Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama

Morgan's Greatest Raid

Captain Morgan in Panama

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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.

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, then overland through dense jungle. The first obstacle was the San Lorenzo Fortress at the mouth of the Chagres River.

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 enslaved Black people as well who 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. 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.

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.

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Minster, Christopher. "Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 26). Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Captain Morgan and the Sack of Panama." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).