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Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama

Morgan's Greatest Raid


Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama

The Sack of Panama by Henry Morgan

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

The River

Morgan landed a few days later and hundreds of men repaired the fortress in short order. Morgan left 300 men to garrison the castle until his return. The next part of the journey was to paddle up the river as far as they could and on January 19 he set off with seven small ships and 36 boats and canoes bristling with men and weapons.

The defense of the river approach to Panama had been entrusted to Francisco González Salado, a respected Spanish veteran. He had built four different small forts along the river and had 400 armed men to man them. The idea was to sap the resolve of the invaders by repeatedly engaging them before falling back to the next stockade. González turned out not to be a great choice. He sent all of his men to the first stockade at Barro Colorado and ordered them to engage the enemy. His men, leaderless and in terror of the English and French pirates, simply fled, abandoning each stockade in turn and never once engaging the enemy.

The Battle of Panama

On January 28, 1671, the buccaneers finally arrived at the gates of Panama. The President of Panama, Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán, had wished to fight the invaders along the river, but his men refused, so he organized a last-ditch defense on a plain just outside the city. On paper, the forces looked pretty equal. Pérez had some 1,200 infantry and 400 cavalry, and Morgan had about 1,500 men. Morgan's men had better weapons and much more experience. Still, Don Juan hoped that his cavalry - his only real advantage - might carry the day. He also had some oxen that he planned to stampede towards his enemy.

Morgan attacked early on the morning of the 28th. He captured a small hill which gave him good position on Don Juan's army. The Spanish cavalry attacked, but was easily defeated by French sharpshooters. The Spanish infantry followed in a disorganized charge. Morgan and his officers, seeing the chaos, were able to organize an effective counterattack on the inexperienced Spanish soldiers and the battle shortly turned into a rout. Even the oxen trick didn't work. In the end, 500 Spaniards had fallen to only 15 privateers. It was one of the most one-sided battles in the history of the privateers and pirates.

The Sack of Panama

The buccaneers chased fleeing Spaniards right into Panama. There was fighting in the streets and the retreating Spaniards tried to torch as much of the city as they could. By three o'clock Morgan and his men held the city. They tried to put out the fires, but could not. They were dismayed to see that several ships had managed to flee with the bulk of the city's wealth.

The privateers stayed for about four weeks, digging through the ashes, looking for fugitive Spanish in the hills, and looting the small islands in the bay where many had sent their treasures. When it was tallied, it was not as big a haul as many had hoped for, but there was still quite a bit of plunder and every man received his share. It took 175 mules to carry the treasure back to the Atlantic coast, and there were numerous Spanish prisoners - to be ransomed by their families - and many black slaves as well which could be sold. Many of the common soldiers were disappointed with their shares and blamed Morgan for cheating them. The treasure was divided up on the coast and the privateers went their separate ways after destroying the San Lorenzo fort.

Aftermath of the Sack of Panama

Morgan returned to Jamaica in April, 1671 to a hero's welcome. His men once again filled the whorehouses and saloons of Port Royal. Morgan used his healthy share of the proceeds to buy even more land: he was by now a wealthy landowner in Jamaica.

Back in Europe, Spain was outraged - Spain and England were, after all, at peace, having signed a treaty. Morgan's raid never seriously jeopardized relations between the two nations, but something had to be done. The Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, was recalled to England and made to answer for granting Morgan permission to attack the Spanish. He was never severely punished, however, and eventually was sent back to Jamaica as Chief Justice.

The Spanish demanded that Morgan be punished as well. The famous privateer was summoned to England in April 1672 and spent two years there under a loose sort of house arrest under which he was allowed to come and go as he pleased. His fame had preceded him, and he often visited wealthy, powerful lords as their personal guests and was even consulted on how to improve Jamaica's defenses. He was essentially a popular celebrity during his time in England, and at the end of it, he was found innocent of any wrongdoing and sent back to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor, but not before receiving a knighthood at the hands of King Charles II himself.

Although Morgan returned to Jamaica, he hung up his cutlass and rifle for good and never again led privateering raids. He spent most of his remaining years helping to fortify the defenses of Jamaica and drinking with his old war buddies. He died in 1688 and was given a state funeral.


Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Earle, Peter.The Sack of Panama New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

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