Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Panama: looking forward and backwards

from Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain 1575-1742

The isthmus of Panama was of great interest to the early Spanish settlers. They found the "Darien Jungle Route" a good way to move silver from the mines on the west coast of South America to ships in the Caribbean and onward to Spain. Cities now at either end of the Panama Canal were founded early in the sixteenth century.

Pirates and buccaneers quickly began to try to take the gold, as described in the book Pirates on the West Coast of New Spain 1575-1742 by Peter Gerhard. Sir Francis Drake raided Nombre de Dios, on the Caribbean side of Panama, in 1572. The next year he crossed the isthmus and raided a mule train carrying Peruvian silver. 

In 1575, Drake and his partner John Oxenham, along with their sailors, hid a ship on the Caribbean (north) side of Panama and recruited a group of runaway slaves who lived in the jungle there. With this local help, the pirates were able to cross to the Pacific side and build a new ship to use in raiding the Spanish. The Spanish had thought shipping on the Pacific side was safe, so their ships were unarmed. Thus Drake and his men quickly took a small ship carrying gold and food (a commodity that was very much needed by all the pirates who ever worked the west coast of New Spain), and then took a huge ship, capturing silver bars and prisoners. Oxenham also fell in love with a Spanish woman, saved her, and somehow arranged for the prisoners' escape, so his expedition did not end well. Drake's many later exploits and explorations in the Golden Hind are much more famous than these early events in Panama. (p. 57-60)

A century later, Henry Morgan, "probably the most unsavory pirate to reach the shores of the Pacific" crossed the isthmus with 1400 men in order to attack the very rich city of Panama, which then had a population of 15,000 to 20,000. Though the Spanish tried to stop them as they came through the jungle in January of 1671, Morgan and his men battled the Spanish defense army, killed 400, and sacked the city of Panama. The pirates tortured the inhabitants, burned buildings, and took prisoners and  large quantities of loot. Morgan betrayed his men but went on to be a pirate-fighting governor of Jamaica. (p. 138-140)

I'm also reading a history of the Panama Canal: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough. The canal opened almost exactly a century ago.

Panama now, from google maps ... where we plan to be on a Lindblad ship, starting next Saturday

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

I love the way McCullough writes -- haven't read this one but if it's anything like his other work, it's always a remarkable story along with the history.