SHORTLY after leaving Colon the steamer comes in sight of the beautiful cape of Manzanillo, a green cape where tree-covered hills rise one behind the other until they are lost far away in the haze. In this cape of creeks is an inlet where lies the shrunken town of Porto Bello. It lies at the end of a silent fiord, through which a stretch of blue water finds its way into the heart of the hills. As the ship passes by, it is possible to see the few houses of the town, the white sails in the harbour, the low sea wall and the stone fort of San Jeronimo. From all accounts of the place it would appear to be still interesting and picturesque, although Samuel Champlain considered it to be ” the most evil and pitiful residence in the world,” and Tom Cringle found it ” a miserable, dirty, damp hole.” In the depths of this haven rests a caravel of Christopher Columbus, which was abandoned there during the explorer’s last voyage.
Porto Bello, in spite of its strong fortifications, was many times taken by English buccaneers. The most desperate and successful of these assaults was that carried out by the redoubt-able Morgan in 1668. In some respects the most remarkable capture of Porto Bello was effected by Admiral Vernon in 1739. On the outbreak of the War of Jenkins’ Ear Admiral Vernon was dispatched with a serviceable fleet to the West Indies. He at once made for Porto Bello. Porto Bello held a fond and romantic place in the British mind. It was on the Spanish Main. It rang with stirring tales of pirates and with the exploits of such heroes as Drake, Coxon and Morgan. Every schoolboy adored Porto Bello. Moreover it was believed to be stacked roof-high with treasure of a very costly kind, and to be defended in a way which was both fearful and wonderful. The Plate fleet anchored there, so that it was altogether a very terrible place.
Admiral Vernon, who was five and fifty years of age when he started upon this daring venture against the city of Apollyon, was known throughout the fleet as “Old Grog.” He received this nickname because he wore a boat cloak made of grogram, which same notable item in his wardrobe led to the addition of a word to the English tongue. In 174o he issued an order that the rum servers out to the men should be mixed with water. This edict, although sound in physiological principle, involved a meddling with the sailor’s most sacred asset and so was not popular in the foc’sle. The men called the mixture grog,” and grog it has been to this day, as the dictionaries will testify.
Now the taking of Porto Bello proved to be a very trivial affair. The Spaniards had no suspicion of Vernon’s coming. Their forts were neglected, their ramparts in decay, most of the guns were dismounted, the store of ammunition was small, and the garrison had been greatly reduced in numbers by yellow fever. The Iron Castle on the north of the inlet was battered by the ships and promptly silenced. The men then landed to attack the Stone Castle by the town. They climbed in through the gun embrasures by standing upon one another’s shoulders, like a party of mischievous boys. They met with practically no resistance, for the town capitulated readily enough, and the vigour of the defence may be judged from the fact that in this assault the total number of the British killed amounted to four.
In due course the news came home that Porto Bello the Terrible had fallen. England went incontinently mad with joy over the glorious and incredible victory. Think of it as the news was read out ! “Porto Bello captured ! The Iron Castle battered into ruins ! The Stone Fort stormed ! The town in the hands of the English!” There was a general rejoicing through the length and breadth of the land: flags were hoisted on every pole, shouting mobs filled the streets, while every village tavern was crowded with men clamouring for tankards of ale in which to drink the health of the gallant admiral. More than that, countless addresses of congratulation were sent to the King. London conferred upon the admiral the freedom of the City, while both Houses of Parliament voted him their admiring thanks. Every public-house that happened to be building at the time was named the “Vernon’s Head,” and any row of new houses in a town became forthwith ” Porto Bello Terrace ” or ” Vernon Place.”
Last of all, in order that the people might be able to hand down to their sons and grandsons the memory of this splendid victory, numerous medals were struck. They bore on one side the figure of the admiral and the inscription” He took Porto Bello with six ships.” It is to be feared that in time the be-medalled folk discerned some sarcasm in this terse sentence, when they came to know that he might just as well have taken Porto Bello with one ship.
In the National Portrait Gallery is a picture by Gainsborough of a meek, flabby old gentleman, in a cherry-coloured velvet coat with cambric frills about the wrists. Beneath in bold letters are the words ” The Hero of Porto Bello.”