In search of pirates in Panama
Although Morgan did a first-class job of wrecking the place, he wasn’t the one to put Portobelo out of business; that distinction went to a buccaneering English naval hero named Edward Vernon – also known as Old Grog – who captured the town in 1739 after a hearty bombardment in the now-little-remembered War of Jenkins’ Ear – so called because a Spanish sea captain severed an ear off a British sailor named Jenkins, thereby incurring the wrath of the Royal Navy.
It was a popular war and in celebration of Vernon’s triumph, the name ‘Portobello’ began popping up on maps in every British part of the world, starting with Portobello Road in London.
The Spanish retook the town, and later gave Vernon a thorough drubbing in the waters off Cartagena, but Portobelo’s days as a treasure port were done. Weary of being targets for every pirate in the Caribbean, Spain decided from then on to ship its New World plunder the long way around, via Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. Portobelo went into a long and terminal decline.
Nothing could be drowsier than Portobelo on a hot, sultry Sunday morning here in the early years of the 21st century, with the murmurings of the litany drifting across the square from the open doors of the town’s old colonial church, and a brace of vultures perched outside, gazing down lugubriously as though listening to the Mass and contemplating past sins.
It seemed a pity to have travelled to one of the gaudiest treasure ports along the old Spanish Main and to not at least have a crack at seeing some gold doubloons, especially since rumours abound of beachcombers here occasionally finding delicious bits of treasure washed up on the sands after a storm. A few discreet questions here and there, a couple of dollars slipped to a shady character selling coconuts beside the bus stop, and then a boy is summoned to take us around to a house tucked away in Portobelo’s ramshackle backstreets, where the raffish accordion strains of vallenato music replace the murmurings of the Nicene Creed.
Here, for a few dollars more, a man who gives his name as Octavio agrees to show us a few of the things he’s found. But these turn out to be not much more than cannonballs mainly, a few badly eroded pieces of eight and an early 19th-century American half-dime. No gold, other than Octavio’s piratical smile, only disingenuous shrugs and vague references to friends of friends who make such finds. The ‘good stuff’, it seems, if it exists outside of myth, isn’t shown to the merely curious.
Then again not even Morgan, with all his powers of persuasion, got to see everything. Back on the Pacific side of the isthmus, in Panama City’s old colonial quarter, I find myself in the incensesweetened nave of St Joseph’s church, whose magnificent altar of gilded mahogany survived the pirate siege by being daubed in mud to look as though it had already been stripped of its gold.
In what must have been as fine a piece of acting as any this side of an Oscar, the priest at the time not only convinced Morgan there was nothing left to steal in his church, but, local lore has it, even sweet-talked the hardened buccaneer into donating a bit of gold for its refurbishment. This same legend has a bemused and sceptical Morgan handing over his donation with the words: ‘I have a feeling you’re more of a pirate that I am.’
Perhaps he was. They were all pirates in those days. After all, Panama itself was built on cutlass and plunder.