History of Portobelo

Portobelo was founded in 1597 by Spanish explorer Francisco Velarde y Mercado. When Christopher Columbus landed here after making a hurried landing from storms in 1502, he named the port “Puerto Bello”, meaning “Beautiful Port”. The native population quickly left after falling victims to the conquistadors, leaving the region to be overtaken by them. La costa Arriba has always been the terminal point for El Camino Real, which shipped the gold and silver in Central America back to Spain. Originally the road went from Panama City to Nombre de Dios, but after it was discovered to be a terrible harbor, the final city was moved to Portobelo. This made it wise to build two large fortresses on either side of the harbor to protect it from pirates. One of those (on the side of the town) is maintained and is excellent for walking around. The other fort, San Fernando, is buried in the jungle, and a boat is needed to get to see it.

The Captain Henry Morgan attacked the city in 1668 by marching on land from the nearby town of Buenaventura. He led a fleet of men 450 men against Portobelo, which he captured easily. In 14 days he took every thing of value from the port.

Again in 1726, the port was attacked on November 21, 1739 by admiral Vernon, and captured by a British fleet, commanded by Admiral during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The British victory was widely touted and spoken of in the empire. Many different locations in the British isles were named “Portobello” in commemoration of the event (such as Portobello Road in London, the Portobello area in Edinburgh, and the Portobello Barracks in Dublin) and more medals were struck for Vernon that for any other 18th century British figure.

The Spanish eventually took back the Portobelo and defeated Admiral Vernon in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741. Vernon was forced to return to England with a decimated fleet, having suffered more than 18,000 casualties. Despite the Portobelo campaign, British efforts to gain a foothold in the Spanish Main and disrupt the galleon trade were fruitless. Following the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Spanish switched from large fleets calling at few ports to small fleets trading at a wide variety of ports, the flexibility making them less subject to attack. The ships began to travel around Cape Horn to trade directly at ports on the western coast.