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It has been said that a third of the world's gold passed through Portobelo during the 17th century, and that wealth attracted plenty of pirates. Even before the Spanish founded a town there, the bay of Portobelo was a popular spot for pirates and buccaneers to rest or hide from Spanish galleons. The English navigator and privateer Sir Frances Drake, famous for circumnavigating the globe and capturing many a Spanish treasure, died of dysentery when anchored near the bay in 1596. Legend has it that Drake's men buried him at sea in a lead coffin near what is now known as Drake Island, just east of Portobelo (though why the pirate would have been traveling with a lead coffin begs questioning).
Spanish authorities established the town in Portobelo a year after Drake's demise, and the bay soon turned from a pirates' resting spot to a target. William Parker was the first to attack the Spanish enclave in 1602; he captured significant booty and set a dangerous precedent. Henry Morgan captured the city in 1668 and held it for two weeks, until the Spanish government paid him a hefty ransom. During the interim he tortured prisoners and filled his ships with booty. Morgan was followed by the likes of John Coxon, Edward Cook, and other pirates and privateers. None of them matched Morgan's haul, or his treachery, but together they stole copiously and instilled terror in the local population.
English Admiral Edward Vernon attacked Portobelo with six ships and 2,500 men in 1739, managing to capture the city and destroy its fortresses. Soon afterward, Spain began shipping most of its South American riches around Cape Horn, and Portobelo slipped into obscurity. Only in recent years have foreigners begun descending on the ancient port in growing numbers. The treasures that attract today aren't gold and silver, but rather historic monuments and tropical nature.
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