Yo ho ho landlubber friends,
The seas be calm and fair the winds.
Shiver me timbers and luff me sails!
How winds do blow in autumn gales!
A-bob upon the northern seas,
Tossed by waves and blown by breeze,
May be perceived a tiny sloop,
Not thirty feet from prow to poop,
Weaving ‘tween the jagged teeth
Of sunken shoals and barnacled reefs.
We’ve raised the Jolly Roger high.
We’ve hooked our hand, we’ve patched our eye.
Bearing down on laden ships
A pirate’s song upon our lips.
And so me mates, me lads, me hearties,
Let this poor rhyme end all inquiries.
If any be askin’ after me,
Tell ’em that I’m still at sea
It’s hard to imagine a world in which pirates roamed that doesn’t involve Halloween. Yet in the 16th and 17th centuries, Panama was a crossroads for many buccaneers. First, of course, I must qualify what is meant by “pirate.” Much used to depend on the language you spoke as to whether or not your impression of a sea captain was as purveyor of Christianity, discoverer, adventurer, or if he passed to the dark side of plank-walking, parrot-donning, scurvy-suffering pirates.
Sir Francis Drake sacked the Colombian town of Riohacha in 1596. This, among other accomplishments (circumnavigating the globe, sending that pesky Spanish Armada to the bottom of the sea) earned him the favor of the English crown and resulted in his knighthood. Welshman Henry Morgan looted and plundered Panama, among other places, and in spite of a papal treaty violation, he received similar accolades. Pirates were considered to be stateless vagrants, and yet these men and their English contemporaries were statesmen, governors, people of wealth and dignity… who also, you know, maybe ransacked cities, tortured people and consumed egregious amounts of rum, even if they didn’t all wear eye patches and peg legs.
In the Spanish-speaking world, there were even more notorious characters in Cortez, Balboa and Pizarro, each of whom used Panama City on their way to launching conquests of territories from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego. To their countrymen in Madrid and Sevilla, these men were heroes, but in London they were considered terrorists. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the galleons of their prestigious Armada rest in Davy Jones’ locker, and history is written by the winners. Regardless, these men were influential in the shaping of the New World, and it’s certain that they sailed by the coast of Panama within the vicinity of Isla Palenque, perhaps even coming ashore in the Gulf of Chiriqui for supplies.
Sitting on the shore of the beach in this area, it’s intriguing to ponder what the masts of those ships looked like on the horizon, and if any of them crashed on the rocky bottom while trying to navigate channels. Just last week a local real estate agent showed me a piece of wood washed up on the shore of his property in the Gulf of Chiriqui. The piece was clearly rounded with crude instruments, but I didn’t believe the man’s assertions that it could be a piece of the hull of a sunken galleon. “No?” he said, “Then why is it petrified with antique fasteners?”