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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

A privateer in Panama

Engraved landscape view of the battlescene with figures fighting on horseback and on foot. The city of Panama is visible in the background with flames billowing from its buildings.Plate depicting Sir Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama in 1670.This is the first English edition of a book originally published in Dutch in 1678. The author, Dutch-born barber-surgeon Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin (1645-1707), had been an indentured servant. After his removal from servitude he accompanied buccaneers, including the notorious Sir Henry Morgan (c1635-88) on several expeditions, of which he provides arresting eyewitness accounts.

The vividness of his descriptions of these early semi-official English forays against Spanish America account for its contemporary popularity and its status now as the most celebrated primary source on its subject.

The book portrays the Spanish as cowardly, decadent and ripe for English conquest, which did nothing to harm sales. It was also the subject of a celebrated legal action; in 1685, prompted perhaps by the accession to the throne of the avowedly Catholic and pro-Spanish James II, Morgan sued in the first ever case of libel in English law for having been called a ‘pirate’. He asserted that he was a privateer who had always acted with the approval of the authorities. The case was settled in Morgan’s favour. He won £200 and £10 costs.    

In the absence of official naval protection, buccaneers were the first line of defence for England against Spain, which was nervous about England’s occupation of Jamaica from 1657, as it was too near to Cuba and Hispaniola. For England, Jamaica was an excellent bridgehead from which to probe the military weakness of Spanish America. Panama and Portobelo, on the Isthmus of Darien, through which silver from the Peruvian mines was transported for shipment to Spain, were of special interest. Spain depended on silver in order to pay debts incurred by the costs of defending its empire and fighting European wars and to pay for sought-after products from Asia. If this supply were interrupted, Spain’s strategic position would be imperilled.

This is the background to Sir Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama in 1670, depicted in this plate. It was justified as a pre-emptive action to protect England’s position in the West Indies. Although Morgan succeeded in capturing Panama, this was achieved at great cost. As Panama could not defend itself properly, the president forewarned its citizens, who fled with their most valuable possessions. The president then ordered that the town should be burnt if his forces were defeated. After having failed to secure their expected plunder, the privateers subjected runaway Panamanians to brutal torture, which is graphically evoked in this book.

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