Bits & Pieces

April 30, 2011

Puerto Bello (Portobelo)

Rodrigo de Bastidas set sail from Spain in October 1500 in two ships as the leader of an expedition that included Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Juan de la Cosa.  They reached the Venezuelan coast and continued sailing west along the coast reaching the Gulf of Darien.  After exploring it and the Atrato River they continued northwest as far as what became Nombre de Dios.  Bastidas, however, did not name that location and neither did he explore it.  But, as mentioned before, because he was the first to sail and study the northeastern coast of Panama, he is given credit for the discovery of Panama.


Christopher Columbus, approached Panama in 1502 from a different direction entering Almirante Bay in October, 1502, in the area of Bocas del Toro.  He lost a ship there and, some time back, Texas A&M did some exploring in the general area looking for its remains.  I don’t know the outcome of that search.  Columbus then sailed along the coast, heading East, until he reached a beautiful bay he named Puerto Bello on November 2, 1502.  Although he was forced to stay there 7 days due to bad weather, he did not explore, nor attempted to establish a settlement there.


Then, Diego de Nicuesa entered the bay in 1509, explored the area and attempted to establish a settlement.  But fearful of hostile natives, he moved back to the Nombre de Dios area.  In 1518, Diego de Albites attempted to establish a settlement in the bay of Portobelo, but soon gave up and moved back to Nombre de Dios in 1519.  The city of Panama had been founded on the Pacific that same year and was receiving the loot from Peru for shipment across the isthmus.  Nombre de Dios, being directly across from Panama, was the best place, it was thought, to use as a port to load the loot on the galleons bound for Spain.  A road was built to connect the two cities and the two settlements became the prime ports of the gold route to Spain for the next 60 years.


But they were not peaceful years.  The gold, which would be stored at Nombre de Dios waiting for the yearly Spanish Treasure Fleet, was as honey is to a bear and bears, in the form of pirates, it did attract.  The first was Francis Drake who, on July 29, 1572, captured Nombre de Dios with a force of 73 men.  However, reinforcements from the Spanish garrison in Panama arrived and, in the battle, Drake was wounded forcing him to retreat without much loot.


Drake returned on April 1, 1573, capturing a gold mule train coming across from Panama and made good his scape.  Not satisfied, Drake came back in August, 1595, with 26 ships.  His plan was to cross the isthmus and attack the city of Panama.  The Spaniards, however, were ready for him and defeated him.  On his retreat, Drake set fire to Nombre de Dios and sailed to the Bay of Portobelo.  Here he got sick and died.  He was buried in the harbor on January 29, 1596


All this pirate activity convinced the King of Spain that a more defensible port was needed to replace Nombre de Dios.  In 1586, the Italian engineer, Juan Bautista Antonelli, arrived at the isthmus and, after inspecting the shore line, determined that Puerto Bello, which then only consisted of a small hamlet, provided the best defensive positions.  Its small bay was deep, and the surrounding hills gave good view for miles in all directions.  Thus, on March 20, 1597, the heavily fortified port of  San Felipe de Puertovelo was founded by Don Francisco de Valverde y Mercado.  The residents of Nombre de Dios were moved to the new city and Nombre de Dios ceased to be a place of importance.


San Felipe de Puertovelo was protected by three forts:  The smaller one, Fort Santiago, was located on the South shore at the entrance to the bay.  Then, right at the city and next to the Custom House, Fort San Jeronimo was located.  This was a very strong fortification protruding into the water and heavily armed with cannon.  On the hill South of the town, another smaller fort was located which also served as a storage for ammunition.  The third fort, Fort San Felipe, was located across the bay North from the town and consisted of three levels:  The first was right on the water’s edge and housed a formidable gun battery; a second level was located behind it, and several hundred feet above, on the slope of the hill; finally, on the very top of the hill, with a commanding view of the sea and the land, stood the citadel, a tremendous fort with a moat around it.


Satellite view of present-day Portobelo. The red circles indicate the locations

Of the three forts: Fort Santiago, Fort Jeronimo and Fort San Felipe with its

three levels.  You can also see the location of the town. Google


But the attacks continued and Portobelo, as it came to be known, was under constant attack, or threat of attack,  from those seeking its riches.  It was first attacked in 1602 by the English pirate William Parker.  Then Sir Henry Morgan sacked the city in 1668.  All these attacks continued until the 18th century. 


Portobelo was attacked on November 21, 1739, during the war between England and Spain, by Admiral Edward Vernon.  He sailed into the harbor with 6 ships, over 2500 men and about 350 cannon. A duel between the Spanish forts and the English ships progressed all day long with the final surrender of the Spanish garrison by nightfall.  Vernon took all he could get his hands on, destroyed the rest, and sailed away.  Vernon also captured Fort San Lorenzo on the mouth of the Chagres in 1740, on his return trip to England.  These victories made Admiral Vernon a hero back in England and his fame lives on in London with a street named “Portobello Road” where every Saturday they hold an open air antiques market.  Washington's “Mount Vernon” got the name from its previous owner, his half-brother Lawrence, who had served under Admiral Vernon during the attack on Portobelo.  George Washington inherited the property from Lawrence’s widow when Lawrence died later from TB.


Vernon returned to Portobelo and captured it in 1742.  His plans included the capture of new city of Panama (the old one having been destroyed by Morgan in 1671) going overland and meeting with an English fleet going around the Horn commanded by Captain Anson.  However, Vernon's men began to fall sick and he had to give up the attempt.  Instead, he went on to Cartagena, in present day Colombia, where he met with a decisive defeat.  Captain Anson, learning of this event, sailed to the Philippines to attack Manila and the city of Panama was again spared.


After this last attack on Portobelo by Vernon, the Spaniards decided to by-pass Panama, sending their home-bound treasure ships around the Horn instead.  When this happened, Panama became a backwater of the Spanish Empire and the country suffered a marked period of decline.  In 1821, Panama would become a province of Colombia when all the Spanish colonies in America broke away from Spain after years of fighting.



 Fort Santiago at Portobelo.



Fort San Felipe across the bay.  This is first level at water’s edge.

Luis Celerier 1984.



Left: Papi on the way up to second level of Fort San Felipe.  Note first level behind me.

Right: View toward sea from second level of Fort San Felipe.

Luis Celerier 1984.



Left: Top fortress of Fort San Felipe.  Interior of top fort with Glenn on wall.

Luis Celerier 1984.



Right: Glenn jumping into moat of top fortress, Fort San Felipe.  Right: View from top fortress.

Luis Celerier 1984.



Right: Town of Portobelo from the top of Fort San Felipe. Right: Top fortress and ammunitions

Storage building of Fort San Jeronimo.

Luis Celerier 1984.



Entrance to Fort San Jeronimo.  The date on top of the entrance to the fort reads "1758"'

This date must indicate a repair as, by then, Portobelo had ceased to be an important port.

The red roof on the right is that of the Custom House where the treasure was stored while waiting for

the annual Treasure Fleet.



 Sources:  Moon Handbooks PANAMA;; Picturesque Panama and the Great Canal by Ralph E. Avery; Library of Congress;destinations 360; Fred Sill, BHS Class of 1952.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas