In search of pirates in Panama
The pirates struck at dawn, on 28 January 1671, emerging from the jungle and swiftly overwhelming the town’s outnumbered defenders. A month-long orgy of fire, torture and pillage followed before finally, like sated locusts, the pirate hordes left, carrying their booty back down the trail to where their fleet waited on the Caribbean shore, leaving Panama City’s dazed citizenry to wander amongst the ruins of what had once been their homes.
Even if the haul wasn’t all the pirates could have hoped for, their audacious attack sent shock waves throughout the Spanish Empire, and also reddened a few faces in London, where a peace treaty had recently been signed with Spain in which England had specifically promised to keep the likes of Morgan on a short leash. And in the best of tabloid tradition, the raid also spawned a reality best-seller.
One of Morgan’s men, a French pirate named Alexandre Exquemelin, penned a lively account of the sacking in his book The Buccaneers of America, with plenty of racy stuff in it about how naked Spanish contessas were slow-roasted over coals to help them remember where they’d hidden their jewellery. The book was a runaway success in multiple languages and many editions, and is still in print today.
Morgan himself, no doubt with an eye to posterity and to his by-then-veryskittish political backers in London, adopted a more elegiac tone in his own version of events: ‘Thus was consumed the famous and ancient city of Panama, the greatest mart for silver and gold in the whole world…’
A lot of rainy seasons have come and gone over the old Camino de Cruces since Morgan passed this way. While the jungle remains as sinister as ever, now it’s part of the Soberanía National Park, a vast wilderness better known for plumage than plunder, with a world record 525 species of bird having been recorded in a single day. And where Morgan and his men camped in a misery of mud and mosquitoes where the trail met the Chagres River, modern hikers are within musket range of a five-star eco resort or an easy half-hour’s drive back to the boutique hotels, cafés and jazz bars in the Casco Viejo, Panama City’s fashionably crumbly colonial quarter – where they still won’t serve Captain Morgan rum.
But nowhere are the changes more apparent than along the Chagres River itself, dammed in 1913 to form Gatun Lake, as part of the Panama Canal project. At 164 square miles, the lake was the world’s largest man-made body of water when it was created. Much of the route Morgan followed is now submerged; to tread the pirate trail through modern Panama, you need to transit the canal.
More than a million ships have passed through the world’s most flamboyant shortcut since it opened in 1914, and waiting to add to that tally on this thundery morning is a sightseeing vessel called the Pacific Queen, its decks bright with tourists in souvenir Panama hats, snapping photos and gazing across the water at the shimmering glass-and-steel skyline of Panama City, which looks more like Singapore or Miami than the steamy adventure port of popular imagination. So many new office towers are sprouting up that local wags have taken to joking it’s the construction crane, not the harpy eagle, that ought to be Panama’s national bird.
It all seems a long way from the bad old buccaneering days – a long way even from the hard-boiled years of the military dictator Manuel Noriega and his drug-thug cronies, and the 1989 US invasion that booted them from power. Once practically a by-word for glamorous danger, Panama City has blossomed into one of Latin America’s most cosmopolitan cities, a glitzy banking capital and a honeypot for real estate tycoons, property developers and well-heeled North American retirees looking for tropical sunshine, an expatriate lifestyle and a safe place to berth their yachts away from the hurricanes that beset the usual run of Caribbean tax havens.