Battle of Panama – Part II

« Previous story
Next story »
Battle of Panama – Part II

Today in Military History: January 27, 1671

Battle Dispositions


During the march, Morgan’s army was divided into two main divisions, each of 400 men, preceded by an advanced guard of 200 men. This vanguard contained the best of Morgan’s marksmen, which was commanded by the highly experienced Dutch buccaneer Laurens Prins. [Most of these sharpshooters were Frenchmen armed with some of the latest technology: the flintlock musket. This weapon was an improvement over the matchlocks still in use in Europe. These weapons could be reloaded more quickly, and were less susceptible to wet powder.]

On the morning of the battle, Prins was on the left wing with his vanguard, Morgan remained in the centre with the main body, while another commander, probably Robert Searle, commanded the rearguard, which was working its way through the dense jungle in an attempt to outflank the Spaniards. Each main division now contained less than 400 men, while the vanguard was formed from the remains of Prins’ 200 picked men.


The men of the two main divisions were probably armed with cutlasses, daggers, pistols, and probably a few boarding pikes or other miscellaneous weapons – perhaps even a blunderbuss [see above], boarding axes, crossbows, perhaps even grenades or other exotic weapons. Most of them lacked any sort of protection, though there were probably a few helmets or breastplates looted from Spanish soldiers. It was one of the most extraordinary armies ever assembled — 1,200 criminals: Englishmen, Dutch, French, blacks, Indians and even a few renegade Spaniards. At their head stood a former Welsh plowboy and onetime Barbados indentured servant; Henry Morgan had come to retrieve his pistol from the governor of Panama.

The Spanish were formed in line with their foot in the centre and their flanks protected by cavalry. The infantry were likely all militia, formed into four regiments, each of approximately six companies of around 50-100 men each. The formations were arrayed six deep in the current Spanish style, with the musketeers protected by pikemen (a musket:pike ratio of 2:1 was probable). In addition to Panamanian locals, there was also a small contingent of local Indians in the mix. There are also accounts which state that some black slaves were impressed into the militia, as well. The 400 militia cavalry were split into two squadrons, one on each wing.


The Spaniards also had a trick up their sleeves, as they had rounded up a herd of several hundred cattle, which the governor planned to stampede into the buccaneer ranks at a critical moment. Governor Peréz de Guzmán commanded his troops in person, assisted by the Alcalde (mayor) of Panama, and an un-named Spanish army colonel, a military attaché to the governor’s staff. It is unclear whether he included field artillery in his line of battle. Artillery was readily available, but if used its part in the battle was not mentioned by the participants.

Battle of Panama

On the morning of January 27, Morgan formed up his men “with drums and trumpets sounding” and began marching towards the city. By mid morning the two small armies faced each other, separated by two miles of boggy open ground. A slight rise or hammock dominated the open plain to the east of the battlefield, immediately to the front right of the Spanish line. The buccaneers then advanced, “their red and green banners clearly visible to the Spaniards [who] were posted in a spacious field waiting for their coming.”


The Spaniards began the battle by launching their cavalry against the pirates (there is some debate on whether they charged with or without orders), with their infantry in support. The boggy ground in front of the pirates did not allow the cavalry to maneuver well. The soft footing wreaked havoc with the mostly-untrained horsemen. As they approached the pirate vanguard, Prins ordered his marksmen to kneel and prepare a volley. A thunderous blast of the 200 flintlock-armed buccaneers disrupted the cavalry’s charge. Then, with military precision, the French corsairs proceeded to fire disciplined volleys, loaded, and fired again, delivering death and destruction among the disordered horsemen. After about a half hour, the Spanish horse was compelled to withdraw.

The Spaniards next tried their secret weapon: the herd of cattle was goaded into charging the pirate ranks. However, most of the terrified animals, frightened by the noise of the battle, simply ran away in any direction they could. The few that reached the pirate lines were shot by the still-hungry pirates, who were grateful to the Spaniards for supplying them with the makings of a victory barbecue. Many of the bovines also ran back into the Spanish units, causing further problems.

By this time the Spanish infantry had seen their cavalry wings dissolve, with their own ranks disrupted by the stampeding cattle. As a last resort the governor ordered the militia to advance on the buccaneers. They were met by a withering fire, and the advance stalled. They stood their ground for several minutes and tried to exchange fire within 50 yards of the buccaneer line, but they were no match for the sharpshooting pirates, according to Esquemeling, “…which being perceived by the [Spanish] foot, and that they could not possibly prevail, they discharged the shot they had in their muskets, and throwing them on the ground, betook themselves to flight, every one which way he could run.” After about two hours, the battle of Panama was over.


The poorly trained Spanish militia armed with matchlock firearms proved no match for Morgan’s veterans armed almost exclusively with flintlocks. Peréz de Guzmán’s attempts to rally his men proved fruitless; he fled towards the city, where a boat waited to take him to safety. Many of the rest of the Spanish soldiers were not so lucky. The buccaneers offered them no quarter, and even a group of priests who came out to beg Morgan to spare the city were cut down (at least according to Esquemeling).

It still might have been possible to stop the buccaneers entering the city, but the fleeing Spanish troops pouring through the gates prevented their closure. The buccaneers followed closely behind, and although some Spanish gunners remained at their posts and fired at the attackers (probably causing “friendly fire” casualties on some of their own routed troops), they were unable to prevent the invaders from entering the city. The buccaneers slaughtered anyone who dared to oppose them, and the Spanish inhabitants fled for the eastern gate and for the harbor, where they escaped in anything that would float. The chaos must have been indescribable, but by mid-afternoon, Morgan had established complete control of the city.


The second largest city of the Western Hemisphere, a thriving mercantile community of more than 7,000 households and about 10,00 inhabitants, had fallen into the hands of a gang of thugs and cutthroats, who immediately began pillaging it. Morgan ordered his men not to drink any wine under the pretext that the inhabitants had poisoned it. It seems more likely that he was concerned that the Spaniards, who still greatly outnumbered his own force, might be encouraged to counterattack if the pirates degenerated into a drunken rabble.


Fire broke out in several quarters of Panama soon after the looting began. Morgan had traditionally been accused of ordering the city burned, but such behavior would have been out of character with his usual methods. Morgan regarded the towns he captured as hostages, to be destroyed only in the event of a ransom not being paid. He had a great deal to lose and nothing to gain by such an act of arson. [There is also the possibility that Governor Guzman ordered powder magazines blown up to kill the pirate pillagers.]

Panama continued to burn for nearly four weeks. During that time, the pirates searched the adjacent coast and outlying islands for hidden caches of loot, until Morgan learned some of his men were planning to desert in one of the Spanish ships and go into business for themselves in the Pacific. Morgan could not afford to see his army split up in a hostile country, so he ordered all captured ships’ masts cut down and burned.

Nearly a month later, on February 24, the pirates began the march back with 175 pack animals laden with treasure. They also brought along 600 prisoners of all ages, most of whom were ransomed before they reached his base at Chagre. Once they reached the Gulf coast, the plunder obtained at Panama was shared out. Unfortunately, most of the wealth of Panama had been sent away before the battle. The several weeks spent harrying the vicinity of the city yielded each surviving pirate only about £18 sterling per man (the equivalent of $80,000 in today’s currency). Many of his men accused Morgan of cheating them out of their shares. Consequently, Morgan ordered his force to return to Port Royale.

Henry Morgan returned to a Jamaica much changed from the one he had left. In the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1670, England had agreed to suppress piracy in return for Spanish recognition of its sovereignty in Jamaica. In 1672, Morgan was transported back to England to be tried for piracy, but he was received rather more as a romantic hero than as a vicious criminal. In 1674 he was made a baronet, and later that year returned to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Morgan, even serving as acting governor from 1680 to 1682. He died in 1688 (an end probably brought about in no small part to his excessive drinking), possibly from liver failure and “dropsy” (excessive swelling of the feet and legs).

Footnote #1: Morgan was buried in the Palisadoes cemetery, which fell into the ocean as a result of the 1692 earthquake and tidal wave which destroyed Port Royale.

Footnote #2: As a result of the capture, pillage and burning of Panama, the city was rebuilt several miles west of its previous site. The ruins are still visible today as Panama Viejo, a United Nations World Heritage Site.


Footnote #3: The majority of the route taken by Morgan’s force is now covered by the Panama Canal.

Footnote #4: On his death, Morgan left a fairly considerable estate. It included at least 2 plantations — named Lan-Rumney and Pen-Carn — 122 slaves, 11 servants and £5250 sterling (about £834,000 sterling or $1.328 million in today’s currency).

Posted in top stories, Uncategorized | 3 comments
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.


Yes, Interesting story. I am visiting Panama as of now. I checked out the old ruins just a few days ago, and whereas before, you could visit the ruins for free, they now charge 4 bucks. They have been renovating it for a while now, and preserving the ruins. Took a drive to Kuna Yala region, and to San Blas islands. Had read before that the Camino Real ran from Old Panama to Nombre de Dios, and later to Porto Bello. Was reading on how the mule packs that carried the gold from the Pacific to the Atlantic port of Nombre de Dios involved climbing up and down some mountains. On my drive at Kuna Yala, I could see why.

You put so much effort while writing about the battle.Thanks for sharing your views.Great blog here.It’s hard to find quality writing like yours these days.I really appreciate people like you.
mountain bike helmets

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.