Portobello known by several names including Portobelo, and Puerto Bello, is a small, sleepy port town in Colón Province, northern Panamá. Starting in the 1600's and for two centuries, Portobello was one of the main ports of entry on the route of the Spanish treasure galleons, and a preferred target for pirates.
Founded in the 1590's, a stone highway eventually connected the port city with Panama City. Gold and silver excavated from Bolivia and Peru was brought up the West coast of South America and then taken by mule train from Panama City to Portobello where it could be loaded on ships bound for Spain. Twice each year convoys left Spain loaded with domestic goods and upon arrival at the port city commenced yearly fairs that lasted an average of 50 days. At the end of the fairs the convoys would return to Spain, and it was at this time they were frequently attacked at sea by pirates.
These fairs were an open invitation to trade for everyone, including pirates, who were free to anchor and do business in Portobello during that time. This open invitation eventually backfired. Because of frequent visits to the area, pirates were well acquainted with the terrain and the weaknesses of the town. Sir Francis Drake's men destroyed the city in 1596, prior to its official establishment, causing new forts to be constructed. Unfortunately, the city was not fortified well enough to withstand numerous attacks over the coming decades. When in 1668 Captain Henry Morgan attacked Portobello with 9 ships and a crew of 460 men, he was so well versed on the ins and outs of the city, that he took the place without much trouble. For 14 days, he burned and tortured everything and everybody in his path, holding the city for ransom from the Spanish government. After the two weeks were over and he received a ransom payment of roughly 250,000 pesos, he took out to the sea again with all the gold, silk, and linen he could find. While this event went into history as one of the bloodiest of all time, Morgan also used the attack to free a number of British prisoners. For that, he was later granted knighthood by King Charles II.
While there were other attacks on Portobello during the following decades, the next strike of great consequence happened in 1739. British Admiral Edward Vernon and his fleet, composed of six ships and 2,735 men, captured Portobello after a bloody nine-hour battle. Vernon however, did not kill any civilians or destroy any property; he simply captured all the cannons and merchandise he could carry and then took to the sea again. This attack was the beginning of the end of the city's height of power and popularity. Soon the Spanish government switched their strategy. Instead of using Portobello as the only port of entry or exit for all of South America, they started trading at a variety of ports, including Cape Horn, on the west coast. The last treasure fleet arrived in the city in 1737. As a result, Portobello's economy was severely damaged and never fully recovered.