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A fresh, vigorous, rounded account of privateer Captain Henry Morgan's 1671 capture and sack of old Panama, hub-city of the Spanish Main--and the five years of Caribbean jousting that preceded Morgan's coup. The story opens with the privateers' seizure of Santa Catalina island, off the coast of the isthmus, and its quick recapture by the Spaniards--on the initiative of Don Juan Perez de Guzman, Governor of Panama and the official responsible for seeing that the silver of Peru is transported safely across the isthmus, on its way to Spain. But in his hour of triumph, Don Juan is consigned to jail in Peru, for the alleged misappropriation of some silver bars. The English, on Jamaica, have begun again to issue commissions to privateers--so that these freebooters would ""fight for them and not against them""--despite a new peace treaty between Great Britain and Spain. And Morgan, now foremost among them, knows he can stretch his commission--on the pretext of forestalling attack--to cover ""the much more dangerous but much more profitable activity of seizing cities and towns rather than ships at sea."" Thus the background of Morgan's daring capture and (highly profitable) ransoming of Portobello, across the isthmus from the city of Panama; his no less daring (if somewhat less profitable) attack on Maracaibo; and the thrust 60 miles across the isthmus for the ultimate prize, Panama itself--now again under the command of the worthy, hapless Don Juan Perez de Guzman. Earle, a splendid storyteller, is by trade an economic historian--so we see the return of ""our Portobello men"" as a debauch that the governor of Jamaica smiles upon: ""The duties of drink paid the expenses of government."" He has gone to the Spanish records--so we know that it was they, not Morgan, who set fire to Panama. But we also experience the humiliation and the cost in lives from their point of view. Peace came to the Indies soon thereafter; Morgan was knighted, and lived wealthily, ""drinking heavily,"" for 13 years in Jamaica. ""Privateering was a business,"" Earle concludes; a life of adventure; and for the inhabitants of the Spanish Indies, ""a curse."" Very well done indeed--and excellently mapped.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1982
Publisher: Viking