PORTO BELLO is memorable as the burial-place of that most adventurous of British seamen, Sir Francis Drake, while to the east of the point is the Gulf of Darien, where was laid the scene of a strange and characteristic episode in his life.
Drake was a man of strong will, who, when once he had bent his mind to a task, cut his way to the goal through every barrier and crushed with a hand of iron whomsoever opposed him in his resolve. Each venture that he undertook he pursued with a determination as dogged as fate, and with a patient, buoyant obstinacy that knew not failure. After the disaster at San Juan d’Ulloa, in which Drake shared, he vowed to undermine the power of Spain in the West Indies. He set about this labour with cold-blooded precision. There was to be no mad rushing upon the foe. The scheme of attack must first be perfect in every detail. He made two preliminary voyages to the Indies to spy out the country, to find points for landing, to make for himself a safe base from which to strike.
In certain secret harbours on the Main he established store-houses and forts, as well as the rudiments of a dockyard. He took out pinnaces in sections so that they could be pieced together and launched in quiet creeks. On a beach hitherto untrodden by man he set up a blacksmith’s forge, with anvil and bench and a supply of coals from Plymouth. His stores and his provisions were unsurpassed in excellence. He picked his men with prudence and would have none but the best. He forgot nothing, omitted nothing. So careful was he of the health of his crew that many assume him to have possessed a specific against scurvy.
The men were not only well fed, but well clothed, while they were armed with a completeness which would put a battleship to shame. Before he had hoisted his banner he had made himself, to the best of his knowledge, invincible. He fought the Indians ; he fought the Spaniards ; he slashed a road through the thickest jungle ; he battled his way through the wildest gale. In a land barren of food he defied starvation ; in a land of sweltering heat he defied the sun.
In that voyage in which he made his first attack upon the coast he took his brothers John and Joseph with him. John was killed in 1572 when boarding a Spanish frigate. In January 1573 Drake was hiding in one of his secret harbours in the Gulf of Darien, making preparations for the foray on the Isthmus. While in this pleasant haven a new enemy appeared, an enemy he had never before come uponthe yellow fever. His men fell sick one after the other, suddenly and mysteriously. Not a day went by but some sturdy sailor was buried in the sands. It was a spectacle terrible to contemplate. Two jovial Devon lads, for example, as strong as bullocks, would be playing bowls on the beach in the cool of the evening. In four days’ time upon that very beach they would be stretched out dead.
At last his brother Joseph sickened and died. Then Drake’s masterful spirit arose. He would fight this invisible enemy as he had fought the Spaniards and the Maroons. He would wrestle with death. He would wring from the very dead the secret of this craven foe who struck in the dark. Such was his set purpose that he ordered the doctor to dissect before his eyes the corpse of his brother. The loathsome operation was performed in a palm hut, by the sands no doubt, while Drake stood by with clenched teeth. The sickening details of the autopsy are set down in the log of the voyage, but there was nothing revealed that gave a clue as to how the evil could be gripped and strangled. For once Drake had met with a foe who was more than his match. The doctor himself died four days after the examination was completed.
It was a strange and terrible drama. As Hercules wrestled with Death for the body of Alcestis, so, on the palm-lined shore of this blue creek, the strong man Drake wrestled with Death for the lives of his comrades. By the time he sailed forth from this haunted haven into the open sea only forty-four men were left out of a crew of seventy-three.
Sir Francis Drake’s last voyage wasas has already been saida voyage of failure and disaster. His old friend, Sir John Hawkins, had died off Puerto Rico. Drake had been repulsed at San Juan. He made attacks upon certain towns along the Spanish Main, but gained little save disappointment from the venture. Drake, now fifty-five years of age, was failing in strength and energy day by day. “As his end drew near the scenes of his youth seemed to call him with an irresistible voice.” 2 He must go to Nombre de Dios where he had made his famous landing just twenty-three years ago. He went, but Nombre de Dios was empty and deserted. He sent a company across the Isthmus along the Panama road, but a few days later they came running back into the town in full retreat and utterly disheartened. This was a blow Drake found hard to bear. “Then it was,” writes Corbett, ” that the undaunted heart began to wax cold, The jovial face grew sombre. The cheery smile, to which his men had ever been accustomed to look for light in the darkest hours, had faded, and failure began to haunt him, as he recognised how the terror of his name had changed the Indies. The seas were deserted, the ports bristled with guns, and feverish wakefulness had supplanted the old dreamy security.”
Leaving Nombre de Dios he started off on a mad expedition to the Mosquito Gulf, where he was compelled to take shelter behind a small desert island called Escudo de Veragua, some ten miles from the mainland. It is flat and tree-covered, with reddish-brown cliffs. These cliffs have been separated from the island, here and there forming small islets, ” some of which have been pierced through, and the arches, being crowned by dense foliage and trees from seventy to eighty feet high, have a most remark-able and picturesque appearance.” The anchorage is on the southwestern side of the island, where the land is low and swampy and the supply of water very scant. In this unhealthy place Drake now prostrate with dysentery–hung on day after day in the hope that with a change of wind he could press on to the west. His men were dying one after the other. The water they drank was putrid, the air they breathed was fever-laden, for they had crept into a veritable hiding-place of death. The admiral was lying in his cot too feeble to move, but it was not until another week had gone by that he would consent to weigh anchor and turn towards home.
In seven days after leaving the island the fleet anchored off Porto Bello. It was on the morning of January 28, 1596. Drake had long sunk into a state of semi-consciousness. On the dawn of this day something roused him. It may have been the tramp of men overhead shortening sail, or the rattle of the chain in the hawse-pipe as the anchor ran out. He raised himself in his cotshrunken ghost of a manand then it would seem there came upon him for the first time the knowledge that he was dying.
Die he would not-t He had fought every foe he had ever met. He would fight Death too. He sat up : he called for his clothes : he railed : he mocked at the coming Shadow. His trembling servant dressed him, sighing to see the once great wrists turned to the wrists of a child and the sturdy limbs shrivelled to no more than bones. The master would put on his best tunic and his lace collar, his shoulder ribbons and his last new swordbelt and sword. He would now walk out upon the quarter-deck to show the crew that Francis Drake was ready to lead them still. One step and it was his last. He was lifted back to his bed, and there, clad as he would have been on the eve of a battle, the great sea-captain died.
He was buried a league out to sea, and on either side of him were sunk one of his own ships and his last taken Spanish prizes. The mail steamer as it follows the coast must pass over the very spot.
It was just such a resting-place as his heart would desire and in just such company would he wish to be. Landwards stretches the scene of his early exploits, for Porto Bello lies here open to the tide, while round the cape is the haven of Nombre de Dios. The beauty of the spot is unsurpassed. It is ever summer time on these high wolds. The hills that creep down to the beach are as green as the hills of Devon. The sea is an iris-blue, and when the wind is still there is never a sound to be heard but that of the rollers breaking on the reef.