Panama City Feature


Morgan's Fury

The tons of gold and silver that crossed Panama in the 16th to 17th centuries made it the target of many a pirate, but none of them stole as much—or caused as much damage—as the legendary Henry Morgan. In 1671, Morgan assembled an army of some 1,500 men and sailed to Panama's Caribbean coast with 36 vessels. He began by attacking Fort San Lorenzo, which guarded the mouth of the Chagres River from a high promontory; despite its imposing location, he managed to capture it with little trouble. From there he and his troops traveled upriver in smaller boats and marched through the jungle on the Camino de Cruces to Panamá Viejo, where they defeated a Spanish infantry of comparable strength by attacking the unfortified city from two sides.

What ensued were days of looting and pillaging and a fire that consumed much of the city. Morgan and his men took everything of value that they could find, even torturing people to learn where they'd hidden their money. They did miss one treasure, though: the famous golden altar that now sits in the Casco Viejo's Iglesia de San José. Legend has it that a clever priest covered the altar with mud to disguise it before the pirates arrived.

Morgan and his men needed 200 mules to carry their booty back to his boats on the Chagres River. When they reached Fort San Lorenzo, they rested before sailing to Jamaica, but the story goes that Morgan slipped off in the night with the lion's share of the loot. After handing much of his booty over to the king, Morgan was knighted, and appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, a position he later lost. He spent his later years on that Caribbean island, dabbling in politics, and as might be expected of a former pirate, drinking inordinate amounts of rum.

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