Guests joining our Canal to Cuba journey spend a day exploring the colonial town of Portobelo, including its UNESCO-designated San Jerònimo (Geronimo) Fort and Castle of Santiago de la Gloria. While recognized as some of the finest examples of 17th-century Spanish military architecture, the fortifications were no match for one infamous privateer and his merry band of marauders.
Little is known about the early life of Welsh captain Henry Morgan, or how he first made his way to the Caribbean in the 1650s. At the time, Great Britain was at war with Spain, and the former often commissioned privateers to capture Spanish vessels. Morgan was most likely among a group of these government-sanctioned pirates on a 1655 expedition that would seize Jamaica for the English crown. However he arrived in the region, Morgan soon made a reputation, sacking numerous merchant ships and Central American towns including the port of Puerto Principe (now Camagüey, Cuba).
It was during the latter expedition when Morgan set his ransacking sights on Portobelo, a strategic Spanish port where Peruvian gold was loaded onto armed fleets sailing back to the Old World. While well fortified, the sleepy town had few inhabitants except when shipments came through every year or so.
Portobelo definitely had its guard down on July 10, 1668, when Morgan made his move. Leaving their ships further down the coast, 500 privateers piled into canoes and paddled for days before sneaking past the first fortress, San Lorenzo. The town’s other undermanned castles were no match for the buccaneer army, and the Union Jack was run up the flagpoles as the Spanish defenders quickly surrendered. Morgan held the city for weeks until Panama’s governor was forced to pay a huge ransom. The privateer captain, hailed as a hero in both Jamaica and England, would eventually return to sack Panama City in 1771.
During his earlier raid on Portobelo, one of Morgan’s ships sank in the shallow waters off Lajas Reef. In 2011, archaeologists recovered artifacts from the sunken privateer ship, including chests, barrels, and numerous swords. The beverage giant Diageo—which owns the Captain Morgan Rum Company—funded the project but, in an ironic turn of fate, all of the recovered treasures officially belong to Panama.