Fortifications of Portobello and San Lorenzo (World Heritage)

Fortifications of Portobello and San Lorenzo (World Heritage)

North America

The city of Portobelo, located on the Caribbean coast of Panama, was once an important transshipment point for transatlantic trade between South America and mainland Spain. The mighty fortifications served as protection against pirates and privateers like Francis Drake , who were after the goods and silver treasures. The bay of Portobelo was named (»Beautiful Harbor«) in 1502 by Christopher Columbus , who discovered it on his fourth voyage. The also fortified San Lorenzo is about 30 km further at the mouth of the Río Chagres. Visit baglib for Panama – two oceans one country.

Fortresses of Portobello and San Lorenzo: facts

Official title: Fortresses of Portobello and San Lorenzo on the Caribbean coast
Cultural monument: Fortifications of San Lorenzo and Portobelo
Continent: America
Country: Panama
Location: near Colón, Caribbean coast of Panama
Appointment: 1980; on the Red List of World Heritage in Danger since 2012 due to ongoing decay and a lack of conservation measures
Meaning: as part of a defense system to protect the transatlantic sea route an outstanding example of Spanish military architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fortifications of Portobello and San Lorenzo: history

1502 Discovery of the Bahíá de Portobelo
1584 Abandonment of Nombre de Díos
1595 San Lorenzo fortress on the Chagres River
1596 Relocation of the port from Nombre de Díos to Portobelo
1668 Capture of San Lorenzo by English privateers
1739 English naval forces capture San Lorenzo
1753-60 Expansion of Portobelo into a fortress
1821 Withdrawal of the Spanish garrison from San Lorenzo

Spanish military architecture in the New World

When Christopher Columbus was looking for the longed-for passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific on his fourth voyage to America, he landed on the coast of what is now the state of Panama in 1502in a sheltered bay, which he named “Portobelo”, “beautiful harbor”. The story of the Spanish fortifications on the Caribbean coast of Central America began not here, but in the Nombre de Díos further east. Because in the following decades Nombre de Díos became the end point of the Camino Real, the “Royal Road” that led across the Central American isthmus. The Spaniards used them to transport most of their captured gold from the city of Panama on the Pacific coast for shipping to mainland Europe.

The unsafe and strategically unfavorable location of this port became particularly evident after the conquest of the Inca Empire. The immense wealth that the Spanish Conquista amassed in her viceroyalty and shipped to Europe, required increased security, as the privateers under the British flag went to work more and more brazen. The spoils, the English pirates under the command of Francis Drake 1594 in Nombre de Díos, but it was very modest, as the end point of the Camino Real had already been moved to the more secure bay of neighboring Portobelo. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Spanish crown had built impregnable fortresses in two particularly endangered places on its Caribbean coast: Fuerte Santiago de la Gloria in the Bay of Portobelo and, southwest of it, on a cliff at the mouth of the Río Chagres, Fuerte San Lorenzo.

According to a royal decree of Philip II , Portobelo served as a collection point for gold and silver shipments from Peru to Europe from 1596. A large fleet of Spanish merchant ships anchored in Portobelo Bay once a year before crossing the Atlantic with a military escort. In the diary entries of the British Thomas Gage (* 1597?, † 1656) from 1637 it can be read that it took 30 days to load 82 Spanish ships. In the course of the 17th century, the bay of Portobelo was expanded into a coherent fortress, whereby the best preserved to this day, Santiago de la Gloria, was the most important.

The mighty Fuerte San Lorenzo has also served to secure the transatlantic transport route since 1595. It was considered the safest place on the Spanish Atlantic coast because of its fortifications, cannons and drawbridges. As early as 1596 an English naval formation under the command of Francis Drake attacked this fortress, because he was the first to plan to conquer the city of Panama on the other side of the isthmus not from the sea but from the land. Drake’s plan of conquest, however, failed miserably. More than 70 years passed before the men turned to the English pirate Henry Morgan was granted to take San Lorenzo after a two-week bloody sea battle. So the way to Panama was clear for the “masters of the seas”. After the privateers withdrew, San Lorenzo was rebuilt by the Spaniards, but in 1739 British naval forces under Admiral Edward Vernon (* 1684, † 1757) conquered this fortress again.

In the middle of the 18th century the balance of power on the oceans had changed in favor of the English crown. So it was only a matter of time before Portobelo, which had withstood all attacks up to that point, also fell. If the Spaniards succeeded in taking and expanding the fortress of San Lorenzo again to demonstrate their position of power on the isthmus, this was not of decisive importance. In the meantime, the sea route around Cape Horn was increasingly used, and due to international treaties, the English crown no longer held its protective hand over its daring pirates. In the year of the independence of the Central American states, the last Spanish garrison left San Lorenzo.

Fortifications of Portobello and San Lorenzo (World Heritage)