The Sack of Panama: Captain Morgan and The Battle for the Caribbean

Review of The Sack of Panama: Captain Morgan and The Battle for the Caribbean, by Peter Earle (St. Martin's Press '07, $25.95, 292 pages, ISBN #0-312-36142-4; index, source notes, bibliography, unillustrated)

During the sixteenth century, Spain was the first Western nation to create a truly global empire. Through inheritance, colonization, and conquest the Spanish Habsburgs acquired territories in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the New World, making them the most powerful country in Christendom. Of all the various possessions, the Caribbean Sea, with its plethora of sugar islands, and Peru, with its silver mines, were the most valuable to the Spanish treasury. However, by 1666, Spain had suffered from military defeat in Europe, the loss of Portugal, and significant economic decline. Her New World Empire was especially vulnerable to coastal raids and shipping attacks from interloping French, Dutch, and especially English privateers.

Peter Earle's The Sack of Panamá describes the series of English attacks on Spanish possessions during the 1660s, which culminated in Henry Morgan's capture of one of the most vital cities in the silver trade. Earle's narrative vividly portrays the strategic problems faced by a weakened Spain, desperately trying to hold on to its most valuable colonial possessions in an era of uncertain communications and increased European competition. It also details the diplomatic problems faced by an English government interested in reaching a long-term agreement with Madrid, while also maintaining a defense policy agreeable to influential politicians and investors in Jamaica, Barbados, and Bermuda.

The story begins in 1666 with the capture and subsequent loss of the island of Santa Catalina, off the Nicaraguan Coast by a fleet of English privateers under Captain Edward Mansfield. Although Mansfield's commission was to attack Dutch possessions and England was formally at peace with Spain, the Jamaica-based privateers were not troubled by such trivia. The English quickly overwhelmed the under-manned, under-funded, and unprepared Spanish garrison but were no more able to hold the island than the previous occupants. Earle effectively describes the Spanish strategic problem. With hundreds of islands, towns, and trade routes to protect and only a handful of trained soldiers, ships, and funds to protect them with, even the most important locations were painfully and obviously vulnerable to attack.

Sir Thomas Modyford, the English governor of Jamaica, had his own strategic dilemma. Although English possessions in the Caribbean were less extensive, the government in London had as little (or less) interest in spending significant amounts of money for their defense than the Spanish did. Nothing demonstrates the semi-private and questionably legal nature of early modern warfare than Modyford's reliance on the estimated 1,500 privateers based in Jamaica. Spain and England signed a formal treaty of peace, alliance, and commerce in 1667 but this did not stop the governor from issuing commissions to attract enough privateers to defend the island.

Earle next turns to Morgan's attack on the city of Portobello in 1668. Despite the threats of disease and a relief column led by President of Panamá, Don Agustin de Bracamonte, the privateers quickly took the city and held it for ransom. Once again, Earle describes the Spanish defenses as inadequate and unprepared. Bracamonte acted with unusual haste for a Spanish colonial official but was unable to recruit or equip more than several hundred men. Ultimately, Bracamonte was forced to accept Morgan's ransom terms. In "perhaps the most successful and audacious amphibious operation of the seventeenth century" Morgan was able to act decisively and maintain order among his often unruly men for a prize of approximately a quarter of a million pesos. The payout amounted to £150 per privateer, a massive sum for the time.

During the next two years, the Spanish made fruitless attempts to defend their possessions from further destruction, including issuing privateering commissions of their own. The Council of the Indies authorized the first official Spanish fleet in the Caribbean for decades. Although financial difficulties caused the fleet to be reduced to only five ships, these outclassed individually any ship that Morgan possessed. For a time the "Armada de Barlovento" showed some effectiveness but the cash-strapped Spanish government ordered the two most powerful ships to home waters during the summer of 1668. Vice-Admiral Don Alonzo de Campos's three ships still carried more guns than Morgan's entire privateer fleet. On 27 April 1669, the armada got its chance to end Morgan's career early, trapping his fleet in the lagoon of Maracaibo. A combination of bad luck, unbelievable incompetence, and the daring ingenuity of Henry Morgan, however, led to the complete destruction of the Armada de Barlovento. Spain's colonial possessions were once again in grave danger.

The remainder of this book focuses on Morgan's famous campaign against Panamá in 1671. Four aspects of it stand out: First is the unprecedented size of the operation. Based on estimates from the Governors of Jamaica and Tortuga, about eighty percent of all Caribbean privateers flocked to Morgan's flag. Second is the nearly insoluble task facing the Spanish defenders throughout the region. Virtually all the important Spanish possessions were poorly defended, making it difficult to determine where Morgan's men would strike. In addition, rivalries between colonial officials and meager budgets made it impossible to develop a coordinated defensive plan. The third notable feature of the campaign was its amphibious nature. Despite the popular image of privateers as sailors, the decisive phases of the Panamá campaign were the advance up the River Chagres and the set-piece battle outside the city, in which Morgan's men routed the Spanish militia at a cost of only fifteen casualties. The final and most notable feature of the campaign were the disappointing spoils. Although they plundered large portions of the isthmus, Morgan's men only managed to loot half of what they took at Portobello. Considering the much larger size of the force, each privateer earned about one tenth of the share from the earlier campaign. The Panamá campaign highlights the diminishing financial returns as such military operations increase in scale.

Earle's work is an enjoyable and important contribution to the maritime history of the 17th century. By focusing on a handful of related campaigns and integrating the English and Spanish perspectives, he demonstrates the tenuous nature of European colonialism in its early phases and the ineffective nature of diplomacy in the early modern Atlantic World. The book does have two minor weaknesses. First, he pays no attention to recent scholarship on the decline of silver shipments to Spain from her colonies, which could help to explain the weak response of the Madrid government to privateering attacks in the Caribbean. Second, he does not give sufficient emphasis to Spain's changing position in the larger European balance of power since the 1640s. His focus is solely on English-Spanish relations, paying no attention to the French or Dutch governments. However, in spite of these weaknesses, The Sack of Panamá is an excellent introduction to the maritime history of the Atlantic World and the decline of Spanish colonial power.