FORT SAN LORENZO
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Fort San Lorenzo is one of the old forts
constructed during the reign of Philip II of Spain who ruled from 1566 to 1598.
Immediately following the period of exploration of the early 1500s, Spain began building
for the defense of her riches discovered in the new country. So rapidly had the traffic in
gold, pearls, and slaves developed that Philip II decided upon the establishment of forts
for the protection of this traffic. Already the importance of the river Chagres had become
fairly established as a highway of transportation of this wealth of gold from Old Panama.
The defense of the Chagres was therefore of very great importance. The historian Anderson
in his volume Old Panama says, "San Lorenzo was erected by the engineer Juan
Antonelli by order of Philip II of Spain," This places the erection of San Lorenzo
approximately 1575, although the exact date of completion was not given.
In the map published by the historian Jeffers, in his history on the West Indies published in 1762, entitled The Mouth of the Chagres River and Castillo de San Lorenzo is shown a plan of the construction. Esquemelin, the historian for the buccaneers thus describes this castle: "This castle was built upon a high mountain, at the entry of the river, and surrounded on all sides with strong palisades or wooden walls;being very well terrepleined, and filled with earth; which renders them as secure as the best walls made of stone or brick. The top of this mountain is in a manner divided into two parts, between which lies a ditch of the depth of thirty foot. The castle itself has but one entry, and that by a drawbridge which passes over the ditch aforementioned. On the land side it has four bastions, that of the sea containing only two more. That part thereof which looks toward the South is totally inaccessible and impossible to be climbed, through the infinito asperity of the mountain.
The North side is surrounded by the river, which hereabouts runs very broad. At the foot of the said castle, or rather, mountain, is seated a strong fort, with eight great guns, which commands impedes the entry of the river. Not much lower are to be seen two other batteries, whereof each hath six pieces of cannon, to defend likewise the mouth of the said river. at one side of the castle are built two great store-houses, in which are deposited all sorts of warlike ammunition and merchandise, which are brought thither from the inner parts of the country. Near these houses is a high pair of stairs, hewed out of the rock, which serves to mount to the top of the castle. On the West side of the said fortress lies a small port, which is not above seven or eight fathoms deep, being very fit for small vessels and of very good anchorage. Besides this, there lies before the castle, the entry of the river, a great rock, scarce to be perceived above water, unless at low tide." For nearly a century Fort San Lorenzo held a position of strategic importance regarding one of Spain's richest highways of commerce and established as one of the main trans-shipping points between the old and the new world. Second only to Porto Bello it became the objective of pirates and buccaneers and it was only logical that it should become the goal of Sir Henry Morgan in his plans for the conquest of Panama.
THE FALL OF FORT SAN LORENZO
On December 15, 1670, Henry Morgan sailed with his fleet from Jamaica on his campaign of the Isthmus. His first attack was on Old Providence which fell easily into his hands. After a period of plundering in the vicinity of Old Providence, Morgan decided on his next step, that of forcing his entrance into the Isthmus through the mouth of the Chagres River. He therefore sent Josph Bradley wth a portion of his fleet to the mouth of the Chagres, where on Sunday, "The Feast of the Epiphany," January 6, 1671, he began his attack on San Lorenzo. A bitter resistance was offered for three days, when the palm thatched roof of a building within the wall caught fire and an explosion of gun powder followed. The wooden palisades in front of the clay embankments burned. A breech was made and the place taken by pike and cutlass. The garrison at San Lorenzo had numbered 350, of whom only 30 stood on their feet at the finish, and not a single officer survived. The warden, Don Pedro de Lisaldo y Ursua, a Castilian, perished sword in hand, asking no quarter. Bradley's losses were correspondingly heavy. Slightly more than 100 were killed and 70 wounded. One very picturesque incident was given by Esquemelin, a historian of that period. "One of the corsairs received an arrow in the back. He plucked it out and wrapped a little cotton around it, thrust it down the barrel of his musket and shot it back to the castle. The cotton had been ignited and it was this strange missile which set fire to the palm thatched roof." However, other historians state that the conflagration was started by fire balls, the primitive hand grenades of the period. In any event, the mouth of the Chagres had been opened up and made possible the journey inland with the city of Panama as the objective. Henry Morgan himself, did not reach the Chagres until five days after the fall of San Lorenzo. Upon approaching, he saw the flag of England flying from the shattered castle. His fleet came rapidly forward, each boat trying to be the first to enter the mouth of the Chagres. In their jostling about, four of the boats floundered upon the shoals of the Chagres, one of them being Morgan's own flagship, the Satisfaction. All four of the boats were completely wrecked before they could be floated from the shoals. The crews were saved, however, and much of the cargo and military supplies were successfully unloaded. His men went into camp on the banks of the river. Morgan was carried into San Lorenzo on the shoulders of his bodyguard and was met by an escort of honor from Bardley's victors. He was taken to the audience hall like a monarch and a period of feasting and revelry followed.
However, Morgan was soon to realize the seriousness of some of his losses. The man who had really captured San Lorenzo, Joseph Bradley, died from wounds received from the engagement on the fifth day after Morgan's arrival. Bradley was one of Morgan's strongest leaders and staunchest supporters, being practically a second in command of the expedition. Captain Richard Norman was appointed to replace Bradley and with 300 men left to garrison the castle. The remainder of the fleet with a total of 200 men to man the boats was disposed in battle formation outside the mouth of the river to repel possible naval attack. Rumors had come to Morgan that Admiral Alonso Del Campo was cruising the waters off the coast of the Isthmus. For the following few days Morgan went about the work of reforming the army, selecting and making small boats and equiping his men for the trip up the river. By the early part of January, he had a fleet of seven sloops, thirty six small boats and canoes, and a force of 1,400 men ready to embark upon their "march to Panama."
Although San Lorenzo was captured, it was not dismantled. It had simply changed hands. Morgan knew that he must provide two things; first, against the possibility of being followed by any Spanish fleet that might land; second, he must keep a way open for retirement in case his campaign should meet with defeat.
For the following weeks, Morgan was busily engaged in his campaign on Panama. His fleet of small boats and canoes made their way cautiously up the Chagres River, always on the alert for any ambush by the Spaniards. His estimate of the time that it would take to make the trip however, was coompletely inadequate, so that before long he found himself short of food and provisions for his men. As they approached up the river, instead of meeting the Spaniards in actual combat, he was surprised by their continued method of retreat and taking all food and provisions with them. The famine grew so severe that his men were forced to "stew" bits of leather in the sort of a food preparation on which they lived for several days.
His final attack on Panama and the battle that ensued is a story complete in itself. After several weeks of pillaging and debauchery in Panama, he returned over the route he had come, taking his loot, and natives as slaves, and returned to San Lorenzo. After a period of resting and reorganization he decided to abandon San Lorenzo and sail for Jamaica. Upon leaving, he applied the torch and powder to all that was left of the fort and the village, and left it in complete smoldering ruins. The importance of San Lorenzo to the Spaniards however, led them to eventually rebuild and re-establish themselves at the mouth of the Chagres. No further events of interest are recorded concerning San Lorenzo until the coming of Sir Edward Vernon, (after whom the home of Washington was said to be named). Vernon was commissioned by the English Parliament to again capture the ports of Porto Bello and San Lorenzo.
On the afternoon of March 22, 1740, with a small fleet of only 6 ships, having already reduced Porto Bello, he appeared off the mouth of the Chagres and began a bombardment against the castle of San Lorenzo and kept firing leisurely until eleven o'clock on Monday the 24th, when the Spaniards hung out a flag. Captain Knowles was sent ashore and returned with Don Juan Carlos Jutierrez Zevalles, Captain of the Fort and a Castilian.The terms of surrender were soon arranged and at three o'clock in the afternoon , the Spanish troops had marched out and Capt. Knowles with 120 men took possession. Much merchandise was found in the Customs House on the opposite side of the river. This building was burned. On the 29th, Vernon blew up the castle of San Lorenzo and departed for Porto Bello where he arrived on April 1st, 1740.
This particular little war between England and Spain was known as the "War of Jenkin's Ear." The incident related that a certain Captain Jenkins had previously in an engagement with the natives and Spaniards had an ear cut off. He had even shown the mummified member of his anatomy before Parliament, which immediately declared war in retaliation for the ear of Capt. Jenkins, the result being the campaign of Sir Edward Vernon. San Lorenzo was dropped as one of the regular ports of the Isthmus in 1844.
However, it again came into prominence for a short period of time during the days of '49 when for a period of a few years before the completion of the Panama Railroad, it was a part of the trail across the Isthmus. The seekers for gold, coming as far as the mouth of the Chagres to re-ship in cayucos and other crafts being paddled up the river to San Cruces, where the remainder of the journey was completed on foot or pack train as the occasion offered. With the establishment of Colon as the railhead, San Lorenzo dropped completely from the picture and remains today only as a picturesque ruins, a memorial of the days gone by.
Part of Early Days in Panama
by : Chap. (Lt.Col.) Earl D. Weed, Ft. Sherman, CZ, Editor
Presented by CZBrats
Last Update: January 26, 2000