Capture of Porto Bello

Capt. Morgan always communicated vigor with his words, and infused such spirits into his men as were able to put every one of them instantly upon new designs; they being all persuaded by his reasons, that the sole execution of his orders would be a certain means of obtaining great riches.  This persuasion had such influence upon their minds, that with inimitable courage they all resolved to follow him.  The same likewise did a certain pirate of Campeche, who on this occasion joined with Capt. Morgan, to seek new fortunes under his conduct, and greater advantages than he had found before.  Thus Captain Morgan in a few days gathered a fleet of nine sail, between ships and great boats, wherein he had four hundred and three-score military men.

After that all things were in a good posture of readiness, they put forth to sea, Capt. Morgan importing the design he had in his mind to nobody for that present.  He only told them on several occasions, that he held as indubitable he should make a good fortune by that voyage, if strange occurrences altered not the course of his designs.  They directed their course towards the continent, where they arrived in a few days upon the coast of Costa Rica, with all their fleet entire.  No sooner had they discovered land than Capt. Morgan declared his intentions to the Captains, and presently after to all the rest of the company.  He told them he intended in that expedition to plunder Porto Bello, and that he would perform it by night, being resolved to put the whole city to the sack, not the lest corner escaping his diligence.  Moreover, to encourage them he added:  This enterprise could not fail to succeed well, seeing he had kept it secret in his mind without revealing it to anybody; whereby they could not have notice of his coming.  To this proposition some made answer:  They had not a sufficient number of men wherewith to assault so strong and great a city.  But Captain Morgan replied:   If our number is small our hearts are great.  And the fewer persons we are the more union, and better shares we shall have in the spoil.  Hereupon, being stimulated with the ambition of those vast riches they stimulated with the ambition of those vast riches, they promised themselves from their good success, they unanimously concluded to venture upon that design.  But, now, to the intent my reader may better comprehend the incomparable boldness of this exploit, it may be necessary to say something beforehand of the city of Porto Bello.

The city which bears this name in America is seated in the Province of Costa Rica [The name generally applied to the Caribbean coast at that time from Cape Gracias Dios to the Chagres River - Editor], under the latitude of ten degrees North, at the distance of fourteen leagues from the Gulf of Darien, and eight westwards from the port called Nombre de Dios.  It is judged to be the strongest place that the King of Spain possesses in all of the West Indies, excepting two, that is to say, Havana and Cartagena.  Here are two castles, almost inexpugnable, that defend the city, being situated at the entry of the port; so that no ship or boat can pass without permission.  The garrison consists of three hundred soldiers, and the town constantly inhabited by four hundred families, more or less.  The merchants dwell not here, but only reside for awhile, when the galleons come or go from Spain; by reason of the unhealthiness of the air, occasioned by certain vapours, that exhale from the mountains. Notwithstanding, 

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Portobello Today

their chief warehouses are at Porto Bello, howbeit their habitations be all the year long at Panama, whence they bring the plate upon mules at such times as the fair begins and when the ships, belong to the Company of Negroes, arrive to sell slaves.

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Portobello Slave Pen - Now A Cemetery (1970)

Arrival of the Buccaneers.

Capt. Morgan, who knew very well all the avenues of this city, as also all the neighboring coasts arrived in the dusk of the evening at the place called Puerto de Naos, distant ten leagues toward the west of Porto Bello.  Being come to this place, they mounted the river in their ships, as far as another harbour called Puerto Pontin; where they came to an anchor.  Here they put themselves immediately into boats and canoes, leaving only a few men to keep them and conduct them the next day to the port.  About midnight they came to a certain place called Estera longa Lemos, where they all went on shore, and marched by land to the first posts of the city.  They had in their company a certain Englishman, who had been formerly a prisoner in those parts, and who now served them for a guide.  To him, and three of four more, they gave commission to take the sentry, if possible, or kill him upon the place.  But they laid hands on him and apprehended him with such cunning, that he had not time to give warning with his musket, or make any other noise.  Thus they brought him, with his hands bound, to Captain Morgan, who asked him:  How things went in the city, and what forces they had: with many other circumstances, which he was desirous to know.  After every question, they made him a thousand menaces to kill him, in case he declared not the truth.   Thus, they began to advance towards the city, carrying always the said sentry bound before them.  Having marched about one-quarter of a league, they came to the castle that is near the city, which presently they surrounded, so that no person could get either in or out of the said fortress.

Being thus posted under the walls of the castle, Capt. Morgan commanded the sentry whom they had taken prisoner, to speak to those that were within, charging them to surrender, and give themselves up to his discretion; otherwise they should be all cut to pieces without giving quarter to any one.   But they would hearken to none of these threats, beginning instantly to fire; which gave notice to the city and this was suddenly alarmed.  Yet, notwithstanding, although the Governor and soldiers of the said castle made as great resistance as could be performed, they were constrained to surrender to the Pirates.  These no sooner had taken the castle, then they resolved to be as good as their words, in putting the Spaniards to the sword, thereby to strike a terror into the rest of the city.  Hereupon, having shut up all the soldiers and officers as prisoners into one room, they instantly set fire to the powder (whereof they found great quantity), and blew up the whole castle into the air, with all the Spaniards that were within.  This being done, they pursued the course of their victory, falling upon the city, which as yet was not in order to receive them.  Many of the inhabitants cast their precious jewels and moneys into wells and cisterns, or hid them in other places underground, to excuse, as much as were possible, their being totally robbed.  One party of the Pirates, being assigned to this purpose, ran immediately to the cloisters,and took as many religious men and women, as they could find.  The Governor of the city not being able to rally the citizens, through the huge confusion of the town retired to one of the castles remaining, and thence began to fire incessantly at the Pirates.   But these were not in the least negligent either imaginable.  Thus, it was observable that, amidst the horror of the assault, they made very few shots in vain.   For Spaniards were certain to lose one or two men every time they charged each gun anew.

Assault on the Castle.

The assault of this castle where the Governor was, continued very furious on both sides, from break of day until noon.  Yea, about this time of the day the case was very dubious which party should conquer or be conquered.  At last the Pirates, perceiving they had lost many men and as yet advanced but little towards the gaining either this, or the other castles remaining, thought to make use of fireballs, which they threw with their hands, designing, if possible, to burn the doors of the castle.  But going about to put this into execution, the Spaniards from the wall let fall great quantities of stones and earthen pots full of powder and other combustible matter, which forced them to desist from that attempt.  Capt. Morgan seeing this generous defence made by the Spaniards, began to despair of the whole success of the enterprise.   Hereupon, many faint and calm mediations came into his mind; neither could he determine which way to turn himself in that straitness of affairs.  Being involved in these thoughts, he was suddenly animated to continue the assault by seeing the English colours put forth at one of the lesser castles, then entered by his men, of whom he presently after spied a troop that came to him, proclaiming victory with loud shouts of joy.  This instantly put him upon new resolutions of making new efforts to take the rest of the castles that stood out against him; especially seeing the chief citizens were fled to them, and had conveyed thither great part of their riches, with all the plate belonging to the churches, and other things dedicated to divine service.

To this effect, therefore, he ordered ten or twelve ladders to be made in all possible haste, so broad that three or four men at once might ascend by them.  These being finished, he commanded all the religious men and women whom he had taken prisoners to fix them against the walls of the castle.  This much he had beforehand threatened the Governor to perform, in case he delivered not the castle.  But his answers was: He would never surrender himself alive.  Capt. Morgan was much persuaded that the Governor would not employ his utmost forces, seeing religious women and ecclesiastical persons, exposed in the front of the soldiers to the greatest dangers.  Thus, the ladders, as I have said, were put into the hands of religious persons of both sexes; and these were forced, at the head of the companies, to raise and apply them to the walls.   But Capt. Morgan was fully deceived in his judgment of this design.  For the Governor, who acted like a brave and courageous soldier, refused not, in performance of his duty, to use his utmost endeavours to destroy whoever came near the walls.  The religious men and women ceased not to cry to him and to beg of him by all the Saints of Heaven that he would deliver the castle, and hereby spare both his and their own lives.   But nothing could prevail with the obstinacy and fierceness that had possessed the Governor's mind.  Thus many of the religious men and nuns were killed before they could fix the ladders.  Which at last being done, though with great loss of the said religious people, the Pirates mounted them in great numbers, and with no less valour; having fireballs in their hands, and earthen pots full of powder.  All which things, being now at the top of the walls, they kindled and cast in among the Spaniards.

Refused Quarter Despite Wife's Tears.

This effort of the Pirates was very great; insomuch as the Spaniards could no longer resist nor defend the castle, which was now entered.  Hereupon they all threw down their arms, and craved quarter for their lives.  Only the Governor of the city would admit or crave no mercy; but rather killed many of the Pirates with his own hands, and not a few of his own soldiers, because they did not stand to their arms.  And although the Pirates asked him if he would have quarter, yet he constantly answered:  By no means:  I had rather die a valiant soldier than be hanged as a coward.   They endeavoured, as much as they could, to take him prisoner.  But he defended himself so obstinately that they were forced to kill him; notwithstanding all the cries and tears of his own wife and daughter, who begged of him upon their knees he would demand quarter and save his life.  When the Pirates had possessed themselves of the castle, which was about night, they enclosed therein all the prisoners they had taken, placing the women and mean by themselves, with some guards upon them.  All the wounded were put into a certain apartment by itself, to the intent their own complaints might be the cure of their own diseases; for no other was afforded them.

This being done, they fell to eating and drinking after their usual manner; that is to say, committing in both these things all manner of debauchery and excess.  After such manner they delivered themselves up to all sort of debauchery, that if there had been found only fifty courageous men, they might easily have retaken the city, and killed all the Pirates.  The next day, having plundered all they could find, they began to examine some of the prisoners (who had been persuaded by their companions to say they were richest of the town), charging them severely to discover where they had hidden their riches and goods.  But not being able to extort anything out of them, as they were not the right persons who possessed any wealth, they at last resolved to torture them.   This they performed with such cruelty that many of them died upon the rack, or presently after.  Soon after, the President of Panama had news brought him of the pillage and ruin of Porto Bello.  This intelligence caused him to employ all his care and industry to raise forces, with design to pursue and cast out the Pirates thence.   But these cared little for what extraordinary means the President used, as having their ships near at hand, and being determined to set fire to the city, and retreat.   They had now been at Porto Bello fifteen days, in which space of time they had lost many of their men, both by the unhealthiness of the country and the extravagant debaucheries they had committed.

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Portobello - Ruins of Customs House (1970)

Ransom Placed on Prisoners.

Hereupon they prepared for a departure, carrying on board their ships all the pillage they had got.  But, before all they provided the fleet with sufficient victuals for the voyage.  While these things were getting ready, Captain Morgan sent an injunction to the prisoners that they should pay him a ransom for the city, or else he would by fire consume it to ashes, and blow up all the castles into the air.  Withal, he commanded them to send speedily two persons to seek and procure the sum he demanded, which amounted to one hundred thousand pieces of eight.  To this effect, two men were sent to the President of Panama, who gave him an account of all these tragedies.  The President having now a body of men in readiness, set forth immediately towards Porto Bello to encounter the Pirates before their retreat.  But these people, hearing of his coming, instead of flying away, went out to meet him at a narrow passage through which of necessity he must pass.  Here they placed an hundred men very well armed; who, at the first encounter, put to flight a good party of those of Panama.  This accident obliged the President to retire for that time, as not being yet in a posture of strength to proceed any father.  Presently after this encounter he sent a message to Capt. Morgan to tell him:  That in case he departed not suddenly with all his forces from Porto Bello, he ought to expect no quarter for himself nor his companions, when he should take them, as he hoped soon to do.  Captain Morgan who feared not his threats, knowing he had a secure retreat in his ships which were near at hand, made him answer:  He would not deliver the castles, before he had received the contribution money he demanded.  Which in case it were not paid down, he would certainly burn the whole city, and then leave it; demolishing beforehand the castles, and killing the prisoners.

Morgan's Threat Against Old Panama.

The Governor of Panama perceived by this answer that no means would serve to mollify the hearts of the Pirates, nor reduce them to reason.  Hereupon he determined to leave them; as also those of the city, whom he came to relieve, involved in the difficulties of making the best agreement they could with their enemies.  Thus, in few days more, the miserable citizens gathered the contribution wherein they were fined, and brought the entire sum of one hundred thousand pieces of eight to the Pirates, for a ransom of the cruel captivity they were fallen into.  But the President of Panama, by these transactions, was brought into an extreme admiration, considering that four hundred men had been able to take such a great city, with so many strong castles; especially seeing that they had no pieces of cannon, nor other great guns, wherewith to raise batteries against them.  And what was more, knowing that the citizens of Porto Bello had always great repute of being good soldiers themselves, and who had never wanted courage in their own defence.  This astonishment was so great, that it occasioned him, for to be satisfied herein, to send a messenger to Capt. Morgan, desiring him to send him some small pattern of those arms wherewith he had taken with such violence so great a city.  Capt. Morgan received this messenger very kindly, and treated him with civility.  Which being done, he gave him a pistol and a few small bullets of lead, to carry back to the President, his Master, telling him withal:  He desired him to accept that slender pattern of the arms wherewith he had taken Porto Bello, and keep them for a twelve month; after which time he promised to come to Panama and fetch them away.   The Governor of Panama returned the present very soon to Capt. Morgan giving him thanks for the favour of lending him such weapons as he needed not, and withal sent him a ring of gold with this message:  That he desired him not to give himself the labour of coming to Panama as he had done to Porto Bello; for he did not certify to him, he should not speed so well here as he had done there.

Departure of the Pirates.

After these transactions, Capt. Morgan (having provided his fleet with all necessaries, and taken with him the best guns of the castles, nailing the rest which he could not carry away) set sail from Porto Bello with all his ships.  With these he arrived in a few days at the Island of Cuba, where he sought out a place wherein with all quiet and repose he might make the dividend of the spoil they had got.  They found in ready money two hundred and fifty thousand pieces of eight [The coin "piece of eight" had the value of eight Spanish reals.  Equivalent to 40 cents gold. - Editor], besides all other merchandizes, as cloth, linen, silks, and other goods.  With this rich booty they sailed again thence to their common place of rendezvous, Jamaica.   Being arrived, they passed here some time in all sorts of vices and debauchery, according to their common manner of doing, spending with huge prodigality with others had gained with no small labour and toil.

Excerpt from an account by John Esquemeling, 1678

From:  Canal Zone Pilot (Guide To the Republic of Panama and Classified Business Directory).  Edited by William C. Haskins.  Published by A. Bienkowski, Ancon, Canal Zone and Panama, R.P.  Star & Herald Publication, 1908.

Photos of Puerto Bello courtesy of Sean Kelly

February 18, 2000

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