Panama we take a five miles' drive to the site of Old Panama, where Morgan and his fellow-buccaneers achieved their greatest success, in 1671, by setting fire to and sacking one of the wealthiest cities on the Spanish Main. Among the existing ruins of this historic site are the walls of the Cathedral, an old bridge, catacombs, wells, bits of the ancient city's walls, and the tower of the Castle of St. Jerome.

Two years later the city of Panama was rebuilt on the site which it still occupies. The modern city reminds us of Colon, but is on a much larger scale.

The provinces of Panama and Veragua that composed the Isthmus up to the beginning of the nineteenth century were among the last of the Spanish-American colonies to throw off the Spanish yoke. In 1821 they secured their independence from Spain and became part of the republic of Colombia, or, as it was then called, New Granada.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the Isthmus regained, through the discovery of gold in California, some of the importance that it lost with the fall of Old Panama and the passing of the palmy days of Spanish occupation. Californian gold was taken to Panama City, and thence by pack-mule train across the Isthmus for shipment. Numbers of desperadoes of various nationalities were attracted to the locality of the trans-isthmian route, and many travellers were robbed and murdered. The rush of gold-seekers to California, the development of the carrying trade across the Isthmus of Panama, and the lack of safe and quick means of transit to meet the demands of such a trade, led some American capitalists to bargain with Colombia for the right to build a railway from Colon to Panama. The railroad, as I have already told you, was opened in 1855.

Apart from the history of the Panama Canal, there is still another important date to be remembered in connection with the history of the Isthmus. On November 3, 1903, the Panamanians succeeded in putting an end to Colombian control of their country, and issued the declaration of independence of the Republic of Panama.