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The Drake Exploration Society

More Light on Drake's Mule Train Robbery in Panamá 1573

John Thrower

Francis Drake's ambush of a 190 mule treasure train, near Nombre de Dios, in April 1573,1 was the very important turning point of his career and the foundation of his fortune. Consequently, he gained influence and a few years later, was able to build and equip the Pelican at his expense, for his greatest achievement: the circumnavigation.

Apart from Sir Thomas Baskerville's troops in 1596,2 very few Englishmen can have visited the ambush area since; that is, not until Michael Turner's explorations in April of 1992, 3 and 4. John Thrower accompanied Michael during the latter two years to the site of colonial Nombre de Dios. Edwin Webster's field studies revealed that, the colonial site lies 600 metres west of the present day village centre. Turner's explorations included venturing into the undeveloped countryside to the south: the area of the Camino Real, meaning the Royal Road.

Thorough explorations convinced both men that a part of the flood plain, between the little Juan-Miguel River and the River Nombre de Dios, was identified as the most likely site of the ambush. The site is about 2½ miles south of colonial Nombre de Dios. The Juan-Miguel was reckoned to be the 16th century River Campos. Its name matched that of the two explorers!

Remarkably, sets of English1, French3, and Spanish 4 16th century records exist for this ambush. These guided the ground studies. Topographical clues from all the sources were brought into discussion to pinpoint the site. The process was an exciting historical detective study. Naturally, if any remaining buried silver bar were to be discovered, this would confirm the site. It would also provide a truly remarkable link with a fascinating historical event!

Michael has written the study into his illustrated, unpublished [now published] biography, called In Drake's Wake5. John's version is available in his book, The Lost Treasure of Sir Francis Drake6, which includes maps of the area. Since these accounts were compiled, more significant information has emerged from the 16th century records.

A crucial factor in the identification of the site was the nature and route of the last few miles of the Camino Real into colonial Nombre de Dios. Professor Kenneth. R. Andrews 7 has commented on his map of the Camino Real,

"The most northerly part of the Panama to Nombre de Dios track is not shown, because it has proved impossible to reconstruct it with any accuracy..."

This was written, of course, before the study by Edwin Webster 8 that initially guided the Turner / Thrower expeditions.

According to Baskerville's description 2 of his journey with 600 troops to Capirilla, the final league of the trail from Panama is on land, traversing the jungle-clad hills to colonial Nombre de Dios. Prior to that, the route had followed the course of the River Nombre de Dios. Contrary to most scholars' imagination, the trail was in the river! Baskerville describes his problems of wading. "For the most part up to the girdle." (waist) Naturally, one might wonder if he was exaggerating his difficulties, partly to explain his later failure to reach Panama. As a result of Turner and Thrower's field studies, over the same hills and up river, with its firm gravel bed, Baskerville's observations are highly credible. Also, some more assurance was provided by means of an analogy with the 1620 account of river travel into Portobelo9. However, one is left with a slight doubt. Can a 1596 account be used to unravel the puzzle about the site of the 1573 ambush?

The new information, The Drake Manuscript, from the Pierpont Morgan Library10, was published for the first time in 1996. The Drake Manuscript was written in the early 1590s, probably in Rouen11, narrated by several Huguenot Frenchmen who, most likely had been in contact with Drake, and even may have sailed with him. The descriptions contained in the book relate to several voyages. That of the Camino Real refers to the cimarrones,

"...the runaway negro slaves who steal and plunder everything they find on the road belonging to the Spaniards. These runaway negroes form bands for fear to be surprised by the Spaniards."

Not long after John Oxenham's raid in 1576-7, the Spanish reached an accommodation with the cimarrones. Certainly, by 1580 the battles with them were at an end. Hence, we have a description of the Camino Real to Nombre de Dios, either written in, or relating to, a period close to the date of Drake's ambush. Not only that, but also a beautiful colour painting of Nombre de Dios that clearly shows the road from Panama City descending from the hills behind the town. Although not detailed, all this fresh information from the 1570s accords with the essentials of Baskerville's 1596 description. Thus he was describing a well established route, in use at the time of Drake's attack, and probably for the entire seventy plus years of 16th century mule train traffic.

There is an authoritative translation of the French description of the 16th century Camino Real as it enters Nombre de Dios. Part of it reads,

"It is necessary that the traders coming from Panama to Nombre de Dios pass three fresh water rivers, the water covering half their bodies and they are in danger when the water is high. Men and mules carrying merchandise as well as gold and silver are usually submerged in the water..."

This is a graphic confirmation of Baskerville's description! There can be no doubt that when the trail left the Boqueron river, it would follow the course of today's Los Pavos and Nombre de Dios rivers. Moreover, the trail would be in these rivers wherever practicable.

The confirmed route of the trail is indeed crucial because Drake's ambush was on a land trail. Therefore, the attack had to be mounted as the trail had left the river to take up its final league through the hills.

Today, beyond the hills to the south of Nombre de Dios, it is cattle country interspersed by areas of jungle. The flood plain of the River Nombre de Dios is used as grazing fields. The same applies to the River Fató, one mile to the east. The English account in, Sir Francis Drake Revived tends to suggest that there was fairly open countryside at the site of the 1573 ambush.

The Spaniards stated that the robbery occurred at the River Campos. Campos is the Spanish word for "fields" and this had provided the 16th century name for today's Juan-Miguel River. Due to the geography it is reasonable to propose that these same fields might have been grazed by cattle at the time of the robbery. This speculation 6 could only be argued by analogy to the known situation around Portobelo in 16209. where cattle had been reared soon after the trail had opened.

However, evidence for cattle grazing near Nombre de Dios in the 16th century existed in records, if one knew where to look: notably in Miguel Ruiz Delduayen's report 12 to Philip II, in January 1596, at the time of Drake's last voyage. Delduayen describes a slaughterhouse on the beach at Nombre de Dios. Even more interestingly, he relates how the English invaders,

"...advanced by a cattle track to cut the road to Panama and if Captain Quiñones had not warned our men of this they would have been cut off..."

Clearly, the English were outflanking the route of retreat along the Camino Real by using a cattle track to intercept the retreating Spaniards and to prevent them from reaching the river. This is depicted on the map. Cattle would not be driven into the jungle-clad hills. They would only be herded to and from the grazing fields that were by the river beyond the hills. Thus, there is only one possible place for a cattle track to cut the road. This is where the Camino Real left the hills and before it entered the river; being the site of Drake's ambush! The cattle track along the River Nombre de Dios, or along the River Fató, or both, had led to these fields which must have had a very similar appearance to that of today, being open and largely clear of trees. Drake would have chosen open ground for his ambush. Here, there was no natural cover to encourage the Spaniards to exchange fire with the English.

Again we are using 1596 information and relating it to an event of 1573, for which, there are possibly no records. However, it seems likely that, there was a continuous need to keep cattle to support Nombre de Dios. This would have been imperative once the regular system of treasure convoys was established, around 1564. The need for fresh meat was greater once the annual treasure fleet was at anchor.

These newly noted points about the route of the trail and the nature of the countryside in the 16th century reinforce the conclusions held by Thrower and Turner about the site of Drake's ambush at the River Campos. It is worth noting that, it is only by visiting the area and studying the topography that one can sensibly interpret the 16th century records.

Francis Drake's account and the Spanish records were not matched and discussed together until 1932. In April 1573 the Spanish did not know how much silver Drake had either carried away or buried. Therefore, they did not know the quantity of missing bars for which they were searching. From the Spanish records, one can judge that their searches were incomplete. Perhaps some silver ingots still remain: more than 400 years later!

Notes: These are abridged if the source appears in the bibliography that is included with the Society Prospectus.

  1. Sir Francis Drake Revived, in Wright, Documents Concerning English Voyages To The Spanish Main, 1569-1580. Hakluyt Society,
  2. Baskerville in Andrews, Drake's Last Voyage, Hakluyt Society.
  3. Thévet, André, 16 cent. manuscript in French records, quoted by Lemonnier, Leon, Sir Francis Drake (Paris 1932) Translation kindly provided by Dr John Sugden.
  4. Same as No. 1.
  5. Sections available on request.
  6. John Thrower's book available from his address which appears in this issue and in Issue 2.
  7. Same as No. 2.
  8. Webster, E. The Camino Real, Panama, 1977.
  9. Cited by Webster.
  10. The Drake Manuscript, Andre Deutsch, London, 1996.
  11. Quinn, David Beers, private communication with John Thrower.
  12. Same as No. 2.

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