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Morgan, The Freebooter, And The Raid On Panama
by [?]

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 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 contented 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.