A Treasure Hunt in Nombre de Dios

January 09, 2021

Sir Francis Drake

Philip Nichols, Sir Francis Drake Revived

With only fifty-two men, Sir Francis Drake conceives the idea of attacking his archenemy, Spain, at her most vulnerable point the treasure at Nombre de Dios.
(Drake died at Nombre de Dios, Jan. 9, 1596.)

Thus having parted (23rd July) from our company: we arrived at the island of Cativaas, being twenty-five leagues distant, about five days afterward (28th July). There we landed all in the morning betimes: and our Captain trained his men, delivering them their several weapons and arms which hitherto he had kept very fair and safe in good caske [casks]: and exhorting them after his manner, he declared “the greatness of the hope of good things that was there! the weakness of the town, being unwalled! and the hope he had of prevailing to recompense his wrongs! especially now that he should come with such a crew, who were like-minded with himself; and at such a time, as he should be utterly undiscovered.”

Therefore, even that afternoon, he causeth us to set sail for Nombre de Dios, so that before sunset we were as far as Rio Francisco. Thence, he led us hard aboard the shore, that we might not be descried of the Watch House, until that being come within two leagues of the point of the bay, he caused us to strike a hull, and cast our grappers [grappling irons], riding so until it was dark night.

Then we weighed again, and set sail, rowing hard aboard the shore, with as much silence as we could, till we recovered the point of the harbour under the high land. There, we stayed, all silent; purposing to attempt the town in the dawning of the day: after that we had reposed ourselves, for a while.
But our Captain with some other of his best men, finding that our people were talking of the greatness of the town, and what their strength might be; especially by the report of the Negroes that we took at the Isle of Pinos: thought it best to put these conceits out of their heads, and therefore to take the opportunity of the rising of the moon that night, persuading them that “it was the day dawning.” By this occasion we were at the town a large hour sooner then first was purposed. For we arrived there by three of the clock after midnight. At what time it fortuned that a ship of Spain, of 60 tons, laden with Canary wines and other commodities, which had but lately come into the bay; and had not yet furled her sprit-sail (espying our four pinnaces, being an extraordinary number, and those rowing with many oars) sent away her gundeloe [gondola ?] towards the town, to give warning. But our Captain perceiving it, cut betwixt her and the town, forcing her to go to the other side of the bay: whereby we landed without impeachment, although we found one gunner upon the Platform [battery] in the very place where we landed; being a sandy place and no key [quay] at all, not past twenty yards from the houses.

There we found six great pieces of brass ordnance, mounted upon their carriages, some Demy, some Whole-Culvering.

We presently dismounted them. The gunner fled. The town took alarm (being very ready thereto, by reason of their often disquieting by their near neighbours the Cimaroons); as we perceived, not only by the noise and cries of the people, but by the bell ringing out, and drums running up and down the town.

Our Captain, according to the directions which he had given over night, to such as he had made choice of for the purpose, left twelve to keep the pinnaces; that we might be sure of a safe retreat, if the worst befell. And having made sure work of the Platform before he would enter the town, he thought best, first to view the Mount on the east side of the town: where he was informed, by sundry intelligences the year before, they had an intent to plant ordnance, which might scour round about the town.

Therefore, leaving one half of his company to make a stand at the foot of the Mount, he marched up presently unto the top of it, with all speed to try the truth of the report, for the more safety. There we found no piece of ordnance, but only a very fit place prepared for such use, and therefore we left it without any of our men, and with all celerity returned now down the Mount.

Then our Captain appointed his brother, with JOHN OXNAM [or OXENHAM] and sixteen other of his men, to go about, behind the King’s Treasure House, and enter near the easter[n] end of the Market Place: himself with the rest, would pass up the broad street into the Market Place, with sound of drum and trumpet. The Firepikes, divided half to the one, and half to the other company, served no less for fright to the enemy than light of our men, who by his means might discern every place very well, as if it were near day: whereas the inhabitants stood amazed at so strange a sight, marvelling what the matter might be, and imagining, by reason of our drums and trumpets sounding in so sundry places, that we had been a far greater number then we were.

Yet, by means of the soldiers of which were in the town, and by reason of the time which we spent in marching up and down the Mount, the soldiers and inhabitants had put themselves in arms, and brought their companies in some order, at the south-east end of the Market Place, near the Governor’s House, and not far from the gate of the town, which is the only one, leading towards Panama: having (as it seems) gathered themselves thither, either that in the Governor’s sight they might shew their valour, if it might prevail; or else, that by the gate they might best take their Vale, and escape readiest.

And to make a shew of far greater numbers of shot, or else of a custom they had, by the like device to terrify the Cimaroons; they had hung lines with matches lighted, overthwart the wester[n] end of the Market Place, between the Church and the Cross; as though there had been in a readiness some company of shot, whereas indeed there were not past two or three that taught these lines to dance, till they themselves ran away, as soon as they perceived they were discovered.

But the soldiers and such as were joined with them, presented us with a jolly hot volley of shot, beating full upon the full egress of that street, in which we marched; and levelling very low, so as their bullets ofttimes grazed on the sand.

We stood not to answer them in like terms: but having discharged our first volley of shot, and feathered them with our arrows (which our Captain had caused to be made of purpose in England; not great sheaf arrows, but fine roving shafts, very carefully reserved for the service) we came to the push of pike, so that our firepikes being well armed and made of purpose, did us very great service.

For our men with their pikes and short weapons, in short time took such order among these gallants (some using the butt-end of their pieces instead of other weapons), that partly by reason of our arrows which did us there notable service, partly by occasion of this strange and sudden closing with them in this manner unlooked for, and the rather for that at the very instant, our Captain’s brother, with the other company, with their firepikes, entered the Market Place by the easter[n] street: they casting down their weapons, fled all out of the town by the gate aforesaid, which had been built for a bar to keep out of the town the Cimaroons, who had often assailed it; but now served for a gap for the Spaniards to fly at.

In following, and returning divers of our men were hurt with the weapons which the enemy had let fall as he fled; somewhat, for that we marched with such speed, but more for that they lay so thick and cross one on the other.

Being returned, we made our stand near the midst of the Market Place, where a tree groweth hard by the Cross; whence our Captain sent some of our men to stay the ringing of the alarm bell, which had continued all this while: but the church being very strongly built and fast shut, they could not without firing (which our Captain forbade) get into the steeple where the bell rung.

In the meantime, our Captain having taken two or three Spaniards in their flight, commanded them to shew him the Governor’s House, where he understood was the ordinary place of unlading the moiles [mules] of all the treasure which came from Panama by the King’s appointment. Although the silver only was kept there; the gold, pearl, and jewels (being there once entered by the King’s officer) was carried from thence to the King’s Treasure House not far off, being a house very strongly built of lime and stone, for the safe keeping thereof.

At our coming to the Governor’s House, we found the great door where the mules do usually unlade, even then opened, a candle lighted upon the top of the stairs; and a fair gennet ready saddled, either for the Governor himself, or some other of his household to carry it after him. By means of this light we saw a huge heap of silver in that nether [lower] room; being a pile of bars of silver of, as near as we could guess, seventy feet in length, of ten feet in breadth, and twelve feet in height, piled up against the wall, each bar was between thirty-five and forty pounds in weight.

At sight hereof, our Captain commanded straightly that none of us should touch a bar of silver; but stand upon our weapons, because the town was full of people, and there was in the King’s Treasure House near the water side, more gold and jewels than all our four pinnaces could carry: which we would presently set some in hand to break open, notwithstanding the Spaniards report the strength of it.

We were no sooner returned to our strength, but there was a report brought by some of our men that our pinnaces were in danger to be taken; and that if we ourselves got not aboard before day, we should be oppressed with multitude both of soldiers and towns-people. This report had his ground from one DIEGO a Negro, who, in the time of the first conflict, came and called to our pinnaces, to know “whether they were Captain DRAKE’S?”And upon answer received, continued entreating to be taken aboard, though he had first three or four shot made at him, until at length they fetched him; and learned by him, that, not past eight days before our arrival, the King had sent thither some 150 soldiers to guard the town against the Cimaroons, and the town at this time was full of people beside: which all the rather believed, because it agreed with the report of the Negroes, which we took before at the Isle of Pinos. And therefore our Captain sent his brother and JOHN OXNAM to understand the truth thereof.

They found our men which we left in our pinnaces much frightened, by reason that they saw great troops and companies running up and down, with matches lighted, some with other weapons, crying Que gente? que gente? which not having been at the first conflict, but coming from the utter ends of the town (being at least as big as Plymouth), came many times near us; and understanding that we were English, discharged their pieces and ran away.

Presently after this, a mighty shower of rain, with a terrible storm of thunder and lightning, fell, which poured down so vehemently (as it usually doth in those countries) that before we could recover the shelter of a certain shade or penthouse at the western end of the King’s Treasure House, (which seemeth to have been built there of purpose to avoid sun and rain) some of our bow-strings were wet, and some of ours match and powder hurt! which while we were careful of, to refurnish and supply; divers of our men harping on the reports lately brought us, were muttering of the forces of the town, which our Captain perceiving, told them, that “He had brought them to the mouth of the Treasure of the World, if they would want it, they might henceforth blame nobody but themselves!”

And therefore as soon as the storm began to assuage of his fury (which was a long half hour) willing to give his men no longer leisure to demur of those doubts, nor yet allow the enemy farther respite to gather themselves together, he stept forward commanding his brother, with JOHN OXNAM and the company appointed them, to break the King’s Treasure house: the rest to follow him to keep the strength of the Market Place, till they had despatched the business for which they came.

But as he stepped forward, his strength and sight and speech failed him, and he began to faint for want of blood, which, as then we perceived, had, in great quantity, issued upon the sand, out of a wound received in his leg in the first encounter, whereby though he felt some pain, yet (for that he perceived divers of the company, having already gotten many good things, to be very ready to take all occasions, of winding themselves out of that conceited danger) would he not have it known to any, till this his fainting, against his will, bewrayed it: the blood having first filled the very prints which our footsteps made, to the greater dismay of all our company, who thought it not credible that one man should be able to spare so much blood and live.

And therefore even they, which were willing to have adventured the most for so fair a booty, would in no case hazard their Captain’s life; but (having given him somewhat to drink wherewith he recovered himself, and having bound his scarf about his leg, for the stopping of the blood) entreated him to be content to go with them aboard, there to have his wound searched and dressed, and then to return on shore again if he thought good.

This when they could not persuade him unto (as who knew it to be utterly impossible, at least very unlikely, that ever they should, for that time, return again, to recover the state in which they now were: and was of opinion, that it were more honourable for himself, to jeopard his life for so great a benefit, than to leave off so high an enterprise unperformed), they joined altogether and with force mingled with fair entreaty, they bare him aboard his pinnace, and so abandoned a most rich spoil for the present, only to preserve their Captain’s life: and being resolved of him, that while they enjoyed his presence, and had him to command them, they might recover wealth sufficient; but if once they lost him, they should hardly be able to recover home. No, not with that which they had gotten already.

Thus we embarked by break of the day (29th July), having besides our Captain, many of our men wounded, though none slain but one Trumpeter: whereupon though our surgeons were busily employed, in providing remedies and salves for their wounds: yet the main care of our Captain was respected by all the rest; so that before we departed out of the harbour for the more comfort of our company, we took the aforesaid ship of wines without great resistance.

But before we had her free of the haven, they of the town had made means to bring one of their culverins, which we had dismounted, so as they made a shot at us, but hindered us not from carrying forth the prize to the Isle of Bastimentos, or the Isle of Victuals: which is an island that lieth without the bay to the westward, about a league off the town, where we stayed the two next days, to cure our wounded men, and refresh ourselves, in the goodly gardens which we there found abounding with great store of all dainty roots and fruits; besides great plenty of poultry and other fowls, no less strange then delicate.

Shortly upon our first arrival in this island, the Governor and the rest of his Assistants in the town, as we afterwards understood, sent unto our Captain, a proper gentleman, of mean stature, good complexion, and a fair spoken, a principal soldier of the late sent garrison, to view in what state we were. At his coming he protested “He came to us, of mere good will, for that we had attempted so great and incredible a matter with so few men: and that, at the first, they feared that we had been French, at whose hands they knew they should find no mercy: but after they perceived by our arrows, that we were Englishmen, their fears were the less, for that they knew, that though we took the treasure of the place, yet we would not use cruelty toward their persons. But albeit this his affection gave him cause enough, to come aboard such, whose virtue he so honoured: yet the Governor also had not only consented to his coming, but directly sent him, upon occasion that divers of the town affirmed, said he, ‘that they knew our Captain, who the last two years had been often on our coast, and had always used their persons very well.’ And therefore desired to know, first, Whether our Captain was the same Captain DRAKE or not? and next, Because many of their men were wounded with our arrows, whether they were poisoned or not? and how their wounds might best be cured? lastly, What victuals we wanted, or other necessaries? of which the Governor promised by him to supply and furnish us, as largely as he durst.”

Our Captain, although he thought this soldier but a spy: yet used him very courteously, and answered him to his Governor’s demands: that “He was the same DRAKE whom they meant! It was never his manner to poison his arrows! They might cure their wounded by ordinary surgery! As for wants, he knew the Island of Bastimentos had sufficient, and could furnish him if he listed! but he wanted nothing but some of that special commodity which that country yielded, to content himself and his company.” And therefore he advised the Governor “to hold open his eyes! for before he departed, if GOD lent him life and leave, he meant to reap some of their harvest, which they get out of the earth, and send into Spain to trouble all the earth!”

To this answer unlooked for, this gentleman replied, “If he might, without offence, move such a question, what should then be the cause of our departing from that town at this time, where was above 360 tons of silver ready for the Fleet, and much more gold in value, resting in iron chests in the King’s Treasure House?”

But when our Captain had shewed him the true cause of his unwilling retreat aboard, he acknowledged that “we had no less reason in departing, than courage in attempting”: and no doubt did easily see, that it was not for the town to seek revenge of us, by manning forth such frigates or other vessels as they had; but better to content themselves and provide for their own defence.

Thus, with great favour and courteous entertainment, besides such gifts from our Captain as most contended him, after dinner, he was in such sort dismissed, to make report of that he had seen, that he protested, “he was never so much honoured of any in his life.”

After his departure, the Negro formentioned, being examined more fully, confirmed this report of the gold and the silver; with many other intelligences of importance: especially how we might have gold and silver enough, if we would, by means of the Cimaroons, whom though he had betrayed divers times (being used thereto by his Masters) so that he knew they would kill him, if they got him: yet if our Captain would undertake his protection, he durst adventure his life, because he knew our Captain’s name was most precious and highly honoured by them.

This report ministered occasion to further consultation: for which, because this place seemed not the safest; as being neither the healthiest nor quietest; the next day, in the morning, we all set our course for the Isle of Pinos or Port Plenty, where we had left our ships, continuing all that day, and the next till towards night, before we recovered it.

We were the longer in this course, for that our Captain sent away his brother and ELLISHIXOM to the westward, to search the River of Chagres, where himself had been the year before, and yet was careful to gain more notice of; it being a river which trendeth to the southward, within six leagues of Panama, where is a little town called Venta Cruz [Venta de Cruzes], whence all the treasure, that was usually brought thither from Panama by mules, was embarked in frigates [sailing] down that river into the North sea, and so to Nombre de Dios.

It ebbeth and floweth not far into the land, and therefore it asketh three days’ rowing with a fine pinnace to pass [up] from the mouth to Venta Cruz; but one day and a night serveth to return down the river.

At our return to our ships (1st August), in our consultation, Captain RANSE (forecasting divers doubts of our safe continuance upon that coast, being now discovered) was willing to depart; and our Captain no less willing to dismiss him: and therefore as soon as our pinnaces returned from chagres (7th August) with such advertisement as they were sent for, about eight days before; Captain RANSE took his leave, leaving us at the isle aforesaid, where we had remained five or six days.

In which meantime, having put all things in a readiness, our Captain resolved, with his two ships and three pinnaces to go to Cartagena; whither in sailing, we spent some six days by reason of the calms which came often upon us: but all this time we attempted nothing that we might have done by the way, neither at [Santiago de] Tolou nor otherwhere, because we would not be discovered.

We came to anchor with our two ships in the evening [13th August], in seven fathom water, between the island of Charesha [the island of Cartagena, p. 156] and St. Barnards [San Bernardo.]

Our Captain led the three pinnaces about the island, into the harbour of Cartagena; where at the very entry, he found a frigate at anchor, aboard which was only one old man; who being demanded, “Where the rest of his company was?” answered, “That they were gone ashore in their gundeloe [gondola or ship’s boat?], that evening, to fight about a mistress”: and voluntarily related to our Captain that, “two hours before night, there past by them a pinnace, with sail and oars, as fast as ever they could row, calling to him ‘Whether there had not been any English and Frenchmen there lately?’ and upon answer that, ‘There had been none!’ they bid them ‘look to themselves!’ That, within an hour that this pinnace was come to the utterside [outside] of Cartagena, there were many great pieces shot off, whereupon one going to top, to descry what might be the cause? espied, over the land, divers frigates and small shipping bringing themselves within the Castle.”

This report our Captain credited, the rather for that himself had heard the report of the ordinance at sea; and perceived sufficiently, that he was now descried. Notwithstanding in farther examination of this old mariner, having understood, that there was, within the next point, a great ship of Seville, which had here discharged her loading, and rid now with her yards across, being bound the next morning for Santo Domingo: our Captain took this old man into his pinnace to verify that which he had informed, and rowed towards this ship, which as we came near it, hailed us, asking, “Whence our shallops were?”

We answered, “From Nombre de Dios!”

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