Sack of Panamá 1 SANTA CATALINA L and ahead on the starboard bow!' It was noon on 25 May 1666 when the ageing privateer, Captain Edward Mansfield, heard the lookout's cry. He clambered up into the rigging to check his position. One quick look through his perspective glass and he could relax. There was no mistaking the rugged hills, over a thousand feet high, of the lonely island which the English called Providence and the Spaniards called Santa Catalina.1 The old captain glanced back at the rest of his squadron. All four ships were still in sight, spread out across the otherwise empty sea. They all looked as though they had been a long time out of port, weather-beaten, paint faded, sails patched, but still moving well through the water, their bottoms clean after a recent careening. Three of them were very small, lateen-rigged sloops with no deck or cabin to protect their cramped crews from sun and sea and rain; and even the fourth was only about fifty tons, a small, square-rigged, half-decked frigate which, like Mansfield's own similar ship, had been recently captured from the Spaniards off the Central American coast. None of them carried many cannon, but no one who saw them would have been in any doubt that they were best to be avoided. Small, fast ships like these, crammed with men who knew from experience that four muskets could do as much execution as one cannon,2 had terrorized the waters and coastal settlements of the Caribbean for decades. Mansfield signalled the frigate to furl her topsails to reduce visibility and crept forward towards his goal. By late afternoon he was only twelve miles from the southernmost point of the island, and the squadron hove to until nightfall. Tomorrow, with any luck, the island would be his. Mansfield badly needed to capture something to retrieve his reputation. He had made an almost complete circuit of the Caribbean in the past six months and had virtually nothing to show for his pains.3 It was, however, rather doubtful whether the capture of a Spanish island would win him much favour with the authorities in his home port of Port Royal, Jamaica. These were the days of the Second Dutch War, and Mansfield, a professional privateer, was sailing with a commission issued by Sir Thomas Modyford, the English Governor of Jamaica, which allowed him to attack and plunder the Dutch. So far, his voyage had done little damage to that maritime nation. The privateers had rendezvoused on the south coast of Jamaica in November 1665 with the clear intention of attacking and capturing the Dutch commercial base on the island of Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela. Some six hundred privateers had turned up and were said to be 'very forward to suppression of that enemy'. Their first move had, however, been in the opposite direction. Christmas had seen them off the south coast of Cuba, demanding 'victualls for their money'. The Cubans who, like all Spanish settlers, were prohibited from trading with foreigners had refused, whereupon 'two or three hundred privateers ... marched forty-two miles into the country, took and fired the town of Santo Spirito, routed a body of 200 horse, carried their prisoners to their ships, and for their ransom had 300 fat beeves sent down.4 When asked why privateers with commissions against the Dutch should attack the Spanish, they had looked rather hurt. It almost sounded as if they were being accused of piracy. The privateer captains, after a short search amongst the papers in their cabins, had produced Portuguese commissions issued by the French Governor of Tortuga. This, of course, made everything legal. Portugal had been in revolt against Spain for twenty-six years. By the middle of January 1666, their victualling completed, the privateers were ready to sail again. They chose Captain Mansfield as their admiral and assured an emissary from the Governor of Jamaica that they 'had much zeale to his Majesty's service and a firm resolution to attack Curaçao'. But this resolution soon wilted during the long beat east straight into the prevailing trade winds. The expedition seemed allwrong. The whole tradition of privateering in the West Indies was to attack Spaniards, not Dutchmen. Ship after ship drifted off to make use of their Portuguese commissions against the Spanish settlers of Cuba and Hispaniola. Mansfield continued to beat to windward, but eventually he, too, was faced with mutiny and his crew refused to go any farther, 'averring publiquely that there was more profitt with lesse hazard to be gotten against ye Spaniard which was there onely interest'. As we shall see, this was sadly only too true, and it seems unlikely that Mansfield was particularly unhappy as he gave the order for the ships to go about and run with the wind down to the coast of the Spanish Main. One of his captains was later to make the best of it in a report to the Governor of Jamaica. They had tried to beat up to in Curaçao, he said, 'as much as they could, but was so long on their way that they spent their victuall and were forced to fall down with the wind and current to Boco Tauro [Boca del Toro] to recruit'.5 Mansfield still had fifteen ships under his command when he arrived at Boca del Toro on the borders of Panamá and Costa Rica, a favourite haunt of the privateers. Here the original fleet split up into two squadrons. Mansfield sailed with seven ships up the coast to Costa Rica, where he landed and marched inland across the coastal lowlands and then began to ascend the Cordillera with the intention of crossing the mountains to raid the city of Cartago. He was checked by shortage of food and a vigorous resistance by the garrison of Turrialba, ninety miles inland and 2,500 feet above sea level, and the invasion ended in an ignominious retreat. 6 The survivors, 'exhausted and dying of hunger', re-embarked and made their way back down the coast to Boca del Toro. Here two more ships deserted Mansfield, and the old Admiral was left with the dreadful prospect of returning to Jamaica discredited and completely empty-handed, a failure in the eyes of the privateers and an embarrassment to the Governor. It was now that he had the idea of attacking and capturing Santa Catalina. It was true that the island was Spanish and his Jamaican commission only gave him permission to attack the Dutch; but maybe the Governor of Jamaica would look kindly on the man who captured this particular Spanish island, for it had not always been Spanish. It had in fact been one of the very first English colonies in the New World, settled in 1630 by men sent out from Bermuda and England by the Puritan Providence Island Company.7 The island was at that time uninhabited, and the Company's avowed intention was to develop their fertileand isolated colony as a godly plantation where pious men raised exotic crops for the greater glory of God and the profit of the London-based shareholders. It is clear, however, that this was simply wishful thinking, and from the beginning the colony's main function was 'to annoy the King of Spain in the Indies'. Providence Island, as it was now called, was ideal for this purpose--only 450 miles of easy sailing from Cartagena, the largest and richest city on the Spanish Main, and even closer to Portobello, the terminus of that maritime lifeline of the Spanish colonial empire, the annual silver fleets. Providence was fertile enough to maintain a large garrison and several privateering ships and, once properly garrisoned and fortified, extremely difficult to capture. A ring of reefs almost completely surrounded the island, and the one good port was commanded by huge rocks and cliffs. When the harbour had been fortified it was nearly impregnable, as the Governor of Cartagena was to discover when the expedition he led against the island in 1635 retired with the loss of many men, 'being much torn and battered by the ordnance from the forts'. The Spanish attack was taken as sufficient cause to issue large numbers of privateering licences, and for the next six years Providence was to be the very worst enemy of Spain in the West Indies. A second Spanish attack was beaten off in 1640 but, in the following year, the Captain-General of the silver fleet, Francisco Diaz Pimienta, mounted an invasion force so strong that the English and Dutch defenders of the island had no chance. Pimienta's landing with an advance force of six hundred seasoned Spanish soldiers was fiercely opposed, but to no avail, and he marched across the island to the settlement at New Westminster where he laid siege to the Governor's house and the church. Resistance soon collapsed and, on 26 May 1641, High Mass was celebrated and a Te Deum sung in the town square of New Westminster in the presence of the Spanish troops and the four hundred heretical English and Dutch prisoners. The booty was immense--six hundred black slaves and over half a million ducats' worth of treasure, the former property of Spaniards captured by the English and Dutch corsairs. It was the greatest Spanish triumph in the West Indies for many years, and Pimienta became a famous and much-fêted man.8 Now Edward Mansfield, anxious not to return to Jamaica 'until he had done some service to his Majesty', resolved to recover this property of the King of England and make it once again a hugely fortified advance base for the Jamaican privateers. Andwhat better day to do it than on 26 May 1666, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the capture of the island by Pimienta? Since 1641, Santa Catalina's garrison and fortifications had been badly run down.9 The Spaniards had considered abandoning the island on several occasions, for it seemed to be rather a useless drain on the very scarce resources of men and money that were available for the defence of the Spanish Main; but always the thought of a second occupation by the English had changed their minds, for the English were now even more formidable than they had been in the 1630s. The capture of Jamaica in 1655 had led to a huge increase in the scale of depredations carried outby privateers who used the island as a base. A second smaller but closer Jamaica, entirely devoted to privateering, was a nightmare. And so the small, rugged, mountainous island, once again called Santa Catalina, was retained. But now, in 1666, it was no longer the mighty fortress that had given 'the Spaniards' whole armada' such a fight in 1641. Lack of money, lack of men, indifference, corruption and apathy had all taken their toll, and the island's situation was not improved by a long-running argument between the Governor of Cartagena and the President of Panamá as to which of them had the financial responsibility for its defence. In the absence of an agreement, each man naturally spent as little as possible on the upkeep of the island, and ships from the mainland only rarely brought fresh supplies of food, weapons and comforts for the miserable garrison. The results of such neglect were only too predictable. Many of the English guns and fortifications remained, rusty and crumbling through disuse, but only one fort was still garrisoned. This fort, known as La Cortadura, overlooked the port and stood in the few yards of sea which separated the main island from the small and fairly easily defended islet of Isla Chica at the north end of the island. The garrison of Santa Catalina was supposed to comprise 140 regular soldiers, but no garrison in the Spanish Indies was ever up to strength and, in 1666, there were only ninety soldiers on the island, twenty of whom were too old or too sick to bear arms. Many men in the garrison had come out to the island with Pimienta's invasion force in 1641 and had stayed there ever since, quietly vegetating in their lonely tropical fastness. Others had been sent there as exiles; four years in Santa Catalina was a common punishment for delinquents from the mainland. Women who lived scandalous lives in the cities of Cartagena or Panamá were also likely to find themselves removed to this convenient dumping-ground for the human trash of the Spanish Main. Such people, together with their children, 150 slaves and a few Indian herdsmen, formed the population of Santa Catalina. Contrary to all military principles, they were scattered throughout the island, living on their own small farms in huts and shacks and neglecting their military exercises for the more important tasks of raising maize and manioc, pigs and goats for their own sustenance. What else could they do if they received no food from the mainland? The men did have posts to which they were supposed to run in case of attack, and there were elaborate signalling systems to give the alarm. It is possible that many of the men would have recognized those signals if they hadseen or heard them, but was there likely to be any such signal? The English had not been near the island for twenty-five years. Why should they come today? Such, clearly, was the attitude of Pedro Perez and Luis de Aguiar, the two soldiers whose turn it was, on 25 May 1666, to serve as sentinels on the Cerro de la Hermosa at the south end of the island. Each pair of soldiers spent two days on sentry duty on this lofty peak, and no doubt it was felt to be an uncongenial duty. On a clear day it was possible to see out to sea in every direction for fifteen or twenty miles, but Perez and Aguiar saw nothing as Edward Mansfield's five ships approached the island, their masts and yards silhouetted against the setting sun. Was it clear that day? 'No', said Pedro Perez, giving evidence later. 'There was no sun and it was so cloudy that he could not see the headland of the Playa de los Naranjos at the southern end of the island.'10 'Yes,' said Domingo de Soza, a Portuguese captive of the English who was on Mansfield's own ship. It had been cloudy in the early afternoon, but later it cleared, and during the two hours before nightfall the sky was crystal clear. The sentinels could not possibly have failed to see the ships if they had been looking. One fears that the Portuguese was telling the truth and that the two sentries took a long siesta on that lovely afternoon. It was just bad luck that it had to be their turn to be on duty. Captain Mansfield was no doubt well informed as to the numbers, competence and morale of the island's garrison, for as he had run with the trade wind down to the Spanish Main and along the coast to Boca del Toro he had picked up many other prisoners in addition to Domingo de Soza--merchant seamen, fishermen, herdsmen. Anyone cruising along the coast or loitering unsuspectingly on the seashore was likely to end up on the deck of a privateer. And then, as the famous travel-writer and former buccaneer, Captain Dampier, tells us, they would be examined 'concerning the country, town, or city that they belong to ... how many families, whether most Spaniards? ... whether rich, and what their riches do consist in? ... if fortified, how many great guns, and what number of small arms? Whether it is possible to come undescried on them? How many look-outs or centinels ... and how the look-outs are placed? ... And if they have any former discourse of such places from other prisoners, they compare one with the other; then examine again, and enquire if he or any of them are capable to be guides to conduct a party of men thither.'11 Amongst Mansfield's prisoners on this occasion were a mestizocalled Montes and a Spaniard called Roque, both of whom knew Santa Catalina well and had agreed to guide the privateers for a share of the prize. They would need good guides, because their proposed invasion of the islands would take them by a route that was dangerous enough in daytime and was believed to be impossible at night. Such, at least, was the belief of the island's Governor, Don Estevan de Ocampo, who went to bed that night in his unfortified house quite oblivious of the disaster that was to wreck his military career after serving his king in Spain and the Indies for twenty-five years. As night fell, Mansfield signalled to his squadron to set sail towards the island, sounding continuously as they approached the reefs. At about ten o'clock they anchored just outside the one gap in the reefs which surrounded the southern end of the island and waited until the moon rose at midnight.12 Now, as the pale light illuminated the razor-sharp rocks stretching on each side as far as the eye could see, they launched their canoes and disembarked, leaving just two or three dozen men to guard the ships. They were a wild-looking crowd, sunburned, ragged and emaciated after their long and fruitless cruise; some two hundred men--eighty Frenchmen from the island of Tortuga, a few Dutch and Portuguese, the two renegade guides and a hundred or so Englishmen from Jamaica. Each man placed his long musket carefully in the canoe, keeping his two pistols and his cutlass in his belt, and then off they paddled swiftly and silently through the gap in the reefs into the milky, lukewarm waters of the lagoon within. Here they split up into two squadrons, one paddling straight ahead to Playa de los Naranjos and the other setting off a bit farther to the west to land at Playa Grande. Once the men had landed on the two beaches, the canoes returned to the ships--a dramatic gesture worthy of a greater captain and a greater exploit. There was now no retreat. They must conquer the island or die! The paths up from the beaches were thought to be impassable by night; but they seem to have given the privateers no problems, and soon the men were marching along in single file to where the two paths met. Here they had been told by their guides that there was a lookout post, but after a stealthy approach they found it deserted. So now all the privateers marched together, along the rough track grandly called the Royal Road, rounding up the men from the isolated farms along the way. One of these prisoners was deputed to guide them. He was pushed to the front of thecolumn, his hands tied behind his back and a lasso round his neck whose pressure was sufficient to indicate what would happen if he made a false move. He led them to Aguada Grande, the watering-place on the west coast where one of the island's four small rivers met the sea. Here a foolhardy Spaniard tried to seize a musket from one of the invaders and was shot for his pains--the only man to resist Mansfield's invasion and the only man to die. By this time, the sentries on Cerro de la Hermosa had woken up and, rubbing their eyes in the harsh dawn light, stared out to sea at the five ships anchored off the reef. Terrified, they ran down the hill to warn the Governor, who was still in bed. He shouted for a messenger to ride over and give the news to the Sergeant-Majora who was in charge of the fort, and then got dressed quickly and saddled a horse. But not quickly enough. Looking up from his task, he saw the enemy surrounding his house. He dashed inside to grab his sword and sell his life dearly, but there was to be no easy and noble way out for him. The enemy were already in the house, and the Governor was captured without a shot fired in his defence. Diego Rodriguez had risen early and was supervising the building of a bridge joining the fort of La Cortadura to the two islands. He had first joined the Spanish Army as a boy of ten and had served as a groom in the garrison of Badajoz in Spain. At fourteen he had come to Santa Catalina and now, nineteen years later, he was Sergeant-Major and second-in-command of the island.13 But, despite his rank and long service, he had probably never seen a shot fired in anger. The sun was only just over the horizon when four soldiers came running and shouted to him that the enemy had landed and had captured the Governor in his house. The Sergeant-Major rushed into the fort and called to the gunner of the guard to get the guns in order. But now they had to pay the price for those twenty-five years of neglect and indiscipline. There was no powder by the guns, and the four soldiers were sent to look for it; but when they found a chest full of powder they could not find the key. And where were the cannonballs and the grapeshot? It was so long since they had been used that no one could remember. Sergeant-Major Rodriguez was still rushingaround the gun-platform, shouting at people and looking for things, when he saw the enemy approaching in the distance and realized that the bridge he had been building was likely to make the assault rather easy. He raced down and threw the loose planks into the sea, but then could not find the hammer to prise up the planks that had already been nailed down by the negroes who had been working under his supervision. The negroes themselves had, of course, fled to the hills at the first news of the enemy. So, much of the bridge was still in place when Rodriguez scampered back up to the gun-platform and looked out along the barrel of the now-loaded gun at the enemy. The English shouted at him in Spanish to surrender. If he did not, they said, they would kill every man, woman and child on the main island and then come back to kill him, too. They looked quite capable of it. Rodriguez searched desperately for something to raise as a white flag and surrendered without a shot being fired--a fact he was at some pains to explain when he was later interrogated in Portobello. What good would it have done if he had fired one charge of grapeshot at the enemy? He had only eight men to defend the fort and he would soon have been overwhelmed. As it was, everyone on the island had remained alive and so could return to recover the loss on another occasion. It was a sentiment with which most readers will no doubt sympathize, but it did not receive much favour from the authorities in Portobello. Spanish soldiers were expected to win or die. A few minutes after Rodriguez' surrender, the English flag was flying over the fort and the Spanish prisoners in the ships outside the reef heard three cannon and a volley of musket-fire--the signal that Santa Catalina was English again. It was eight o'clock in the morning. Now it was just a question of rounding up the rest of the population and piling up the loot. Finding hidden loot was usually a major task for the privateers, but this time their approach had been so stealthy and the capture of the island so rapid that they were to have little trouble. How much they actually captured is difficult to say. The Spaniards naturally exaggerated the value of what they lost, since the greater the loss the more chance they had of remission of taxes and other favours. The English always minimized their gains to protect themselves from their creditors in Jamaica, and so we read in Sir Thomas Modyford's account of Mansfield's exploit that 'they acknowledge but very little plunder, only 150 negroes'. But this is clearly nonsense. Don Antonio Garmendia, a young Basque who was the contador or accountant of the island and so was fairly well placed to know the truth, said in evidence later that the English took, apart from the negroes, 5,000 pesos belonging to the King and all the silver, jewels and other valuables of the inhabitants, which were worth about 50,000 pesos. Many of the negroes seized by the English were actually free; one was an officer in the garrison. Adding all this up, and estimating the negroes at the usual valuation of 100 pesos a head, makes a grand haul of 70,000 pesos or £17,500b worth of booty. Shared out equally between the 230 men who sailed with Mansfield, this comes to about £75 each--a good night's work in a world where a labourer was lucky to make £15 a year, and not what would usually be described as 'very little plunder'. It is not difficult to appreciate the attractions of the life of the privateer. One other attraction usually enjoyed by these rough English heretics was denied them on this occasion. When they went off to wreck the church they found their way barred by their Catholic French allies, who promised the priest that they would guard him and prevent the English from getting at the images and altars. They planned to take the Holy Scriptures back for use in their own church in Tortuga. The disappointed English felt obliged to desist. It was such fun smashing up images. Whether they made up for this disappointment in other ways we do not know. The Spanish evidence makes no mention of torture or rape, but it would seem inconceivable that the privateers had no enjoyment from those scandalous ladies who had been deported from Cartagena and Panamá. Edward Mansfield remained less than a fortnight on his conquered island. He left Captain Hatsell with a garrison of thirty-five men and fifty negro slaves to hold the island until he had reported back to Jamaica, where he hoped to persuade the Governor to recognize the justice of his action and reinforce the garrison. But, first, he had to honour the surrender terms and land the Spanish garrison on the Main. On 11 June he dropped anchor at Punta de Brujas on the coast of Panamá and bid farewell to the dejected Governor Ocampo and the 170 people, many of them women and children, who had elected to leave the island rather than remain under English rule. It must have been a rather cramped journey but, fortunately for them, a quick one. Then Mansfield set sail onceagain for the north and arrived in Port Royal, Jamaica, with just two ships on 22 June. Here he reported to the Governor, Sir Thomas Modyford, giving, as most privateer captains did, a somewhat exaggerated account of his action. It turned out that there were two hundred Spanish soldiers on the island, not the ninety which the muster-books declared, and that all two hundred had managed to get into the fort to defend it, not merely the eight that Sergeant-Major Rodriguez could see. This was standard stuff. There was no such thing as a humble, self-effacing privateer. Mansfield was able to emphasize the essentially English nature of the island by pointing out that several of the twenty-seven guns he had captured had the arms of Queen Elizabeth engraven on them. As Mansfield had expected, there were few recriminations for the misuse of his commission. Modyford was to confess as much four days later in a letter to Lord Arlington, the English Secretary of State: I have yet only reproved him for doing it without order, which I should suppose would have been an acceptable service had he received command for it ... . Neither could I without manifest imprudence but accept the tender of it in his Majestie's behalfe. And considering its good situation for ye favouring any designes his Majesty may have on that rich maine right against it ... I hold it my duty to reinforce that garrison and to send downe some able person to command it.14 Such a letter was, as we shall see, rather typical of Modyford's artful approach to the governorship of Jamaica. 15 There had, however, been a radical change in the situation in Jamaica in the six months that Mansfield had been away from the island, and the Governor had found it necessary to court the privateers in every possible way. Modyford had found that his refusal to issue commissions against the Spaniards had drained Jamaica of fighting men, as privateer after privateer had drifted off to seek French or Portuguese commissions from that other great promoter of the privateering business, the Governor of the French island of Tortuga. Modyford found the situation most alarming. He had no ships of the Royal Navy to defend Jamaica, and now he had no privateers, either. Never had the island seemed more vulnerable. There was the constant threat that a huge Spanish fleet might appear over the horizon to try to repossess the island the Spaniards had lost ten years previously; for they still felt deeply the dishonour of an English Jamaica, their first big islandto fall to foreigners. And then there were the Dutch, with whom England had been officially at war since February 1665. Finally, and most dangerous of all, there were the French, who, by an agreement made in 1662, were obliged to come to the aid of the Dutch against the English. So far they had not honoured this obligation but, if and when they did, a Jamaica without ships and with a depleted militia would be too tempting a target to resist. How could Modyford ensure that the privateers returned to their allegiance in Jamaica? The answer, in the lunatic world of the seventeenth-century West Indies, was simple. The only way to get men to come to Jamaica to defend the island against the French was to issue commissions against the Spaniards, since it was only against the Spaniards that the privateers liked to fight, except in self-defence. And so, on 4 March 1666, Modyford consulted with the Council of Jamaica, and it was resolved 'that it is the interest and advantage of the island of Jamaica to have letters of marque graunted against the Spaniard'.16 In other words, Modyford had just made a unilateral declaration of war upon Spain--a fact which was proclaimed at beat of drum in the streets of Port Royal. All this made Mansfield's capture of Santa Catalina on 26 May almost legal in retrospect, although it might prove convenient to tell the truth and say that 'the old fellow' had done it on his own initiative if there were any awkward Spanish reactions. Not that Modyford had any intention of handing the island back to Spain. It was English and had always been English, except for that short, illegal, unprovoked Spanish occupation of twenty-five years. At the moment, there were few men available to reinforce the garrison, but Modyford did his best. Just eight days after Mansfield's return, on 30 June 1666, Major Samuel Smith was commissioned as commander of 'all the forces made and to be made in Jamaica and other parts for the guard and defence of Providence Island ... and also Governor of all the inhabitants'.17 He left almost immediately to 'take the same into his charge' with a few reinforcements and the promise of many more as they became available. Amongst his papers were a bundle of blank privateering commissions authorizing him to appoint captains 'to attaque, fight with or surprise any vessell or vessells whatsoever belonging to the King of Spain or any of his subjects which you shall meet with to the southward of the Tropic of Cancer; and also if you finde it prudential to invade any of their lands, colonys, or plantations in America'.18 The English occupation of Providence, or Santa Catalina, was not to last for long, but a new phase in the long-running privateering war against Spain had begun. It was to end four and a half years later with the sack of Panamá. But first we have to record a Spanish triumph. THE SACK OF PANAMÁ. Copyright (c) 1981 by Peter Earle. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010. Excerpted from Treasure Hunt: Shipwreck, Diving, and the Quest for Treasure in an Age of Heros by Peter Earle All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.