In search of pirates in Panama
‘Oh, don’t worry, we still get our fair share of buccaneers passing through,’ laughs veteran canal pilot Winston Burgos, as he guides the ship towards the great steel gates of the Miraflores Locks. ‘Only nowadays they wear loafers, fly in on corporate jets and instead of parrots on their shoulders, they have yes-men hovering around, carrying their briefcases.’
It’s a 10-hour passage through the canal, and once out of sight of the city it’s a journey straight from the age of steam, up and over the continental divide through a series of locks and across the great silvery expanse of Gatun Lake, with its islands of virgin rainforest, crocodiles sunning themselves on sandbars, brilliant parrots and white-faced capuchin monkeys swinging through the greenery on shore. Then down through the Gatun Locks on the other side and into the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean at Colón.
The canal’s northern gateway is not a city to linger in, least of all with an expensive Nikon around your neck. It’s best to avoid Colón and head west along the coast, to the picturesque clifftop ruins of San Lorenzo – the Spanish fortress at the mouth of the Chagres River that Morgan sacked on his way to Panama City. From there, head back east to get to the heart of the story, in Portobelo, known variously to history as Puerto Bello, Portovelo and (to the English) Portobello.
If you’ve ever read a pirate book and wondered just what they meant by the ‘Spanish Main’, you need look no further. Geographically speaking, the Spanish Main meant the entire continental coastline around the Caribbean, but from the point of view of pirates and swashbuckling fiction it generally meant one of three principal treasure ports, Veracruz in Mexico, Cartagena in Colombia, and Panama’s very own Portobelo.
It was to Portobelo that the treasure from Panama City was brought during the dry season, by heavily guarded mule train along the Camino de Cruces and down the Chagres River, for shipment on to Seville on the mighty galleons of the treasure fleet which called in here once a year.
These same vessels also brought out rich stores of silks and luxury goods for Spain’s expatriate aristocracy. For several weeks each year, while the fleet was in, Portobelo came alive, with the cream of Panama City’s elite making the trip across the isthmus to party and buy nice things. At the same time, tonnes of plundered Incan silver and gold were loaded aboard the Spanish treasure fleet, beneath the watchful gaze of soldiers manning the town’s three massive fortresses, bristling with cannon, that overlooked the bay.
The thought of all that lovely loot made this place the apple of many a pirate’s eye. Long John Silver speaks wistfully of Portobelo in Treasure Island, but Henry Morgan did something about it. Rather than risk a frontal assault from the sea, he borrowed 23 native canoes, long sleek war vessels called pirogues, and crept up the coast towards the unsuspecting town in the dead of night in 1668.
They made landfall a few miles west of town and came in on the road, much to the surprise of the sentries. Before anyone could raise the alarm, Morgan and his men were rampaging through the streets, having taken the seemingly impregnable port with ease. And so began a fortnight of terror, with the entire town held to ransom and an exchange of letters between the haughty privateer, who arrogantly datelined his letters ‘the English town of Portobello’, and the even haughtier governor in Panama City, 60 miles away, who disdained to correspond with a mere corsair, setting the stage for greater things to come.
The scenic coastal road from Colón follows the line of the pirate’s approach, past the crumbling coral walls of Santiago Fort, Portobelo now just a sleepy backwater mouldering in the tropical heat.