Nombre de Dios is a name that immediately brings 16th century history to mind. The city and its surrounds were very important locations in Francis Drake's career. In 1573, within three miles of Nombre de Dios, Drake established his fortune, which made possible, all else that followed. Also, between Nombre de Dios and Portobelo, he died at sea in 1596 - an ironical twist of fate.
Drake sailed out of Plymouth Sound on 24 May 1572 on a voyage to Tierra Firme - that included today's Panama, for which he had very carefully prepared. He made his objective very clear, with intent to land at Nombre de Dios. On his last voyage in 1595/6, the final objective was the City of Panama but the key location was once again Nombre de Dios, from where his troops attempted the land crossing of the isthmus. When that failed, Drake put Nombre de Dios to the torch.
The Nombre de Dios that Drake knew in 1572, was a fair sized city for those days. The settlement had been granted its status by Emperor Charles V in 1537 and had seen some fifty years of development. It was the important terminal for the Tierra Firme treasure fleet which had, by 1564, established a regular annual, timetable. Here it met the treasure mule-trains which had crossed via the Camino Real from Panama City.
The Nombre de Dios that Drake knew in 1596 was at zenith of its development, and had exported enormous wealth during the century, including about 200,000 tons of silver. However, its harbour suffered several disadvantages. Consequently, in 1587 Baptista Antonelli, Philip II's engineer and surveyor, recommended relocation to Portobelo. However, the merchants were reluctant to relocate. Even after Drake sacked the city, they returned! A major fire later in the year, finally convinced them. Moreover, relocation took several years to complete. After that Nombre de Dios was abandoned to the jungle. In 1684 William Dampier commented, Nombre de Dios, a city once famous, is now nothing but a name. For I have lain ashore in the place where that City stood; but it is all overgrown with wood, so as to leave no sign that any Town hath been there.
The Nombre de Dios that Drake knew is a lost city - it no longer exists.
For over 200 years after the city was abandoned, the area around the famous bay remained unpopulated. When settlers did return, the new community grew up to the east, leaving the colonial site untouched. This becomes clear today when one travels to Nombre de Dios by road from Portobelo. After crossing the wide Nombre de Dios river, by the new iron girder bridge, the road turns to a straight north-east along the former airstrip with low ground and palm plantations on each side. Ahead, the blue waters of Nombre de Dios Bay may be glimpsed. Turning east at the bay and passing the cemetery, the road divides on the outskirts of the modern village. Here there is a sign announcing Nombre de Dios with a faded and defaced account of its history. However, one is quite unaware that the site of the colonial city has already been crossed and passed by. In marked contrast to the well preserved ruins of Panama La Vieja (Old Panama) and of Portobelo, Old Nombre de Dios, lies unnoticed, unmarked and un-mapped. It is completely neglected and in danger of destruction.
Parts of the site were rediscovered in 1976 by society member, Dean Edwin Webster. Some remains of the old city had been revealed by clearances for agriculture which, fortunately, were by superficial and non-invasive methods. An outline of the old city was visible and stones of a principal street were seen. There was a limited investigation by collection of surface finds and also plans for excavation and survey work under Spanish sponsorship, which unfortunately came to nothing. Although the position of the site was described broadly in relation to the remaining 16th century landmarks, the fort and the Morro (hill or headland) were not mapped. The presence of the old remains and their potential for valuable archaeology seems to have been quickly forgotten.
When Michael Turner and John Thrower visited Nombre de Dios in 1993, they were vexed to find that there were open-cast manganese mining operations nearby and apparently, impinging on to the site. It was quite easy to pick up 16th century artefacts at the southern end of the mined area. Hence, it was feared that all the colonial remains, might in time, be destroyed. The effort was made to inform the responsible authority, the Department of Patrimonio Historico at the National Museum in Panama City, of the dangers. They were unaware of this activity and in no position to take any protective action. The mining operations have now ceased, so the opportunity was taken on a further visit of three days to Nombre de Dios in April 1999 to examine and survey the remaining 16th century landmarks, so as to position them on a modern map for the first time! By this means and by various land measurements, the possible 16th century coastline and the site of the colonial city can also be referred on to the same map. Present day surface features now over the old city site, can be described and the remaining potential for archaeology assessed.
This new work is particularly important for the Drake historian. Close reference to the 16th century maps and documents, allied to the results of survey, allows a better assessment of the large physical changes which have taken place at Nombre de Dios Bay during the last 400 years or more. From this, a more precise reconstruction of the size and position of the old city, its defences and surrounding trails becomes possible. Drake's challenges, particularly during his attack in 1572, become clearer and his movements can be assessed and discussed in more detail.
From the point of view of the present study, items from the 16th century record which pointed to the size, layout, facilities and position of the old city were of prime interest. Surprisingly, only three maps remain, which are: the 1541 Vaca de Castro map; a 1570s colour drawing from The Drake Manuscript; and the Paris Profile from Drake's last voyage. There are four useful descriptions: Francis Drake Revived 1572/3; Baptista Antonelli 1587; The Last Voyage of Drake and Hawkins, 1596 and the account of the fire in Nombre de Dios in 1596. Add to these various other facts culled from the primary Spanish sources, and the whole interacts and combines to provide considerable detail.
The old maps, in the style of the time, are as much drawings of the city and bay. Both the 1541 (Fig.1) and Drake Manuscript representations show the rocky Morro at the east end of the city, on the tidal edge, with the stones at the base actually projecting into the sea. Originally, the Morro was to be the site of the fort. The 1541 drawing also shows the hill to the south where the fort was actually built. Interestingly, the 1541 drawing shows not only a river at the east end (Rio Fató) but also two river exits into the western end of the bay. Perhaps this represents two branches of the Nombre de Dios river through its delta. The city is shown extending from the Morro in the east to the river in the west. The Camino Real is clearly marked leaving the south-east corner of the city and passing between the Morro and the fort. The Drake manuscript depicts the buildings, a few of which, were to the east of the Morro, mostly had tiled roofs. It also shows the Camino Real descending from the hills behind the town. The River Nombre de Dios appears at the north-west corner of the bay.
Figure 1 - Nombre de Dios Bay, 1541 by Licenciado Vaca de Castro
The Paris Profile (Fig. 2) is less detailed of the town, since it includes a stretch of coastline either side of the bay. For visual convenience, it is enlarged and orientated to show north at the top. The shape of the bay compares well with modern maps. The fort is shown clearly to the east of the city which is represented by the church.
Figure 2 - Nombre de Dios Bay, 1596 by Francis Drake
Perhaps unnoticed before, is the marked projection of the land into the sea directly north of the fort. In such a careful drawing, it can hardly be seen as a slip of the map- maker's pen. It must indeed represent the Morro, once again confirming its position.
Baptista Antonelli's meagre description of Nombre de Dios as a city of just thirty households, with a seasonal population, has gained a firm foothold in the literature. However, as a engineer and surveyor, he had a vested interest. He "wrote down" Nombre de Dios as much as possible in order to persuade a parsimonious King to move the treasure port around the coast to Portobelo. His ploy is revealed when he comes to extol the advantages of the new harbour. Here we learn about the ease of transport of the many important buildings at Nombre de Dios to the new location. His list of timber buildings, with tiled roofs includes at least sixty houses, the church, a casa de contratación (house of trade) and merchants' warehouses. Another Spanish report states that there were 200 houses.
English reports present quite a different dimension: a fair sized city for those days, with a number of facilities. A considerable list collected from the various sources includes: the plaza mayor; (the main square) a main street leading up to the square from the beach; other large streets leading into it with tall buildings; the Panama gate leading to the Camino Real; government buildings; the main church with its associated buildings; the treasure house; shops; warehouses; the slaughterhouse; a watch-house; a mill above the city; the fort on the east side; gun platform; ship shelters and repair facilities on the beach; Negro settlement to the east with another church.
Although no plans exist for the colonial city, Francis Drake's account of his temporary occupation, on 29 July 1572, is sufficiently detailed to allow locations to be assigned to some major buildings and to permit reasonable speculation about the position of others. (Fig. 3) His descriptions agree within the bounds of the contemporary Spanish reports.
Figure 3 - Plaza Major at Nombre de Dios, 1572. Conjectural, from Francis Drake's description
The site of Colonial Nombre de Dios
© Michael Turner 1997-2008
Drake conducted a pitched battle across the main square, with the defending Spaniards drawn up on the south side. The impression is given of a large square. Plentiful space would have been needed to accommodate pack trains of up to 200 mules, for unloading and loading. Also in addition to their shops, merchants erected tents and booths there when the Tierra Firme Fleet was in harbour. Thus, the square was probably as large and may even have exceeded that at the City of Panama (about 75m x 75m) There was a cross and tree at its centre. A large building with a walled courtyard was identified by Drake as the Governor's house. From the description, the complex must have included the contaduria (counting house) where treasure was recorded before being shipped. This building needed to be capable of storing massive loads of bullion and could have approached the size of the corresponding structure built at Portobelo in 1630, which in the 1990s, was restored with a grant from Spain. Possibly also on the east side, would be a casa real, accommodation for the royal officials, known to be in the city from time to time. A cabildo (city hall) probably also fronted the square on the same side. Here were the offices of the city council of Nombre de Dios, much of whose correspondence survives in the archives at Seville. The stone built treasure house, stored gold and other high value items. It stood near the seaside. It was possible to go around behind it, to gain access to the street from the east without entering the square. Its counterpart still stands at Portobelo.
On the western side, to the south, was the Church of Nuestra Señora de La Concepción, known to be large and spacious. Other religious buildings on this side, might have included the Dominican Monastery. There was a considerable body of ecclesiastics known to be resident in the city. Possibly the hospital mentioned in a description of 1575 and also referred to in the account of the 1596 fire, might also have been nearby, but more towards the seashore for health reasons.
The hilltop fort in relation to the city
© Michael Turner 1997-2008
The fort on the east side of the city had not been equipped with ordnance in 1572. However, three or four pieces were installed by 1596: one of which ruptured when fired at the English fleet. The city often garrisoned troops: 100 - 150 were recorded in 1572 and a similar number kept the fort during the English attack in 1596.
The shops mentioned by the English would most likely have been on the south side of the square. There is a definite mention of one shop in this position in one of the Spanish reports of 1572. Possibly the casa de contratación was also in this area as indicated by Vaca de Castro. Maybe the associated warehouses were behind the shops to the south. The English reported that there was still a show of merchandise in these shops in 1596 but the warehouses had been cleared. Although the English burnt the city, it recovered remarkably quickly. Perhaps the destruction was less than had been described. At least eighteen businesses had been re-established in a few months and many residents had returned. About sixty of their names appear in the account of the fire. For example, Juan Gómez, a carpenter, had his house and business next to, or facing the Morro. Large quantities of merchandise and ship's stores had been moved back into the city, much of it to be destroyed. The total of the parts of it that were valued came to 750,000 pesos.
The above information enables us to draw some definite conclusions about the size and population of the city. Details are sparse, but enough can be assembled to suggest an important and sizeable terminal for the export and import business across the isthmus, either over the Camino Real or via the River Chagres and the Cruces trail. Some major requirements, which, obviously, must have been present there, have not gained a mention in the records, not least, stabling for about 500 mules, comparable with the large facility at the City of Panama. One safe conclusion is that the royal surveyor Antonelli's description is so partial as to be ridiculous.
In 1596, the English described the city as bigge. Francis Drake's claim relating to 1572, that Nombre de Dios was, at least as big as Plymouth has often been dismissed as braggadocio. It has to be remembered that the early 16th century built up area of Plymouth occupied only about 300 x 400 yards and that its population did not reach 2,000 until the end of the century. At Nombre de Dios, both southern corners of the large bay were populated: those of Spanish descent in the west were exceeded in number by the slaves living at the east end of the bay at Santiago del Principe. Many of the slaves would work in the main city during the day. When the Tierra Firme fleet was in harbour, the total population would have exceeded that of Plymouth by a good margin. Much permanent infrastructure to cope with that influx clearly had to be, and was, present.
After the city was abandoned, the name remained. Some of the 18th century maps mark the "ruins of Nombre de Dios" but modern maps carry no indication of the old city. The best modern map is that by the U.S. Defence Mapping agency (DMA) based on the 1981 aerial survey. It does not of course, show the new roads constructed in 1984. Some errors have been found, caused by mis-identification of features from aerial photographs. At present it is still a reliable guide to the shape of the beach and sandbars around the bay. It also shows very well the form of the higher ground just to the south of the bay. Figure 4 shows the area around the bay redrawn from the DMA map.
Figure 4 - Nombre de Dios Bay, 1981, adapted from DMA map
It is interesting to compare the DMA map with the survey made by U.S.S. Hannibal in 1914. Figure 5 shows the corresponding area, again, redrawn from the original. The way that the River Nombre de Dios flows into the bay has changed considerably during the sixty-seven years between the two maps. The most striking change however, is the revelation that the two main deltas were completely linked by an inland lagoon in 1914.
Figure 5 - Nombre de Dios Bay, 1914. Survey by USS Hannibal
It is no surprise that none of the 16th century maps shows any indication of deposited sand bars in the bay. These would either have been much smaller features or be hidden under water at that time. However, both modern maps seem to indicate that the River Nombre de Dios may, at times, have had two exits into the western side of the bay, as shown by Vaca de Castro.
The Camino Real (trail) is located to the south of the modern village (Fig. 4). The track is deeply indented into the hillside next to the highest prominence behind the bay. With commanding views, this was undoubtedly the site of the 16th century watch- house. In 1596, the English pursuing the fleeing Spanish up the trail found 20 sowes of silver, two bars of gold," and other valuables here. In 1993/4, although there was a navigational beacon in place, the general ambience of the 16th century was preserved. In 1999 all was changed. Two concrete wheel ways had been laid over the old trail to the top. On the site of the old watch house, there is now the building of a Cable & Wireless station, with a tall mast surrounded by a high fence and locked gates. GPS readings were taken at the top of the hill to check the position of the trail on the map. Fortunately, the rest of the trail is unaltered and remains in daily use. It may be followed for three miles, through the hills, across a plain, where Francis Drake ambushed the mule train on 29 April 1573 and then enters the River Nombre de Dios.
The fort is on a grass and tree covered eminence which affords another good view of the bay. The shape of the 16th century earthworks is still clearly visible. A graded path leads up and around the north face to reach an entrance on the east side. The remains of the ramparts show around the top which is flat, roughly circular and about forty metres across. In 1976, portions of the broken cannon, fired at the English in 1596, were discovered. Although the fort can be fairly readily found by walking in its general direction through a good deal of undergrowth, it was difficult in the circumstances of brief visits in 1993 and 1994 to realise its position. It is not marked on any modern map. In 1999 GPS readings revealed that it occupied the hill marked 34m on the DMA map (Fig. 4) Familiarity with its position enabled the fort to be recognised on the aerial photograph (Fig. 6)
Figure 6 - Nombre de Dios Bay, 1981. Aerial survey showing fort and Morro
The Morro can be reached by a path from the southern road of Nombre de Dios. It is a large rocky knoll about 5m higher than its present surroundings. In 1993 and 1994, it was surrounded by trees with some growing on its sides. The flat top was grass-covered with some exposed rock and occupied by a farm house and livestock. The breech end of the broken cannon, found on the fort, was also here.
In 1999 all was changed. The major part of the Morro had been reduced to ground level. Its stone had been removed and used to convert the temporary pontoon jetty, of the mining company, into a permanent structure. It seemed a pity that a landmark which had survived so long, should be sacrificed for a somewhat dubious purpose. Fortunately, the northern quarter remained complete with the face which had projected into the sea in Drake's day. Formerly, the Morro may have been about thirty metres across at its base. GPS measurement at the centre of the base on the north face gave 90 34.895' N, 790 28.436' W. The original position of the Morro in relation to its surroundings, was now somewhat easier to assess because so much vegetation had been cleared. The former centre was due east and opposite to the southern end of the east wall of the cemetery. Knowledge of its position meant that the Morro could be recognised on the aerial photograph (Fig. 6)
The north face of the Morro is approximately 130m to the south of the present-day coastline. Allowing for the projection of the Morro into the sea, a possible "16th century coastline" is shown on the larger scale map (Fig. 7), following the curve of the bay, for few hundred metres to the west. The approximation is reasonable taking into account that the shape of the bay is similar on all old and modern maps.
Figure 7 - Present day features over colonial city site
To the north of the Morro, and to the south of the road which follows the line of the beach, the land is relatively low lying. It continues in this way to the west but more especially to the east towards the present lagoon, which divides the modern village. Parts of the area are inclined to flood in the rainy season. The roads are built up but between them some shanties are built on stilts. Clearly, the area corresponds to the continuous lagoon recorded on the 1914 map. The southern extent of that lagoon in the old city area, must have been close to the 16th century coastline.
The old city was built close to its seashore. In 1572, Francis Drake observed that he stepped onto a beach, not past twenty yards from the houses. Antonelli noted, in 1587, that the city was, builded on a sandy bay, hard by the seaside. Therefore, to see what present-day features lie over the site, the area of interest is a rectangle behind the old coastline towards the river, certainly across the road to Portobelo and south from the Morro to the base of the fort (Fig. 7)
The first feature to the west of the Morro is the cemetery, enclosed by a wall. The east and west walls had originally been built into the undergrowth. There is no south wall. The position of the cemetery was confirmed by land and GPS measurements and by comparison with the aerial photograph (Fig. 6) In 1999 only about 60% of the cemetery was in use. The remaining and southerly 40% was overgrown jungle. Adjacent and outside the west wall was a three metre wide path running due south from the road.
Next, to the west, is the main area subjected to open cast mining between the cemetery and the road, and a smaller mined area to the west of the road. Mining has ceased, but the area has not been restored; spoil heaps and rusting machinery remain and work on the jetty is incomplete. The mined areas extend southwards to the same extent as the cemetery walls. The 1981 aerial photograph shows that these areas were already cleared then and were undoubtedly associated with the airstrip constructed in 1959. The small building near the road, was the ticket office.
Figure 7 depicts that the cemetery and mined areas are crossed by the old coastline at an angle. Thus, about three-quarters of the cemetery and perhaps two-thirds of the mined areas were then under the sea. Correspondingly, and bearing in mined that there was a twenty metre beach, there has not been much incursion onto the old city site by these modern developments. Since the southern portion of the cemetery remained undeveloped during our visit, the most damage is at the southern end of the mined areas.
A large part of the area of interest is on a level with the rear of the cemetery (Fig. 8). There was abundant space here for the city square and surrounding buildings. Towards the south-east the ground rises steadily, gently at first and then steeply towards the fort. Any parts of the old city which were built here, would have enjoyed views of the bay and pleasant sea breezes. Much of this land was cleared of forest for agriculture in 1976; some is still relatively clear and several homesteads are established. The remainder is lightly tree covered with one area of dense and fenced palm plantation. To the west of the road and across to the river is another large fenced palm plantation, where we unearthed some late 16th century crockery. From the path by the cemetery one many take a pleasant walk through woodlands as the land rises, finally making a steep climb towards the fort.
Figure 8 - Elevations in metres, colonial city site
Figure 9 shows a conjectural plan of the old city and a map of its surroundings, accurately scaled for the DMA map. To prepare this the following were considered:
Figure 9 - 16th century Nombre de Dios. A conjectural plan of the city and environs
Figure 10 - Nombre de Dios Bay today, showing the area of fig 9 and colonial site
It has been established that there is still some scope for valuable archaeology at the colonial site - abandoned to the jungle at the turn of the 16th century. The site remains largely untouched - a unique opportunity. Of course, there is not now the same ideal chance for immediate investigation that Edwin Webster identified in 1976. However, much of the site remains undeveloped and some parts are relatively clear, especially to the south of the cemetery. A team equipped with modern geophysical equipment could survey the site quickly to determine its remaining potential.
This study has provided the historian with a much clearer picture of the object of Francis Drake's attacks in 1572 and 1596. We now have better background information to interpret and to discuss the contemporary records in more detail.
|C. L. G. Anderson||Old Panama & Castilla Del Oro||Boston USA, 1911|
|William Dampier||A New Voyage Around The World, Argonaut Edition||London, 1927|
|Crispin Gill||Plymouth, A New History||Devon, 1993|
|Richard Hakluyt||Principal Navigations, Everyman edition, Vol. 7||London, 1907|
|William H. Prescott||The History Of The Conquest of Peru, Routledge Edition, Vol. 3||Boston USA, 1847|
|John Thrower||The Lost Treasure of Sir Francis Drake||Dorset, 1996|
|John Thrower||Colonial Nombre de Dios||Dorset, 2000|
|Michael Turner||In Drakes' Wake||Boston UK, 2006|
|Edwin C. Webster||Nombre de Dios||Panama, 1977|
|Histoire Naturelle Des Indies - The Drake Manuscript||New York, 1996|
|Manuscripts Anglaise, 51 Folio 13, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris|
|Sir Francis Drake Revived||London, 1626|
|The Fire At Nombre de Dios 1596, British Library, Add MS 13977, folios 163-167|
|Hakluyt Society Series 2, Vol 71, (1932) and Vol 142, (1972)|