Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Buccaneering Era > Sack of Panama (1670)

Sack of Panama (1670)


In December of 1670, Morgan and nearly 200 buccaneers set sail in 33 ships for the isthmus of Panama in order to sack and loot Spanish settlements there. On December 15th he recaptured the island of Santa Catalina and on December 27th, 1670 Morgan and his crew captured the fortress of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama. Of the 300 Spanish soldiers stationed there only 23 were left alive. Morgan used the fortress of San Lorenzo as a staging ground for his next assault.

Next the buccaneers targeted Panama Viejo, a city long known for its importance in the Spanish Main. This would come to be known as one of Morgans greatest accomplishments and struck a devastating blow to the Spanish image in the New World.

Panama Viejo was a city founded on August 15th, 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila and nearly 100 other Spanish settlers. It was the first settlement of its kind and within two years it was given official status of city by royal decree of Charles V in 1521 along with a coat of arms. Panama Viejo was an important point along the Spanish treasure fleet for storing gold and silver to be transported back to Spain.

By 1610 the population of the city had reached over 5000 people that occupied more than 50 homes. There was also a few religious buildings such as convents, chapels and cathedrals along with a hospital that made this a center of human habitation at the time.

During the early 1600's the city was attacked many times by pirates and natives from nearby Darien alike. These were the same cannibal natives that ripped Francois L’Ollonais limb from limb and ate him in 1667. Throughout the 17th century the city suffered devastation such as a fire and earthquake, however nothing prepared them for what Henry Morgan was to do.

Henry Morgan arrived near Panama Viejo in early 1671 and divided his forces to provide a dual assault against the Spanish. Giving his second in command Joseph Bradley nearly 500 men, he sent them to take the fort of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River. This was necessary for reaching the settlement of Panama Viejo itself, but also provided a decent diversion for the troops and disguising the real size of the buccaneer army.

Henry Morgan was to take his half of the buccaneer army and engage the Spanish governor and his army in battle. The Spanish must have known the buccaneers were coming because they had abandoned and stripped the villages along the way of any food or wealth. This forced the buccaneers to march miles and miles through the jungle with only the thought of great riches keeping them going.

Along with stripping the villages of any provisions such as food or supplies the Spanish also tried to ambush the buccaneers to no avail. The advancing pirate army defeated any Spanish they encountered and continued their march towards Panama Viejo.

Panama Viejo at the time was guarded by no less than 1200 militia infantry and over 400 cavalry. However the buccaneers themselves were a force to be reckoned with. The Spanish militia troops rushed Morgans troops called 'Morgans Line' and were cut down by musket balls.

As Morgan and his buccaneers moved in a line fighting the Spanish head on, Bradley and his buccaneer troops moved in and flanked the rest of the soldiers providing an easy victory and sent the defenders fleeing back towards the city. Overall the Spanish lost around 500 troops in the initial defense.

As the buccaneers entered the city it is debated what happened next. Some say that Henry Morgan and his buccaneers started the fires, while others suggest that Captain General Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán ordered his militia to explode gunpowder magazines and burn the city before the buccaneers could loot it.

Regardless of how it happened, the city of Panama Viejo was burned to the ground and the Spanish fled with all their valuables into the jungle. The buccaneers spent the next month picking through the ruins, however were disappointed with the results. Much of the Spanish treasure had was being taken south to Ecuador by the galleon La Santisima Trinidad. The treasure laden galleon sat anchored in Panama Harbor just out of reach of the buccaneers.

While the buccaneers knew well of the ship, they had no idea all of the riches of the city were aboard it. Had they known they would have easily captured the ship before it sailed out of the bay. However the buccaneers bet that the city itself would be a better prize and therefore set their sights upon that instead. If only they had taken their assault and their superior naval skills a little further the buccaneers would have received all the treasure and more that they were expecting.

Once again frustrated by their meager treasure the buccaneers tortured, raped and interrogated any Spanish citizen left in the city in their quest for more riches.

After spending a little more than a month looting Panama Viejo, the buccaneers returned to the fortress of San Lorenzo at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo to split their treasure. The haul was meager at best and many accused Morgan of cheating them. Morgan decided to leave the buccaneers at San Lorenzo and took his ship and crew to raid more of the coast of Central America.

After the destruction of Panama Viejo the Spanish abandoned the settlement much like they had with Gibraltar after Francois L’Ollonais burnt the city to the ground and killed all of the inhabitants. The Spanish would rebuild the settlement at the current Panama City only 6 miles away in a more defendable position.

The sacking and burning of Panama Viejo would cement Morgan's position as a successful buccaneer, despite his overhaul loot being considerably less than the pirates of the 18th century. This was mostly because Morgan had a much larger crew with which to split his treasure and also the Spanish often fled into the jungle with most of their valuables before the buccaneers approached. This turned them more from pirates into conquerers as they took over entire Spanish settlements and would often try and ransom them back for more pieces of eight.

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