Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Morgan, The Freebooter, and the Raid on Panama

During the seventeenth century the Spanish Main was beset with a horde of freebooters or buccaneers, as they called themselves, to whose fierce attacks the treasure-ships bound for Spain were constantly exposed, and who did not hesitate to assail the strongholds of the Spaniards in quest of plunder. They differed from pirates only in the fact that their operations were confined to Spain and her colonies, no war giving warrant to their atrocities. Most ferocious and most successful among these worthies was Henry Morgan, a man of Welsh birth, who made his name dreaded by his daring and cruelty throughout the New-World realms of Spain. The most famous among the deeds of this rover of the seas was his capture of the city of Panama, which we shall here describe.

On the 24th of October, 1670, there set sail from the island haunts of the freebooters the greatest fleet which these lawless wretches had ever got together. It consisted of thirty-seven ships, small and large, Morgan's flag-ship, of thirty-two guns, being the largest, and flying the English standard. The men had gathered from all the abiding-places of their fraternity, eager to serve under so famous a leader as Morgan, and looking for rich spoil under a man whose rule of conduct was, "Where the Spaniards obstinately defend themselves there is something to take, and their best fortified places are those which contain the most treasure."

Not until they reached the vicinity of the isthmus did Morgan announce to his followers the plan he had conceived, which was to attack the important and opulent city of Panama, in which he expected to find a vast wealth of gold and silver. It was no trifling adventure. This city lay on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama, and could be reached only by a long and toilsome land journey, the route well defended by nature and doubtless by art, while not a man on board the fleet had ever trod the way thither. To supply themselves with a guide the island of St. Catharine, where the Spaniards confined their criminals, was attacked and taken, and three of the convicts were selected for guides, under promise of liberty and reward.

Panama City


Panama was at that time one of the largest and wealthiest cities in America. It contained some seven thousand houses, one-third the number being large and handsome dwellings, many of them strongly built of stone and richly furnished. Walls surrounded the city, which was well prepared for defence. It was the emporium for the precious metals of Peru and Mexico, two thousand mules being kept for the transportation of those rich ores. It was also the seat of a great trade in negro slaves, for the supply of Chili and Peru. The merchants of the place lived in great opulence and the churches were magnificently adorned, the chief among them being a handsome cathedral. Beautiful paintings and other costly works of art ornamented the principal dwellings, and everything concurred to add to the importance and beauty of the place.

A century earlier Sir Francis Drake had led his men near enough to Panama to behold the distant sea from the top of a high tree. But he had con-tented himself with waylaying and plundering a mule-train laden with treasure, and in 1670 it seemed the act of madness for a horde of freebooters to attack the city itself. Yet this was what the daring Morgan designed to do.

The first thing to be done was to capture Fort St. Laurent, a strong place on an almost inaccessible hill, near the banks of the Chagres River. Four ships, with four hundred men, were sent against this fort, which was vigorously defended by its garrison, but was taken at length by the expedient of firing the palisades and buildings of the fort—composed of light wood—by means of burning arrows. The assailants suffered heavily, losing more than half their force, while of the garrison only twenty-four were taken, many of the others having leaped from the walls into the river, preferring death to capture by their ferocious foes. From the prisoners it was learned that the people of Panama were not ignorant of Morgan's purpose, and that the threatened city was defended by more than three thousand men.

As the remainder of the fleet drew near, the freebooters, seeing the English flag flying on the fort, manifested their joy by the depths of their potations, getting so drunk, in fact, that they managed to run four of the ships on the rocks at the mouth of the Chagres, among them the admiral's ship. The crews and cargoes were saved, but the vessels were total wrecks, much to Morgan's chagrin.

At length, on the 18th of January, 1671, the march on Panama actually began, with a force of thirteen hundred picked men, five hundred being left to garrison the fort and one hundred and fifty to seize some Spanish vessels that were in the river. The means of conveyance being limited, and the need of marching light important, a very small supply of provisions was taken, it being expected to find an abundance on the route. But in this the raiders were seriously at fault, the Spaniards fleeing with all their cattle and cutting all the growing grain, so that the buccaneers soon found themselves almost destitute of supplies.

The journey was made in boats up the river as far as practicable, five small vessels carrying the artillery. At the end of the second day most of the men were forced to abandon the boats and prosecute their journey on foot. On the third day they found themselves in a marshy forest, which they traversed with difficulty and reached the town of Cedro Bueno. Here they had hoped to find food, but the place was deserted and not a scrap of provisions left.

The affair was now growing very serious, all their food having been consumed and they left in imminent danger of starvation. Many of them were reduced to eat the leaves of the trees in their extremity. They found themselves also benumbed with cold as they spent the night unsheltered on the chilly river-bank. During the next day their route followed the stream, the canoes being dragged along, or rowed where the water was of sufficient depth. The Spaniards still carried away all food from the country before them, the only things they found being some large sacks of hides. These, in their extremity, were used as food, the leather being scraped, beaten, and soaked in water, after which it was roasted. Even then it could not be swallowed without the aid of copious draughts of water.

Only the courage and determination of the chiefs induced the men to go on under such severe privations. The fifth day's journey ended as badly as the previous ones, the only food found being a little flour, fruit, and wine, so small in quantity that Morgan had it distributed among the weaker members of his troop, some of whom were so faint as to seem on the point of death. For the rest of the men there was nothing to eat but leaves and the grass of the meadows.

The feebler men were now put on board the boats, the stronger continuing to travel by land, but very slowly, frequent rests being needed on account of their great exhaustion. It seemed, indeed, as if the expedition would have to be abandoned, when, to their delirious joy, they found a great supply of maize, which the Spaniards by some oversight had abandoned in a granary. Many of them, in their starving condition, devoured this grain raw. Others roasted it wrapped in banana leaves. The supply was soon exhausted, but for a time it gave new vigor to the famished men.

On the following day all the food they found was a sack of bread and some cats and dogs, all of which were greedily devoured; and farther on, at the town of Cruces, the head of navigation on the Chagres, a number of vessels of wine were discovered. This they hastily drank, with the result that all the drinkers fell ill and fancied they were poisoned. Their illness, however, was merely the natural effect of hasty drinking in their exhausted state, and soon left them.

At this point a number of the men were sent back with the boats to where the ships had been left, the force that continued the march amounting to eleven hundred. With these the journey proceeded, the principal adventure being an attack by a large body of Indians, who opposed the invaders with much valor, only retreating when their chief was killed.

About noon of the ninth day a steep hill was ascended, from whose summit, to their delight, the buccaneers beheld the distant Pacific. But, what gave them much livelier joy was to see, in a valley below them, a great herd of bulls, cows, horses, and asses, under the care of some Spaniards, who took to flight the moment they saw the formidable force of invaders. Only an utter lack of judgment, or the wildness of panic in the Spaniards, could have induced them to leave this prey to their nearly starved foes. It was an oversight which was to prove fatal to then. Then was the time to attack instead of to feed their ruthless enemies.

The freebooters, faint with famine and fatigue, gained new strength at the sight of the welcome herd of food animals. They rushed hastily down and killed a large number of them, devouring the raw flesh with such a fury of hunger that the blood ran in streams from their lips. What could not be eaten was taken away to serve for a future supply. As yet Panama had not been seen, but soon, from a hill-top, they discerned its distant towers. The vision was hailed with the blare of trumpets and shouts of "victory!" and the buccaneers encamped on the spot, resolved to attack the city the next day.

The Spaniards, meanwhile, were not at rest. A troop of fifty horsemen was sent to reconnoitre, and a second detachment occupied the passes, to prevent the escape of the enemy in case of defeat. But the freebooters were not disturbed in their camp, and were allowed a quiet night's rest after their abundant meal of raw flesh.

The next day Morgan led his men against the city, skilfully avoiding the main road, which was defended by batteries, and passing through a thick and pathless wood. Two hours of this flanking march brought them in sight of the Spanish forces, which were very numerous, consisting of four regiments of the line and nearly three thousand other soldiers. They had with them also a great herd of wild bulls under the charge of Indians and negroes, from which much was hoped in the assault.

Morgan and his men were much discouraged by the multitude and military array of their foes, but nothing remained for them but a desperate fight, and, with two hundred of their best marksmen in front, they descended to the broad plain on which the Spaniards awaited them. They had no sooner reached it than the Spanish cavalry charged, while the bulls were driven tumultuously upon them.

This carefully devised assault proved a disastrous failure. The horsemen found themselves in marshy ground, where they were exposed to a hot and well-directed fire, numbers of them falling before they could effect a retreat. The charge of the bulls, on which so much reliance had been placed, proved an equal failure, and with wild shouts the freebooters advanced, firing rapidly and with an accuracy of aim that soon strewed the ground with the dead.

The Spaniards, driven back by this impetuous charge, now turned the bulls against the rear of their enemy. But many of these had been cattle-raisers and knew well how to act against such a foe, driving them off with shouts and the waving of colored flags and killing numbers of them. In the end, after a battle of two hours' duration, the Spaniards, despite their great superiority of numbers, were utterly defeated, a great many being killed on the field and others in the panic of flight.

But the freebooters had lost heavily, and Panama, a city defended by walls and forts, remained to be taken. Morgan knew that success depended on taking instant advantage of the panic of the enemy, and he advanced without delay against the town. It was strongly defended with artillery, but the impetuous assault of the freebooters carried all before it, and after a three hours' fight the city was in their hands.

The scenes that followed were marked by the most atrocious ferocity and vandalism. The city was given up to indiscriminate pillage, attended by outrages of every kind, and in the end was set on fire by Morgan's orders and burned to the ground, much of its great wealth being utterly consumed through the sheer instinct of destruction.

Fortunately for the people of Panama, the majority of them had sought safety in flight, taking their women and all their portable wealth. In pursuit of those that had fled by water Morgan sent out a well-manned ship, which returned after a two days' cruise with three prizes. It also brought back news that a large galleon, deeply laden with treasure in gold and silver and carrying away the principal women of the town, with their jewels, had escaped. It was poorly manned and defended and for days Morgan made strenuous efforts to discover and capture it, but fortunately this rich prize eluded his grasp.

For three weeks the freebooters occupied the site of the burned city, many of them engaged in searching the ruins for gold and silver, while some, who were discontented with the acts of their leader, conspired to seize the largest ship in the harbor and start on a piratical cruise of their own down the Pacific. This coming to Morgan's ears on the eve of its execution, he defeated it by causing the main-mast of the ship to be cut down, and afterwards by setting fire to all the ships in the harbor.

The return of the freebooters had its items of interest. The booty, consisting of gold, silver, and jewels, was laden on a large number of animals, beside which disconsolately walked six hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, Morgan re-fusing them their liberty except on payment of a ransom which they could not procure. Some of them succeeded in obtaining the ransom on the march, but the majority were taken to Chagres. From there they were sent in a ship to Porto Bello, a neighboring coast town, Morgan threatening that place with destruction unless a heavy ransom was sent him. The inhabitants sent word back that not a half-penny would be paid, and that he might do what he pleased. What he pleased to do was to carry out his threat of destroying the town.

The final outcome of this frightful raid remains to be told. It demonstrated that Morgan was as faithless to his companions as he was ferocious to his victims. On their way back from Panama he ordered that every man should he searched and every article they had secreted be added to the general store. To induce them to consent he offered himself to be searched first. In the final division, however, of the spoil, which was valued at four hundred and forty-three thousand two hundred pounds weight of silver, he played the part of a traitor, many of the most precious articles disappearing from the store and the bulk of the precious stones especially being added by Morgan to his share.

This and other acts of the leader created such a hostile feeling among the men that a mutiny was imminent, to avoid which Morgan secretly set sail with his own and three other vessels, whose commanders had shared with him in the unequal division of the spoil. The fury of the remaining freebooters, on finding that they had been abandoned, was extreme, and they determined to pursue and attack Morgan and his confederates, but lack of provisions prevented them from carrying this into effect.

Meanwhile, events were taking place not much to the comfort of the freebooting fraternity. An English ship-of-the-line arrived at Jamaica with orders to bring home the governor to answer for the protection he had given "these bloodthirsty and plundering rascals," while the governor who succeeded him issued the severest orders against any future operations of the freebooters.

From this time Morgan withdrew from his career of robbery, content to enjoy the wealth which he had so cruelly and treacherously obtained. He settled in Jamaica, where he was permitted to enjoy in security his ill-gotten wealth. In fact, the British government showed its real sentiment concerning his career by promoting him to high offices and giving him the honor of knighthood. As a result this faithless and cruel pirate bore during the remainder of his life the distinction of being addressed as Sir Henry Morgan.