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Portobelo

a jewel born of the Conquest

Location

Portobelo is located on the Caribbean coast of the Republic of Panama, in the province of Colón. The name of the province of Colón comes from the Portuguese navigator Christopher Columbus who later became a Spanish national. Portobelo was one of the first places on land that Columbus visited during his fourth voyage.

History

Portobelo was sighted for the first time in 1502, when Christopher Columbus, on his fourth and last voyage to America, landed in Portobelo Bay. Although Columbus was amazed by the beauty and breadth of the bay, the city itself was not founded until much later.

The true genesis of Portobelo came from the ambitions of the Spanish conquistadors, who sought trade routes to the New World, where unimaginable treasures were said to exist. This search for wealth and prestige led the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro to the conquest of the Inca Empire and Hernán Cortés to the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Rumors about the vast treasures in America attracted the attention of European privateers and pirates, who saw Portobelo as a coveted target. The strategic location of the bay, sheltered by hills and with direct access to the Caribbean Sea, made it an ideal port for the arrival of ships loaded with treasures looted from America and destined for Spain.

In 1597, when the Spanish Crown decided to establish a permanent presence in Portobelo, the construction of the first fortifications began, such as the Santiago de la Gloria Castle and the San Jerónimo Fort, to protect the city from the constant attacks of pirates and privateers, who saw in Portobelo an inexhaustible source of wealth.

For more than two centuries, Portobelo became the nerve center of trade and the transportation of American treasures to Spain. The galleon fleets, known as the “Portobelo fleets”, were eagerly awaited by both Spanish settlers and privateers who roamed the region.

Origins of the name

The name of “Portobelo” was derived from the combination of two Portuguese words:

“Porto” (Port): This part of the name refers to the geographical nature of the town as a port. Portobelo is located in a natural bay on the Caribbean coast of Panama, which made it an important historic port.

“Belo” (Beautiful): The Portuguese word “belo” means “beautiful” in English. This adjective was added to the name to highlight the beauty of the bay and the surrounding area.

Therefore, the Portuguese word “Portobelo” would roughly translate to “Beautiful Port” in English. This name reflects the city’s stunning coastal location and natural appeal, which has been appreciated throughout history by explorers, settlers and visitors alike.

Period

Portobelo has its roots in the period of Spanish colonization in America and is related to the explorers and conquerors who came to the region. The city of Portobelo, located on the Caribbean coast of what is now Panama, was founded by the Spanish on March 20, 1597, when they began to use it as a population settlement. Its full name at that time was “San Felipe de Portobelo”.

The city of Portobelo played a crucial role in colonial trade and became a place of great historical importance due to its location and its role in transporting treasures and goods between the New World and Spain.

The attacks

The city of Portobelo, throughout its history, was the object of numerous attacks by European corsairs and pirates who sought to seize its wealth and loot the treasures that were accumulated in the city.

  • Sir Francis Drake (1572):

    The famous English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake was one of the first to attack Portobelo. In 1572, he led a daring assault on the city, plundering the Spanish treasury and wreaking havoc on the region before retreating.

  • Jacques de Sores (1596):

    This French privateer was one of the first to besiege Portobelo. In 1596, he led an attack that resulted in the partial destruction of the city and the capture of valuable loot.

  • William Parker (1601):

    The English pirate William Parker attacked Portobelo in 1601 and plundered the city before retreating. Their raid wreaked havoc on the city and left the inhabitants in devastation.

  • Henry Morgan (1668 and 1671):

    Henry Morgan, another English privateer, is perhaps one of the best-known raiders of Portobelo. In 1668, he raided the city and sacked it, causing great destruction. Then, in 1671, he attacked Portobelo again in an attempt to seize its treasures, destroying much of the city in the process.

  • Edward Vernon (1739):

    British Admiral Edward Vernon led a major siege against Portobelo in 1739 during the War of the Seat. Although he failed to completely take the city, he inflicted significant damage on its fortifications and economy.

Henry Morgan’s attack on the Castillo de an Jerónimo, Portobelo, 1669

These are just a few examples of the notable attacks that Portobelo suffered throughout its history. These raids not only sought treasure and wealth, but were also part of the geopolitical and commercial struggles of the time, with European powers competing for control of trade routes and colonies in the Americas. The constant attacks and sieges on Portobelo were part of its tumultuous history and contributed to its historical importance as a strategic port and defensive bastion in the region.

Despite constant attacks and looting, Portobelo remained standing, resisting the onslaught of time and adversity. However, its importance gradually declined as treasure trafficking moved to other ports and trade routes.

Historical heritage of humanity since 1980

Portobelo’s historical heritage is a window to the past of Latin America and its role in the colonial era. The city has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, underlining its cultural and historical importance internationally. Conservation and preservation efforts continue to ensure that future generations can enjoy and learn from this valuable historical heritage.

  • Colonial Fortifications: :

    Portobelo has a series of impressive colonial fortifications dating back to the 17th century. Among them are the Santiago de la Gloria Castle and the San Jerónimo Fort. These defensive structures were built to protect the city from attacks by pirates and privateers and still stand as witnesses of its military history.

  • Colonial Churches:

    The Church of San Felipe is an impressive colonial church dating back to the 17th century. It is famous for its golden altar, which is one of the most prominent in Latin America. This church is an important historical and architectural landmark in Portobelo.

  • Royal Customs House:

    This historic structure was used for the storage of goods and as a customs house during the colonial era. Today, it is a museum that houses a collection of historical artifacts and art related to the history of Portobelo.

  • Portobelo Cemetery:

    Portobelo Cemetery is a final resting place for many people who lived during the colonial era. Its tombs and monuments provide insight into the city’s history and culture over the centuries.

  • Simón Bolívar House Museum:

    In this house museum, visitors can learn about the history of Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America, and his connection with Portobelo. The house houses a collection of artifacts related to Bolívar and the independence of Latin America.

  • Festivals and Traditions:

    Cultural festivities, such as the Diablos and Congos Festivals, are an integral part of Portobelo’s heritage. These celebrations combine African and European elements and reflect the rich cultural heritage of the region.

  • Natural Environment:

    Portobelo’s surrounding natural environment, which includes beaches and the Portobelo National Park, is also part of the city’s heritage. This tropical landscape and its ecosystems are an important cultural and tourist asset.


Portobelo today

Portobelo is a silent witness to a rich history. Its origin is intrinsically linked to the era of conquest and the struggle for control of the riches of America, and its legacy endures as a reminder of a time when the world was being discovered and changed forever. Portobelo, in its humility, remains a historical treasure that connects us with the events and figures that shaped the course of history.