Admiral Sir Henry Morgan Welshman whose father was a wealthy farmer, but as a young boy Morgan ran away from home and headed for the English seaside town of Bristol. From Bristol he set sail for the Caribbean and was at some point sold into slavery; after some years as a slave he escaped his master and made his way to Jamaica.
Jamaica had been taken from the Spanish by England in 1655, so Morgan found safe haven in Jamaica. Soon after arriving in Jamaica Morgan decided to become a pirate; over time he became well known in the Caribbean for his cruelty and bravery. He was one of the few people at the time who knew the way from Jamaica to Panama.
The Isthmus had been shrouded in secrecy by the Spanish because of the valuable gold shipments that were transported from Panama City to the Atlantic port of Portobello. In fact, in 1666 Morgan was able to capture the port of Portobello and hold it for two weeks, as Drake had done a century earlier. But the real treasure in Panama wasn’t in Portobello but rather on the Pacific side of Panama in Panama City. In 1670, Morgan assembled 2,000 men on the pirate island of Hispaniola – today Haiti and the Dominican Republic – and headed out into the Caribbean for the pirate island of Santa Catalina.
Santa Catalina was an island Morgan knew well from earlier raids and it was only 300 kilometers from Panama – today the island of Santa Catalina is just north of the Colombian island of San Andres. He sent out a force of 400 men from Santa Catalina to capture Fort San Lorenzo; Morgan stayed in Santa Catalina as he knew there was little hope of capturing the Spanish fort. And the Spaniards knew that Morgan and his men were coming; there had been rumors circulating around the Caribbean that Morgan was planning a major attack on Panama. Knowing this the Spanish increased the size of their force at San Lorenzo from 150 to 300 men and supplied them with plenty of food and gunpowder.
Morgan’s men landed three kilometers from the fort and then made their way through the jungle to the perimeter of the fort.
The other difficulty would have been finding their way through the jungle. With many of Morgan's men lost and scared in the jungle, it would have been easy for the Spanish to hear them coming through the jungle and when the Englishmen exited the jungle they were immediately attacked. After being forced back into the jungle by the initial engagement with the Spanish, the English tried to attack again that night but were pushed back again by the Spanish.
It was a stroke of luck that allowed the Englishmen to take the fort: one of the Englishmen was shot through the back with an arrow; the arrow went straight through him. He broke off the arrowhead and wrapped cotton around it and loaded it into his musket. The arrow ignited when it was shot from the rifle and hit a thatch roof in the fort, the roof that covered the Spanish gunpowder. The gunpowder exploded and the fort caught on fire.
During the night the Englishmen were able to shoot and kill a great number of Spaniards as the fire burned away and their vision from the surrounding jungle improved. The Englishmen were then able to create a breach in the fort’s walls and eventually take the fort. Of the 300 Spaniards in the fort only 30 survived, most threw themselves off the cliffs surrounding the fort.
Morgan arrived 5 days later and was surprised to see the English flag flying above the fort. Morgan left some of his men at San Lorenzo and headed up the Rio Chagres on the first leg of the of his famous crossing of Panama. Morgan had a former Spanish prisoner from Panama guide he and his men down the Rio Chagres to the town of Venta Cruces; the town marked the place where the river ended and the Spanish trail to Panama City began.
Morgan’s men had no food as they thought they could capture food on the way: there was nothing to catch. There were no people along the route. They only found some leather bags in a hideout along the river, which they boiled and ate. On the seventh day they saw smoke up the river where the town of Venta Cruces was supposed to be located, when they arrived to the town they realized the smoke was not food cooking but rather the village of Venta Cruces burning: the inhabitants had heard Morgan coming.
However, even though they knew Morgan was coming, the men of Panama City made no provisions for Morgan’s arrival; no defenses were set up: Panama City was not well defended from behind - where the jungle began - because the jungle had always eaten up anyone who had tried to cross it.
Morgan and his men made their way down the Spanish trail to Panama City and were attacked periodically by Indians. For two days they made their way down the old Spanish trail, most of them starving to death, until the trail ended and the grasslands behind Panama City began. There were cattle in the grasslands behind the city and these grazing cattle would lead to the defeat of the Spanish: Morgan’s men jumped on the cattle and ate them; they must have gone wild with lust as they ate the flesh half-cooked or raw, but the meat gave them the strength to do battle the next day.
The Spaniards lost the battle because they fought Morgan and his men on horseback and since the grasslands where the battle took place were soggy and wet, fighting on horseback was impossible. Morgan took Panama City and held it for three weeks. There was little gold in the town, so Morgan took people as hostages for ransom. As he left Panama City to make the return trip to San Lorenzo, people came running after their wives and children and paid the ransom that Morgan wanted.
Morgan finally returned to San Lorenzo and split up the small treasure; his men were unhappy about receiving so little for their efforts, Morgan was fearful: in the middle of the night Morgan snuck out of San Lorenzo, onto his ship and out to sea leaving most of his men stranded at San Lorenzo, where most would die.