Arts, Culture & Media

Captain Morgan's cannons

A river runs through today's Geo Quiz: The Central American river on our radar today has been a busy waterway for the past five centuries. Columbus was the first European to spot it during his 4th voyage in 1502. Other Spanish explorers followed. Pirates and traders famously plied these waters including the famed Captain Henry Morgan.

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So can you name this river that traverses part of the isthmus of Panama?

Geo Answer:

The answer is the Chagres River in central Panama where underwater archaeologists have recovered six cannons believed to belong to the notorious pirate known as Captain Henry Morgan. The World's David Leveille has details:

The location of the Chagres River and its role in history have long fascinated underwater archaelogist James Delgado.

"Panama's only 48 miles wide, making it the narrowest spot in the Americas and with that river taking you nearly two thirds of the way across, the Chagres really was the original Panama Canal connecting people by boats to the Camino Royale which would then take them down to the Pacific and to Panama City".

Today the Chagres is linked to the Panama Canal. Now rewind back to 1671. Captain Henry Morgan, a swashbuckling privateer, a.k.a pirate, was in the 'hood. Morgan was commissioned by England to secure trade routes to the New World. But on this occasion he was on his way to burn and plunder the Spanish controled Panama City.

So Morgan sent an advance team, three shiploads of pirates, to storm a Spanish fort at the entrance to the Chagres River. They captured the Castillo de San Lorenzo. Captain Morgan then arrives on the scene aboard his flagship The Satisfaction. Underwater archaeologist James Delgado picks up the story:.

"The castillo has fallen, its defenders have either surrendered or lie dead. Many of the privateers, the buccaneers, the men of Morgan's force are there, some bandaged. Morgan seeing this, seeing his men on the ramparts is sailing in without realizing that he's headed straight for Lajas Reef, and one after the other his ships ground, tearing into the rock, masts falling, the ships being caught by the waves, swept over, and then crushed and sinking".

Four maybe five ships are lost. The actual shipwrecks have never been found. But 250 years later Delgado is leading a underwater research team that includes Panamanians and they just recovered something they believe was aboard The Satisfaction: Six very rusty and corroded iron cannons lying in shallow water.

"The moment when we were on location when I spotted the canons..it takes your breath away," says Fritz Hanselmann. He is a diver and archaeologist on the team that recovered the guns. They vary in size from two to six feet. Two ship mounted cannons and four swivel guns that closely match 17th century cannons. Hanselmann believes these old and rusty guns are linked to the real pirates of the Caribbean:

"To me its not just a rusty old cannon. I mean, what you're looking at is a gun that was on the ship of a famed notorious privateer to the (Welsh) pirate to the Spanish and so being able to interact with these artifacts connects us to that time period in 1671".

Delgado says the 17th century pirates used their weapons much the same as their modern counterparts wield machine guns:

"That's no different back then except instead of trucks they're using ships and they have guns of different sizes from tiny little canon that are on the decks to shoot buckshot or scrap metal at other sailors to heavier guns that they're going to use to take out another ship or to fight it out with a fort for on the land".

The six recovered cannons will stay in Panama at the museum of the Patronato Panama Viejo where they will be restored. Meanwhile Hanselmann says there's much more to investigate at the bottom of the Chagres River: "Searching for the lost ships of Henry Morgan is just one phase of the overall study of the maritime study of the river so we are definitely keeping our eyes out for other artifacts".

Who knows what will turn up next. The researchers report seeing pieces of 17th century porcelain strewn about the river bed as well as broken bottles of booze. The bottles were left behind by Yankee prospectors who came this way in the 1800"²s en route to the California Gold Rush. But that's another chapter in the history of the Chagres River.

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