In search of pirates in Panama
The metropolis of Panama City rises across the bay from Casco Viejo. (Mark Read)
It’s kind of spooky in the jungle, sweaty and dank, with deep growls of thunder adding a theatrical touch of menace to a shadowy old mule path. Howler monkeys are hooting in the treetops and brightly coloured parrots flit through the branches above, restive ahead of the downpour the whole rainforest knows is brewing. Down at bootlace level, a young fer-de-lance slithers over a knot of tree roots and conceals its deadly self beneath a mass of rotting leaves.
Somewhere above the forest canopy the thunderheads shift and for a brief moment a shaft of sunlight filters down through the tangle of vines and creepers, casting an antique silver glow on the path’s mouldy cobbles. Framed by palm fronds and the trunk of a gigantic cuipo tree, the scene could be an engraving in an old, old book. All you’d need is for one of those grand turn-of-the-century illustrators such as Howard Pyle or NC Wyeth to paint in a few of their trademark pirates or some haughty conquistadors in peaked helmets and shiny cuirasses, and you’d have yourself a swell cover illustration for a Boy’s Own tale of snakes, jungles and lost Incan treasure.
And well you might. After all, this is the real deal: a seven-mile stretch of the old Camino de Cruces, the legendary Spanish treasure trail across the Isthmus of Panama, and a setting for one of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most swashbuckling tales: the sack of Panama City by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.
Morgan had told them all he was going to do it, but no-one had believed him. It didn’t seem possible for even the toughest pirate captain to lead his band of cutthroats through seventy miles of pestilential jungle and launch a successful attack on one of Spain’s wealthiest New World treasure ports.
But then Panama’s colonial governor had to go and make it personal. After Morgan sacked Portobelo in 1668, the captain sent a note across to His Excellency the governor demanding a ransom of 340,000 pesos for the town and its citizens, or he would burn the place to the ground. The aristocratic Spaniard responded with chilly disdain, saying that he was unaccustomed to corresponding with ‘inferior persons’ and dismissing Morgan as a mere ‘corsair’. In other words, he called the Welshman a pirate.
People didn’t say that to Henry Morgan. Captain Morgan preferred the term ‘privateer’, an important step up the social ladder from a common pirate. Privateers were sea captains who carried Letters of Marque, signed by royal decree, which authorised them to harass His Majesty’s enemies abroad – a kind of 17th-century licence to kill.
His Excellency eventually coughed up the ransom money for Portobelo but Morgan wasn’t a man to forget a slight. In 1671 the touchy privateer made good his threat, assembling an armada of 38 ships off the pirate island of Hispaniola and recruiting more than 2,000 ruthless buccaneers to the cause – English, French, Dutch, virtually every pirate in the Caribbean. Their destination was the rich mainland coast of Spain’s empire in the Americas. Wreaking a trail of havoc along the way, the pirates sacked the fortress at San Lorenzo, on Panama’s Caribbean coast.
From there they turned inland, up the Chagres River and along this cobbled old jungle path to where Panama City lay waiting, in splendid isolation, aloof on the Pacific side. Every year, fabulous Incan treasures would arrive at this port – tonnes of gold and precious stones from Peru, silver from the fabled mines at Potosí – where they were stockpiled before being shipped on to Spain. Here was a prize well worth the taking, or at least it would have been if the governor had not been tipped off that the pirates were on their way.
As it was, most of the good stuff was packed onto galleons, to be hidden away in the Islas de las Perlas, a jewel-like archipelago of 220 tropical islands, 30 miles out in Panama Bay, where Panama City’s wealthiest citizens – those who could afford the panic-rates being charged to get out there – took refuge themselves.