Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (7)


Portobello was a town on the coast of Panamá which derived its importance from the great treasure fleets that sailed from America to Spain. The source of the treasure was the mines on the Pacific side, the west coast, of the country. The isthmus of Panamá was the shortest route from the west to the east. The produce of the mines was brought to Panamá on  the west coast then transported to Portobello on the east coast to be loaded onto the ships to face the long dangerous journey to Europe. But these sailings of the treasure fleet had become more and more infequent. They were now held only once every two years. At that moment Panamá and Portobello were like something out of a fairy tale with a vast temporary population surrounded by the signs of unimaginable wealth. Otherwise they were both rather depressing places situated in an area notorious for disease. Peter Earle describes Portobello as 'a stinking, half-empty fever hole' which, however, because of its importance at the times of the fleet, was, or at least was reputed to be, well fortified.

Morgan had been joined in the attack on Puerto de Principe by some French buccaneers but they were not interested in Portobello. Morgan claimed it was because of the danger and difficulty but they probably also knew that the pickings were not likely to be great. Earle suggests that Morgan had information from an Indian who came from Portobello that the place was not so well defended. He also had an interest that went beyond the mere question of the spoil. Portobello was a symbol of Spanish pride. Any attack on it would be a serious blow to the recently established peace.

Exquemelin gives a very dramatic account of the actual seizure of Portobello but it should probably be read in the light of Peter Earle's version based on research in the Spanish archives. Exquemelin says Morgan put soldiers and officers  into a single room then blew it up with gunpowder, but this does not appear in Earle's account; that the governor in one of the two forts overlooking the port put up a desperate fight and eventually Morgan used religious men and women to set the siege ladders, forcing the defenders to fire on them - the Spanish account has a little group of citizens including friars and nuns being used as human shields while the English approached the main door with axes and fire.

The castle of Santiago, very badly situated on a slope so that the attackers could overlook the defenders, fell easily while the stronger castle of San Phelipe was betrayed after a short period by its own castellan. The Spanish accounts do not repeat Exquemelin's accounts of torture but Earle does not think that is a reason for disbelieving them. He adds another one, not given in Exquemelin, from a ship-owner in Cartagena who was outraged when he heard Morgan's claim that 'severall ladies of great quality' had assured him that they 'were sure now  to be prisoners to a person of quality, who was more tender of their honours and reputation than they doubted to find in the President's camp among his rude Panamá soldiers.' The ship owner, in Jamaica, said 'that the English killed the daughter of Castellan Tejada as she was weeping beside her father's corpse and that they tortured the leading lady of Portobello, Dona Agustina de Rojas, in the most terrible way. She was stripped and placed in an empty wine-barrel  which was then filled with gunpowder. The grinning privateers then held a lighted slow match to her face and asked her if she could still not remember where she had hidden her treasure.'

Exquemelin goes on to tell the story of an attempt by the President of Panamá to rescue Portobello. It was the President of the Audiencia of Panamá, Don Juan Perez de Guzmán, who had recaptured Providence Island - and the pirates' zeal was fired when they came across prisoners from Providence Island who had been kept in appalling conditions. But de Guzmán had fallen foul of the new Viceroy of Peru and was now in prison himself. He had been replaced by the young Don Agustin de Bracamonte. Exquemelin gives a rather absurd exchange of courtesies between Morgan and the President but this seems to be based on a rather more interesting exchange in which Morgan wrote:

'If you do not come very soon, we will with the favour of God and our arms, come and visit you in Panamá. Now, it is our intention to garrison the castles and keep them for the king of England, my master, who, since he had a mind to seize them, has also a mind to keep them. And since I do not believe that you have sufficient men to fight with me tomorrow, I will order all the poor prisoners to be freed so that they may go to help you.'

It was signed from 'Portobello, City of the King of England' which, in the light of a recent treaty of peace signed with the King of England, can only be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to extend a daring pirate raid among many other daring pirate raids into a renewal of the state of war.

Morgan's information was right and Bracamonte knew that he did not have enough men to take Portobello back again. One pleasing detail in this unpleasant story has a little group of his soldiers smuggling themselves into the town in order to recover statues of the Virgin which they knew were liable to be abused by the English.

Morgan threatened to torch the city unless a ransom was paid, possibly another of his innovations. He initially demanded 350,000 pesos in silver but eventually settled for 100,000. It was this, not what he found in Portobello, that enabled him to count the expedition a financial success. He was in Portobello for fifteen days 'in which space of time', Exquemelin says, 'they had lost many of their men, both by the unhealthiness of the country and the extravagant debauch they had committed.' Morgan had a notion of marching out of Portobello, slicing through Bracamonte's army and descending on Panamá itself. Perhaps that would not have been a good idea but it was rendered unthinkable by the rate at which his men were dying of fever. They brought the fever back with them to Jamaica and Modyford's wife, among others, died of it.


On his return to Jamaica Morgan gave Modyford an account of what had happened which the governor passed on to his relative and ally in the court, General Monck, now the Duke of Albemarle, the Cromwellian general who had been chiefly responsible for the decision to restore the monarchy. As Earle comments: 'The handful of citizens of Portobello who stood up to Morgan's men would have been amazed to learn that there were nine hundred men in the town who bore arms - almost as amazed as Bracamonte would have been to discover that he had marched to that city's relief with an army of three thousand men.' He also passed on signed testimonials obtained under torture that the Spanish had been planning an attack on Jamaica.

The rape of Portobello had, as Morgan probably intended it should, a huge political impact. It was immensely popular among a British public demoralised by ten years of fire, plague and defeat at the hands of the Dutch, and uneasy at the peace with Spain, the hereditary enemy, at the change of mood since the more glorious days of the Commonwealth and suspicious of the possibility of papist influence in court. It looked like a glorious English victory and the court was not above taking advantage of it. They assumed a high tone, insisting that the peace treaty did not cover the West Indies where the Spanish refused to recognise English possessions and had only recently invaded Providence Island and had the clear intention, as proved by the depositions obtained by Morgan, to invade Jamaica.

The Spanish protested but clearly lacked the means to do anything about it. They had certainly had no intention of attacking Jamaica - they had no fleet in the area capable of either aggressive or defensive action on any large scale and they had no money to pay for such a fleet. The best they could do was a rather pathetic attempt to imitate the English method of encouraging privateers. In April 1669, the Queen Regent (Philip IV had died in 1665 and the King was the eight year old Charles II) wrote to the colonial governors:

'I have resolved to give you notice that, on receipt of this letter, the vassals of the King my son can ... proceed against the English in the Indies with every sort of hostility, keeping as good prize all ships belonging to the subjects of the King of England which they can capture on those coasts and invading and occupying whatsoever island, town or place that the English have occupied or fortified in the Indies.'