Meticulous chronicle of perhaps the most audacious pirate raid in history.
On the Caribbean side of the Audiencia of Panamá, the city of Portobello welcomed Spanish ships carrying manufactured goods critical to the West Indian empire’s maintenance. On the Pacific side of the narrow isthmus lay the city of Panamá, where ships laden with silver from Peru off-loaded their treasure onto mule trains headed to Portobello for galleons returning to Spain. By 1666, it had been almost 70 years since English privateer Francis Drake had seriously threatened the area’s security. In the meantime, her treasury drained by incessant war and the cost of servicing her far-flung colonies, Spain’s power waned, her vigilance relaxed and her defense of the Caribbean grew thin and rusty. From his base on Jamaica, Privateer Henry Morgan noticed. Taking full advantage of Spanish decay and the vast distances and slow communications that allowed him to ignore whatever peace agreement Europe had concluded, Morgan (making sly use of commissions issued by Jamaica’s governor, Thomas Modyford, that lent legal cover to his operations) brought Spain to her knees. Earle (Economic History/Univ. of London; The Pirate Wars, 2005, etc.) focuses on the five-year period featuring a series of pirate attacks and Spanish counterthrusts that culminated in the audacious 1671 raid on Portobello and the looting of Panamá, which cemented Morgan’s reputation as history’s greatest pirate commander, whose effectiveness was exceeded only by his brutality. Relying mostly on letters, reports and legal documents, the author has pieced together a fascinating tale that’s especially strong in recounting the Spaniards’ mostly hapless response to Morgan’s depredations and in delineating how piracy thrived within the interstices of law and diplomacy. Earle also explains why, once launched on their dubious missions, irregular forces of men who thought nothing of rape, torture or any despicable tactic to gain their objective, nonetheless strictly adhered to self-made codes of conduct and elaborate conventions that governed the division of spoils.
A well-told adventure.