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Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama

Morgan's Greatest Raid

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Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama

The Sack of Panama by Henry Morgan

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) was a legendary Welsh privateer who raided Spanish towns and shipping in the 1660's and 1670's. After the successful sacking of Portobello (1668) and a daring raid on Lake Maracaibo (1669) made him a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, Morgan stayed on his farm in Jamaica for a while before Spanish attacks convinced him to once again sail for the Spanish Main. In 1671, he launched his greatest attack: the capture and sacking of the rich city of Panama.

Morgan the Legend

Morgan had made his name raiding Spanish towns in Central America in the 1660's. Morgan was a privateer: a sort of legal pirate who had permission from the English government to attack Spanish ships and ports when England and Spain were at war, which was fairly common during those years. In July of 1668, he gathered some 500 privateers, corsairs, pirates, buccaneers and other assorted seagoing villains and attacked the Spanish town of Portobello. It was a very successful raid, and his men earned large shares of loot. The following year, he once again gathered about 500 pirates and raided the towns of Maracaibo and Gibraltar on Lake Maracaibo in present-day Venezuela. Although not as successful as Portobello in terms of loot, the Maracaibo raid cemented Morgan's legend, as he defeated three Spanish warships on his way out of the lake. By 1669 Morgan had the well-earned reputation of a man who took big risks and offered big rewards for his men.

A Troubled Peace

Unfortunately for Morgan, England and Spain signed a peace treaty around the time he was raiding Lake Maracaibo. Privateering commissions were revoked, and Morgan (who had invested his large share of the loot in land in Jamaica) retired to his plantation. Meanwhile, the Spanish, who were still smarting from Portobello, Maracaibo and other English and French raids, began offering privateering commissions of their own. Soon, raids on English interests began happening frequently in the Caribbean.

Back at Sea

Henry Morgan, by then a legendary hero, was put in charge of the defense of Jamaica and given wide-ranging powers to carry the fight to the Spanish. He soon decided that another massive raid was in order. He sent word out to all English and French buccaneers and corsairs and sailed to Isla Vaca, off the coast of Hispaniola, to wait. Sure enough, when word got out that none other than Captain Morgan was sailing once again for the Spanish Main, hundreds of pirates and corsairs went to Isla Vaca as fast as their ships could carry them.

Target: Panama

The privateers considered several targets including Cartagena and Veracruz but decided on Panama. Sacking Panama would not be easy. The city was on the Pacific side of the isthmus, so the privateers would have to cross in order to attack. The best way to Panama was along the Chagres River for a while, then overland through dense jungle. The first obstacle was the San Lorenzo Fortress at the mouth of the Chagres River.

The San Lorenzo Fortress

Morgan knew that speed was essential: the Spanish were aware of a large buccaneer force massing in the Caribbean and they would send reinforcements to the likely targets. While he waited for men, he sent one of his officers, Colonel Bradley, to defeat the fortress at Chagres. Bradley had 470 men in three ships and they were eager for a fight. His ships did not stand a chance against the fort, so he decided on a land assault. He landed his men and they marched on the castle on January 6, 1671. They were rebuffed by heavy fire from the fort, but eventually managed to get close enough to the castle to lob in firebombs and grenades. The wooden fort had a thatch roof in places and it all caught fire as darkness fell. As the fort burned, many of the defenders crept out and when the privateers attacked again at first light the last defenders were killed and the mighty fort fell. Bradley was among the 100 or so privateers who died in the assault.

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