King’s Pirate, Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama part 4: San Lorenzo.

Part 4 Matey’s and the adventure begins! This is the first post I have illustrated myself with maps and art, you could say I’ve Osprey’d it. Read on.

Recommended as Further Reading by Don Nardo.

There was no doubt that in 1668 Henry Morgan was a famous man. Fresh from the success of Portobello, the Caribbean was his oyster and there was not an able bodied man between Jamaica and Tortuga that would not race to be the first to sign up to his next expedition to try and steal the pearl inside. Once he and the rest of Buccaneers had recovered from their celebrations and spent their Portobello spoil the Welshman’s roving eye chose Cartagena as his next target. In terms of preparation things looked to be almost perfect, Morgan even had the use of a new flagship, the Frigate Oxford, a powerful ship that was a fitting deck for the Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast to tread. Disaster struck one night in October at Isla Vaca, a strategic meeting place for Buccaneer expeditions, just before the expedition sailed, Morgan and his captains were holding a celebration to toast the success of their voyage when suddenly a huge explosion ripped the Oxford to pieces, killing most of the crew and sending the others flying into the sea burned and broken. One of the survivors spluttering sea water and rum was a dazed Henry Morgan who had been flung clear and miraculously spared.
Some would have taken this as a divine sign that his pirating ways would lead him to destruction, but did our black hearted rogue repent and live out the rest of his life as a monk preaching the evils of Buccaneering, no, Morgan had no sooner dried off and changed from his singed clothes than he cobbled together another fleet from those who had not sailed off after the mysterious explosion, and in January 1668 set sail to the remote city of Maracaibo Venezuela. Situated in a bottle like cavity on the Spanish Main the narrow entrance to the protected bay seemed to be a hard nut to crack, but success attended Morgan again and Maracaibo fell after a short struggle, the fearsome reputation of the Buccaneers, prompted one female captive to beg them not to eat her alive. After a week of raiding and looting Maracaibo at leisure, the Spanish crashed the party. Admiral Don Alonzo de Campos y Epinosa had heard of the heretic’s depredations and sailed with three men of war to block the bottleneck channel that was Morgan’s only escape route. Henry knew when he wasn’t wanted, so he ordered his men back to the ships and under cover of night disguised a merchant ship from the harbour as a warship and packed it full of gunpowder and combustibles. In the morning he sailed out to attack. During the battle Morgan’s fleet went into close action and traded broadsides yardarm to yardarm, one particular Spanish broadside from their flagship ignited the bomb ship which proceeded to rip apart itself and its target to pieces in a huge explosion allowing Morgan and his Buccaneers a chance to escape.
Morgan sailed back to Jamaica were he reported his victory to Governor Thomas Modyford, as per usual he took a cut of the proceeds for allowing it to happen, however he was obliged to tell the Admiral that Lord Arlington had sent him a letter ordering that hostilities with Spain must stop, peace had come, and the government wanted it on both sides of the Line. Morgan was receptive to the order, like a good soldier he obeyed the wishes of his King. In 1669 he bought 836 acres of the parish of Clarendon near Chapelton village, no doubt with Spanish coin pilfered from Maracaibo, and began settling down to becoming a well respected Jamaican landowner. The area he settled in is still called Morgan Valley to this day.
Unfortunately for the Spanish the Queen Regent Maria Anna of Neuberg, known to her Spanish subjects as Mariana de Neoburgo, who was fulfilling the role of head of state during one of King Charles II frequent incapacities, knew nothing about Morgan’s proposed retirement had sent a letter to the Governor of Cartagena ordering him to allow Spanish privateers to attack Jamaican and English shipping in the West Indies, (Though in fairness the order seemed to target privateers based on Jamaica), It was payback time.
In June 1670 a Portuguese Captain named Rivero raided the Cayman Islands and took a Jamaican merchantman off Cuba, he then sailed to Jamaica’s north coast and burned the village of Montego Bay. In July he was sighted off the south coast, as he passed he swooped in and raided a small village, burning two houses in the process before disappearing again. The Jamaican colonists didn’t like taking their own medicine and went into a panic, the Buccaneers were supposed to be able to protect them, and calls for retaliation followed.
It just so happened that after about a year of the pastoral life of a country gentleman, Morgan was getting the itch to go back to sea and his old ways, of all the things he had done in his career, there was still one big caper he wanted to try. In late 1670 after he heard of Rivero’s raiding he proposed to Modyford that he be allowed to attack Panama City. News then came from the Dutch that the Spanish had officially declared war, not on England but on Jamaica and her Buccaneers.
The Council met and agreed that:
“A commission be granted to Admiral Henry Morgan to be Admiral and commander in chief of all the ships of war belonging to this harbour” they also gave him the authority to assemble a large fleet and “Attack seize and destroy all the enemy’s vessels that come within his reach” further more they allowed him to land on the enemy’s country and to take and destroy anything that would “Tend to the preservation and quiet of this Island”.

Map showing the route of the Buccaneer fleet to the Spanish Main.
Map showing the route of the Buccaneer fleet to the Spanish Main. By the author.

Rubbing his hands together at the thought of such a commission, the most explicit and yet most free reined he had probably gotten in his career, Morgan sent word out that he intended to lead a raid on the Spanish and sailed out on the 1st of August 1670 to the well known rendezvous at Isla Vaca, a tiny island that hovers innocently just under the lower strut of Hispaniola’s south western shore, were he waited for the Buccaneers to gather. His ability to draw men to him was proved a month later in September, by which time some 38 ships and between 1,500 and 2,000 men had arrived at Isla Vaca. On the 12th of December Morgan called all the captains together and told them of his intention to attack Panama, purportedly the richest port in the Spanish colonies, he may have had the permission of the Jamaican government but this was the way of the Brethren of the Coast, every captain got a vote, the result was in favour of the scheme, which was to be done in the usual way of no purchase no pay, if the Spanish wanted No Peace Beyond the Line then no Peace they would get.
On his flagship the Satisfaction Morgan prepared to sail and many of his old friends were with him, and they provide a small snapshot of what the Buccaneer fleet would have looked like, from Richard Norman of the Lilly to Richard Dobson of the 6 gun Fortune and the 70 ton Mayflower commanded by Joseph Bradley. The polyglot armada set sail on the 19th for the snake shaped coast were the Isthmus of Panama curves upwards like a handle to form a rough S with neighbouring Costa Rica.

Six days after they set out they arrived of Providence having covered 575 miles, Providence is a small island connected to a smaller one called Isla Chica and it was dotted with Spanish forts. The weather had turned bad and in pouring rain Morgan disembarked 1,000 men to take it but the garrison thundered away with their great guns and they stayed on the beach. The next day amid rumours of mutiny Morgan demanded the surrender or he would give no quarter, hoping to forgo a pointless siege, the governor agreed to surrender, with one condition, Morgan would have to act as if the forts fell by storm, during the night all around would testify that the Spanish went down fighting like demons for their King. Loyalty was a fickle thing of course

From there Morgan convened a council of captains and decided to go the River Chagres route to Panama instead of the Portobello or the Pacific routes, but to do this he first needed to take the fort that guarded the river entrance, what was called the Castillo de San Lorenzo built in 1603 to protect silver cargos being shipped to Portobello from Panama. Colonel Joseph Bradley was chosen to go with 470 men in three ships and take it. Bradley had fought under Mansvelt (Morgan’s predecessor) and knew his business well.

To make the place even harder to take, the element of surprise was lost early on. The Spanish had been warned about the Buccaneer armada and were ready. They had been reinforced by 164 more men boosting the garrison’s numbers to 350 or so men consisting of a core of 50 regulars augmented by free black militia, the garrison may have included some local Indians, and were well supplied to make the pirates pay dearly to take it. The commander, Don Pedro de Elizalde, had written a note to the Governor of Panama detailing his position saying he would Scourge them whenever they came and however many there was. They were expecting over 1,000 men.

Bradley's assault on San Lorenzo, by the author.
Bradley’s assault on San Lorenzo, by the author. Showing what I call the Ogre’s head profile of the coast.

On the 30th December 1670 Bradley left for the Chagres, and upon arrival anchored three miles north of the Fort probably at the sheltered bay of Playa Tortuguilla (Jon Latimer says he anchored at Portate de Naranjos, then moved closer, but I can’t find a place called this in sight of the fort and assume it became Tortaguilla) and stood off for a day (sources differ between 1 and 2), sizing up the opposition and being intermittently fired upon by the fort’s cannon. From the air the coast between the Buccaneers anchorage and the mouth of the Chagres looks like a looming ogre. After Limon Bay the coast drops down in a south-westerly slope until it reaches the Playa, or to fit my description, the ogre’s eye socket, the land then curves out into its nose and upper lip and then dips back in to form the mouth. Sitting on the jut of the lower jaw is Castillo de San Lorenzo, though it was more properly a fort. The bay or inlet was guarded first by a deadly coral reef, only visible at low tide, and a small river runs into it guarding the “Castle’s” northern approach. On top of natural defences, the rising shore was fortified with two six gun batteries, and an eight gun tower slightly further up. The main structure was protected from the east first by a ravine 30 feet deep. “The Ravine of Slabs”, and crossing it was the main way in, passable only by a drawbridge, and fortified by an artillery proof filled wooden palisade cut with some 25 guns. To get to it an attacker had to cross the campana a cleared field of fire. At that point the palisade was roofed with palm thatch, and it ringed the entire plateau which dropped away on all its seaward sides in knife edge cliffs. The castle probably took up a central position and I can’t find out whether it was made of wood or stone, or even how tall it was. Beside it were two large warehouses apparently filled with ammunition and equipment, near these was a staircase cut into the rock that afforded passage to the defences of the bay, which also covered the tiny landing, “Port” to the west that sits in a little dimple in the ogre’s jaw. Seven or eight fathoms deep and fit for small vessels supplying the castle.

Fort San Lorenzo, Colon, Panama.

Bradley saw that an escalade of the cliffs was out of the question and decided to land on the beach at Playa Tortuguilla and hack through the jungle. Then sweep south east to attack the peak of San Lorenzo and the heavily manned earth barricades on the plateau. There are about two different versions of what happened, I’m going with Exquemelin’s version, because it is the oldest and is backed up by other authorities.

The march took about two hours and they were in position by 2 PM. An impulsive attack quickly fizzled out under a heavy fusillade, and Bradley withdrew to lick his wounds. It didn’t take long, an hour later he tried again. The Buccaneers charged from the jungle and gained the ravine, then tried to set fire to the top of the battlement with grenades. However the Spanish poured a deadly rain of lead into the ravine and the galled heretics withdraw once more. As they ran they heard the Spanish celebrating with cries of “Victoria Victoria”.

The Buccaneers under Bradley line up to attack. By the author.
The Buccaneers under Bradley line up to attack. By the author.

Now it was a matter of pride. The evening of the third attack came and as at dusk spread its sultry haze over the castle the black shapes of the Buccaneers came running from the forest fringe. The Spanish shouted “Come on ye English dogs” and “Enemies of God and our king let your other companions behind come on, too; ye shall not go to Panama this bout”. Then one of those freak incidents occurred that shifted the balance, a buccaneer was hit by an arrow, possibly as he ran away, he pulled it out of his back, and in his temper he wrapped it in a little cotton and shot it back at the walls from his musket. What was probably meant as a futile gesture of defiance turned into the key to taking San Lorenzo. The flaming arrow ignited by the gunpowder hit one of the thatched roofs and set it ablaze; soon more buccaneers tried the trick to augment their grenades which set more on fire. The blaze spread along the top of the wooden palisade to a loaded bronze cannon which exploded, halting efforts to put out the blaze and blowing a hole in the wall. By midnight the palisade was in ruins but Bradley, now twice shy, waited for dawn, and many of the defenders now made their escape.

Last stand at San Lorenzo. The Spanish garrison go down fighting. By the author
Last stand at San Lorenzo. The Spanish garrison go down fighting. By the author

At first light the buccaneers attacked, but the last Spanish defenders had wheeled guns to the breaches and fired point blank, driving the enemy back twice. Yet they came again, lead by the French Huguenot Buccaneers from Tortuga and Hispaniola, when the Spanish ran out of ammunition they fought with pikes and swords. Despite their courage the castle fell. Commandant Elizalde fought alongside his men contending each inch of ground all the way up to the edge of the cliff were he and the regulars made their last stand. No quarter was given and none asked for. Some of the Spanish threw themselves from the rocks rather than surrender. In the last rush the brave Elizalde fell, shot in the head, the Spanish lost almost the whole garrison. Those that were lucky enough to escape heard French buccaneers yelling “Victoire victoire!” after them. Morgan estimated 360 Spaniards had died, but that would be well over the number of men in the garrison, so he must have exaggerated. Only 30 Buccaneers had been killed, but over 76 were so badly wounded and they all died soon afterwards, more poignantly Bradley was amongst the dead. The pirates were not used to taking these kinds of losses, or seeing the Spanish fight so hard, the whole experience was very shocking.
When Morgan arrived in the bay and gazed on the smoking ruins on the plateau, he might have been glad that the fort had fallen, but without warning he then ran straight onto the Leja reef. Four ships, much needed supplies and ten men were lost. One of the wrecks was Morgan’s new flagship Satisfaction. It was not the best start, but the road to Panama was open and the march could begin.

Thanks for reading.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland me hearties.
Part 1 here.


Main Sources.
The Buccaneers of America: John Exquemelin
The Voyages and Adventures of Capt. Barth Sharp: Bartholomew Sharp
Under the Black Flag: David Cordingly
Buccaneers of the Caribbean: Jon Latimer
Scourge of the Seas: Angus Konstam
Empire of Blue Water: Stephen Talty

Maps courtesy of Google Maps.

0 Replies to “King’s Pirate, Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama part 4: San Lorenzo.”

  1. excellent and detailed as always – thanks for taking the time to write and illustrate – bringing Henry Morgan and his exploits ever more to life.

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