On July 10, 1668, the legendary privateer captain Henry Morgan and a small army of corsairs and buccaneers attacked, overwhelmed and captured the city of Portobello in present-day Panama. They held the city for weeks until the governor of Panama agreed to pay a hefty ransom. Morgan was hailed as a hero in Jamaica and England. It led to renewed Spanish attacks on English ships and ports in the Caribbean, which in turn led to Morgan's sacking of Panama.
Captain Morgan, Legendary Privateer
Henry Morgan(1635-1688) was a Welshman who came the Caribbean in the late 1650's. He was an able seaman and leader who quickly found work on privateer vessels (a privateer was essentially a "legitimate" pirate, who was operating under orders from a nation and selectively attacking enemy shipping). He earned a name for himself in the 1660's by attacking and sacking several towns along the coast of Central America. He was very successful and by 1667 Governor of Jamaica Thomas Modyford charged him with capturing some Spanish prisoners who could inform them about a rumored Spanish attack on Jamaica. Morgan, along with 500 fellow privateers and buccaneers and some French allies, captured Puerto Principe (Cuba), taking several prisoners. Morgan and his captains decided that while they were at sea in force, they should capture another city. It was decided to attack Portobello.
Portobello was a sleepy little town on the so-called "Spanish Main," which referred to the northeastern part of South America and Panama. Usually there were very few people there, as the primary purpose of the town was to serve as a shipping point for Spanish gold from Peru. Every year or two, gold, silver and other treasures would be sent down from Peru to the west coast of South America, where it was sent to Panama City. Then it was carried by mules overland to Portobello, where it was loaded onto a massive, heavily armed treasure fleet to be shipped back to Spain. During these times, Portobello was bustling, but otherwise it was a dull place with only a couple hundred regular inhabitants.
The Defenses of Portobello
In spite of the fact that it was a dull backwater most of the time, Portobello had decent defenses on account of the presence of great treasure once every year or two. There were three castles to contend with. At the entrance to the Bay stood the castle of San Felipe, with 12 cannons and a garrison of 100 men. On one side of Portobello Harbor was Santaigo Castle, with 200 men and 32 guns covering the harbor and the road into the city. On the other side of the harbor was the unfinished fortress of San Gerónimo. These fortifications would be manned even though the treasure fleet was not expected for another year or so.
Such were the defenses on paper, anyway. Because of the castles, the people of Portobello had known years of peace and were not ready for an attack in July of 1668. The castles were seriously undermanned: there were 50 men out of 100 in San Felipe, 75 men out of 200 in Santiago, and only eight in the unfinished castle of San Gerónimo. There were a few soldiers in town as well on the night of July 10, where many of them would spend the night. Although the soldiers had good small arms including pistols and muskets, the cannons in the castles were in bad repair and there was a shortage of grenades. There were also insufficient gunners to man the cannons if needed.
Morgan Moves Into Position
Morgan knew the city was unsuspecting, but did not know the castles were so undermanned. He decided on a land assault. He took his fleet down the coast and unloaded his men - some 500 in all - using long canoes he had brought along for that purpose. The men paddled the canoes for four days, sneaking past the fortress of San Lorenzo at night. One ship remained with them, a little further out to sea. This escort ship was eventually spotted by the Spanish, but caused no alarm: what damage could one ship do? The buccaneers made a fortuitous capture as well: a local fisherman who was pressured into guiding them. On the night of July 10, they were at Orange Island, ready to begin the assault.