MORGAN’S Raid took place in 1671, yet the folk of Panama speak of it still. It can never be forgotten, for it led to the destruction of the old capital and the founding of the new, the present Panama being some five or six miles to the west of the city that Morgan demolished.
Morgan was the son of a Welsh yeoman. He took to the sea, and of course made his way to the West Indies. He reached Barbados, where he was sold as a servant. When he had secured his freedom he hurried to Port Royal, and, landing there penniless, was glad enough to join the pirates. His extraordinary adventures have been told in much detail by John Esquemeling, who was one of the party in the Great Raid.’ Of his early life it need only be said that by industry and merit he rose to be captain of the Buccaneers, and under his guidance they eclipsed all exploits that had hitherto found a place in the annals of piracy. Morgan possessed himself of islands, raised fleets and armies, assaulted and took important citiessuch as Puerto del Principe in Cuba, Porto Bello on the Isthmus, Maracaibo on the Spanish Mainand acquired thereby a gratifying amount of wealth.
In his advance upon Old Panama he first of all seized the fortified town of Chagres at the mouth of the river of that name, and then, in January 1671, started up stream with 1200 men packed into thirty-seven canoes and boats. They had a fearful journey, being fired at from the banks with bullets by the Spaniards and with arrows by the Indians. They were, moreover, unable to get food, and so suffered miseries from starvation. On the seventh day they reached Cruces, hoping to find there a store of provisions ; but to their dismay the town had been already burned by the enemy, who had left nothing behind them but some poisoned wine, which had disastrous effect upon those who drank it.
On the eighth day the party started for Panama along the Gold Road, the narrow paved road where Drake had lain in ambush for the mule trains. Their advance was so fiercely op-posed by both Indians and Spaniards that they had to fight for every mile of the way. On the ninth day they gained the summit of a ridge and saw below them the superb city of Panama, with its bright-tiled roofs, its orderly streets, its monastery steeples, and above all the great square tower of the cathedral. This tower reminded one of the pirates of Old St. Paul’s in London, a tower that he had seen no doubt many a time from some tavern balcony in Limehouse. Beyond the city was the famous harbour and the radiant Pacific Ocean, with ships passing by ” upon their lawful occasions.” It was a sight that made them forget the toilsome river, the long tramp and the biting pangs of hunger.
Between the hill upon which they stood and the sea stretched an open park-like country, being that same “pleasant country” which Dampier describes, and ” which is full of small Hills and Valleys beautified by many Groves and Spots of Trees.” It was a land of rich pasture such as encircles many a goodly town in England. On these green slopes, in undisturbed content, numbers of cattle were grazing. By midday the starving pirates had shot a few of these beasts, had built a fire, and had sat down to the only satisfying meal they had enjoyed since they left the sea. After they had gorged themselves to the full they crept down the slope and bivouacked for the night as near to the city as they dared.
The Spaniards were by this time well alarmed ; the bells were clanging in the cathedral tower, and all night through it was evident from the lights in the streets and from the lanterns moving along the walls that every man-at-arms in the city was astir.
Early on the next morning Morgan began his advance. The Spaniards had mustered a strong force of cavalry and artillery outside the town. The buccaneers kept a little way further along the Cruces road, and then, to better avoid the enemy, made a detour to the west, crossing the ground upon which Panama city now stands. They soon defiled into the open savannah around the old capital, and made their final approach by a route parallel to the sea. The land here is in undulating folds, with many dips and gulleys and many clumps of bushes. In these dips and behind these bushes the Spanish sharpshooters were lying, while the main army of 40o horsemen and twenty-four companies of foot were drawn up in battle array before the town. The Spanish governor was unable to take an active part in the defence, having been ” lately blooded three times for an Erysipelas.”
Morgan extended his men along such shelter as was afforded by a ” dry Gut or watercourse.” In this position he received the first charge of the enemy’s cavalry and from this point he made his general advance. It was a slow and bloody business, for every bush hid a man with a musket, while the horsemen charged again and again. Step by step the buccaneers pushed their way on to the city wall. The outer works were silenced ; the bridge was crossed ; the gate battered down, and then with hoarse cheers the pirates poured into the streets.
Here the battle ” soon kindled very hot.” Barricades with guns had been thrown across the chief roads ; these had to be rushed and spiked ; volleys poured upon the buccaneers from side streets, from loopholed gates, from the parapets and stone balconies of houses. The town was in chaos ; distracted people, loaded with their dearest possessions, rushed to and fro ; the sick and infirm, who had been left behind, were screaming from their windows. Waggons piled up with treasure were galloping for the far gate, while trembling citizens were saddling mules or were hiding money bags in holes and corners. Dogs, pigs, and fowls scuttled wildly among the rabble. The noise of firearms, of yelling men and shrieking women, of clattering horses and of doors being crashed into splinters, drowned even the persisting clang of the cathedral bell. The streets reeked with the smell of powder and of smouldering fuses, while in the calm blue air above the city the convent pigeons were wheeling in circles of terror.
By three o’clock in the afternoon the city of Panama was in the hands of the pirates. The loss on both sides was very heavy, and so desperate had been the fighting that many, as Raleigh would say, came to ” a most ugly and lamentable death.”
Morgan had hardly halted his men in the Plaza before the cry arose that the city was in flames. Whether the firing was accidental or the work of the Spaniards matters little. What is certain is that the “very noble and very loyal city of Panama” was soon reduced to a heap of blackened ruins.
After three weeks devoted to methodical looting, with suitable torture of such of the ” nobility and gentry ” as fell into his hands, Morgan thought it prudent to leave Panama and return to the Atlantic. “On the 24th of February, of the year 1671, Captain Morgan departed from the city of Panama, or rather from the place where the said city of Panama did stand ; of the spoils whereof, he carried with him one hundred and seventy-five beasts of carriage, laden with silver, gold and other precious things, besides six hundred prisoners more or less, between men, women, children, and slaves.”
Starting back again along the Cruces road Morgan reached the port at the mouth of the river without loss or adventure. As soon as he had gained the sea ” he went secretly on board his own ship,” and as secretly slunk off to Port Royal, taking the provision ships with him, and a great deal more than his proper share of the plunder. His old comrades in arms he left behind on the barren shore at Chagres, cursing fluently, shaking their fists and stamping their feet until their bodies rattled like money boxes, for they had still much coin upon them. Before the perfidious Morgan was out of sight they had begun to rummage their sacks and examine their cannikins for food, for they were face to face with starvation.