Darien, now known as Panama, was the center of the Spanish new world, also called the Spanish Main. The region was of high strategical importance because the isthmus, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was only about 40 miles wide. Of the Spanish settlements in Darien, Porto Bello and Panama City would see major pirate activity.
Although the Isthmus of Panama was only 40 miles wide, there was no water route that connected the two sides. Consequently, unloading treasures from Spanish ships coming from Peru (which approached Panama from the Pacific), to the Atlantic coast of Panama (and eventually to Spain) was by foot across the mosquito-filled jungle. This land route became known as the King’s Highway or the Gold Road. Marching across the King’s Highway was a dangerous endeavor. Besides the threat of disease was the threat of being attacked by runaway slaves, natives, and pirates.
The first major raid on the isthmus of Panama occurred in 1595 when the English pirate Sir Francis Drake and his men attacked and destroyed the port of Nombre de Dios. The English pirates then traveled up the King’s Highway in the hopes of capturing Panama City. In a bloody battle, Drake and his men were defeated and retreated to Porto Bello, where Drake died of a fever. In 1668, English pirates again attacked Panama, this time at Porto Bello. Led by Sir Henry Morgan, the pirates completely surrounded the city and plundered it until there was nothing left. Most of the residents were killed and all of the treasures were stolen by the pirates. In 1670, Morgan and his band of Pirates returned to Panama and proceeded to plunder Panama City. This time, however, the Spanish had wisened and most of the treasures had already been hidden away from the city. The buccaneers then occupied the city, though many died of disease. Some believed that Morgan himself had struck a deal with the Spainards and taken all of the gold for himself. This caused a mutiny among the buccaneers.
Over the next 50 or so years, Panama would be attacked over and over again. Some attacks proved successful while others did not. Attacking the Spanish gold trains as they approached the Atlantic coast of Panama were very difficult as the mule caravans that carried the riches were heavily guarded and travel schedules were carefully guarded secrets that were often changed at the last minute to fool would-be pirates.