Listen carefully in Panama Viejo and you can hear barbaric screams

If the walls of Panama Viejo could talk, they’d have a bloodthirsty tale to tell.

Panama Viejo: Old Panama the original Panama city. Stand in the graveled, tree-lined road, the convent and public baths to your left, the Jesuit church to your right, and listen carefully. Screams of terror. Shouts of domination. The clash of steel. Musket fire. The roar of flames consuming the city. It is January, 1671.

Pirate Henry Morgan and 1,200 fierce, dirty, scruffy and desperate pirates are here, smelly from a nine-day trek through the jungle, sweating under the summer sun.

Morgan had thought his men would be able to live off the land on their way across the isthmus from the Caribbean. He was wrong. Villages were deserted, their crops burned. Morgan had thought he could take the city now known as Panama Viejo by surprise. He was wrong again. The Spanish knew of the impending attack three weeks before it came.

With a relatively small defensive force, they could easily have wiped out Morgan’s half-starved and exhausted crew at any number of ideal ambush points along the route through the jungle. That they did not even try can be blamed on Don Juan de Guzman, governor of Panama, who died with the city he considered invincible.

After nine days of unimpeded passage through the jungle, Morgan’s men staggered to the top of a small hill and saw the Pacific in the distance. Below them, fat cattle grazed on lush grass, and trees were laden with fruit. Another Spanish act of stupidity.

Barbaric feast

The pirates fell on the cattle, hacking off great chunks of raw meat almost before the animals were dead. As you imagine them fighting the next day in Panama Viejo, also think of the blood that stained their beards, hands, faces and the clothing that had been reduced to rags in the jungle. Think of them brandishing their weapons and screaming like banshees, and you can imagine the terror they struck in the local population.

Ruins of the old baths at Panama Viejo

Guzman made another error that led to the death of Panama Viejo: on the plains outside the city, he ranged 4,000 troops, well-armed, smartly dressed: infantry, cavalry and artillery. There should have been no contest, faced with a disorganized rabble of a little more than 1,000. What the Spanish did not reckon on was the fear of the jungle. These men would rather die quickly fighting than again face the horrors of the jungle and a likely slow death there.

The defenders placed their largest guns on the road leading to the city. Morgan’s men simply skirted a small hill and came toward the city from another direction, making the fixed guns useless.

Cavalry wiped out

Spanish fighting discipline worked against them, as well. As the two forces approached each other, the pirates leaped into a long ditch protected by underbrush. The Spanish cavalry, 400 of the finest mounted troops in the Americas, under orders to charge, trotted forward in close formation toward 200 specially selected marksmen with orders to wait until the horsemen were almost upon them.

The slaughter was ghastly. What was left of the cavalry retreated, reformed, and challenged the pirate wall of death a second time with the same result. They never broke line. The tactic was repeated with diminishing numbers until the cavalry was wiped out. Morgan’s men were left virtually unscathed.

Infantry slaughtered

Now it was the infantry’s turn to be sacrificed. Fighting in Spanish block formation, close together and in the open, they were mowed down under the deadly fire of an opponent they could not even see. The pirates fought from behind trees, hummocks, anything that would provide shelter; the Spanish remained in formation out in the open.

Seeing his army being routed, Guzman sprang what he thought would be the master strategy of the battle, he loosed 2,000 wild bulls that had been brought into the city just days before. Driven by yelling cowboys, the maddened bulls were driven across the field to trample the pirates. The pirates simply shot the cowboys and a few lead animals, and the bulls, bellowing in terror, headed for the hills.

Defenders fled

Hopelessly outnumbered, the defenders fled for Panama Viejo with the attackers hot on their heels. The defenders tried to make a stand in the city itself, but their morale was broken and they gave up less than eight hours after the first shot had been fired.

Now there was a new menace in Panama Viejo. Amid the shouts, groans and screams, Morgan heard that the residential district was ablaze. Homes of cedar and other aromatic woods of the wealthy and the thatched roof dwellings of the poor and the slaves burned like tinder in the dry summer wind. Residents and pirates worked shoulder to shoulder, but the fire was impossible to control.

Ruins of the old cathedral are under repair.

Morgan was blamed for the fire, but it is unlikely that he was responsible. The rich homes were filled with the most expensive furniture money could buy. Rugs, tapestries and family plate destroyed by the flames were far more valuable than the gold and silver captured in the raid. Morgan, who had counted on becoming rich from the attack, left with one-tenth the value he had expected. Some say the Spaniards set the fire to cheat the pirates. Others think a lit stove was knocked over in a skirmish. Whatever the reason, most of what is now Panama Viejo was wiped out. Only the stone buildings, remnants of which can be seen today, remained standing.

Lost advantage

Morgan also lost the advantage of being able to threaten to torch the city if ransom was not paid.

Ironically, the greatest damage to the stone buildings was done in the 20th century by locals scavenging material to build homes.

Interrogating prisoners, Morgan learned that the treasure galleon Trinity had left the port the day before his raiders arrived, bound for Peru. It carried half of Panama’s wealth and 1,500 members of the richest families, families that have the means to pay hefty ransoms. The cargo was probably worth millions, and the ship was so heavily laden and sailing so slowly it should have been easy for the pirates to overtake it.

On other side

Morgan sent Captain Daniel Searles to find the ship, which had headed in the direction of Taboga Island, not far from Panama Viejo. Searles and his crew landed on the island, unaware that the Spanish were taking on water and provisions on the other side. The townspeople plied Searles and his crew with wine, getting them so drunk that the Spanish vessel was able to make its escape.

The next morning, staggering back to consciousness, Searles and his merry band discovered what had happened, but it was then too late to catch the treasure ship. Instead, they brought back a lovely woman, Maria Eleanora Lopez y Ganero, hoping that Morgan would be so smitten he would forgive them the loss of the ship. Morgan was disinterested but, ever practical, he did manage to ransom the woman for $30,000.

175 mules

It took just 175 pack mules to carry the spoils of the city across the isthmus to the Caribbean side. Morgan had expected to use 10 times that number. Instead of anticipating riches to last a lifetime, the pirates now knew how slim the pickings had been. They were morose, ill tempered, rebellious. And the grueling journey back did nothing to improve their disposition. Morgan was the focal point of much of his men’s anger, and eventually he heard that some were plotting to kill him.

Back at the mouth of the Chagres River, he called a secret meeting of some of his most loyal followers, quietly prepared three of the most seaworthy ships, and had the loot sorted into separate piles of gold and bullion, jewels, and merchandise. He then announced that the following day the spoils would be shared and that this night there would be a grand celebration.

Morgan’s toast

Morgan opened the first keg and proposed a toast to the spoils of Panama and those of their next adventure, but Morgan and his select followers drank little. The rest of the men drank until they dropped. As they snored loudly, the gold, jewels and the most valuable of the merchandise was stowed aboard the three vessels, the other vessels were disabled sufficiently that it would take several days to repair them, and Morgan and his crew pushed out into the river’s current which quietly carried them away.

While Morgan sailed off to his base in Jamaica, the remaining buccaneers freed all the Panama Viejo prisoners. Most of the Spaniards headed toward Portobelo. The black slaves headed toward Panama Viejo. They stopped short of the continental divide and founded the town of San Juan, which still stands today.

Panama Viejo was never rebuilt. What is now modern, bustling Panama City was founded about five miles west, near the area of the Presidential Palace. Pirates never again attacked the city.

But the remaining stones of Panama Viejo – stones you can touch today – saw and heard it all, just as you will if you listen carefully enough.