Portobelo, the Spanish safe

(continuer en français) – Published: October 25, 2020

Portobelo on the Atlantic coast of Panama served as a safe for the Spanish during the early days of colonisation, when the dominant idea was to extract as much gold and silver as possible and transport it to Spain.

Here it is necessary to look at a map. The Spanish empire in America had at first two viceroyalties, one established in Mexico City, the other in Lima. All the resources collected in the south passed through Lima, sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus by land and re-embarked in Portobelo on their way to Spain.

Not much remains of the old town, which was founded in 1597 and was once so active. A large building overlooks the area, the Royal Customs House, which was built in 1638. The Customs saw the gold and treasures collected in the colonies pass through it. The king’s share was collected there.

On two floors, the large customs halls were used to store all kinds of goods heading for Europe. As a sign of maintenance neglect, today disparate pieces of public festival decorations are stored here.

Facing the port, the façade has collapsed, replaced by a wooden gallery, not comparable to the arcades of the past. Upstairs, a beautiful view extends over the bay and the fort.

After passing through the Royal Customs, the goods were loaded onto galleons bound for Europe. Such a concentration of wealth could only attract interest. Fort San Jeronimo was built to protect the port, the defence being based above all on an impressive battery of cannons capable of sweeping the bay.

Despite these defences being reinforced several times, Portobelo was captured by pirates in 1668 and by the English in 1739. This short-lived victory is said to have been at the origin of all the “Portebello” naming streets and squares in the British Empire.

Despite their classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the ruins of the fortifications are clearly not being properly maintained and continue to deteriorate. The parasite constructions in the immediate vicinity of the fortified compounds do not facilitate their presentation.

 

The Black Christ

Today’s city has a population of about 5,000 people but few ancient remains have survived outside the Customs and the fort. There is, however, the Church of San Felipe, whose construction began in 1606 and was completed in 1814, shortly before independence in 1821.

The church is home to the Black Christ, an icon celebrated on October 21st by several tens of thousands of pilgrims. This date refers to the cholera epidemic of 1831 which spared the city. On this occasion, the statue of Christ is carried in a procession following a traditional ceremony. The participants then begin a great night festival, often resulting in excesses.

There is also a more modest church, San Juan de Dios, built from the remains of a Catholic chapel dating back to 1589.

In the church square, a typical diablo rojo bus, red devil, is waiting for its passengers under the overwhelming midday sun.

Fuerte Santiago

Fort Santiago is located further ahead in the bay to block its access. It was built in 1753, after the English attack and to take into account the artillery progress.

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Portobelo, the Spanish safe

Portobelo on the Atlantic coast of Panama served as a safe for the Spanish during the early days of colonisation, when the dominant idea was to extract as much gold and silver as possible and transport it to Spain. All the resources collected in the south passed through Lima, then crossed the isthmus by land and re-embarked in Portobelo

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10 comments

    • It is always a bit sad to see ruins of several centuries neglected to the point of being threatened. This is more the result of ignorance, or even disinterest, than a lack of means. Fortunately, it is still possible to get an idea of this.

      Like

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