‘Puerto Bello, ’ the Beautiful Port, was named by Columbus in 1502, when he stopped here on his fourth New World voyage. Since it was common at the time to abbreviate Spanish names, the beautiful port quickly became known as simply ‘Portobelo.’
Portobelo consisted of no more than 10 houses when the celebrated Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli arrived in 1586 on a mission to examine the defensibility of the Caribbean. After noting how well Portobelo’s bay lent itself to defensive works, King Félipe II ordered that Nombre de Dios be abandoned and Portobelo colonized. However, it wasn’t until after Nombre de Dios was completely destroyed by Sir Francis Drake in 1596 that the transfer took place.
The city of San Felipe de Portobelo was founded in 1597 and its 200-year history was riddled with numerous invasions at the hands of English privateers and the Royal Navy. Portobelo was first attacked in 1602 by the English pirate William Parker, but it was the infamous Sir Henry Morgan who sacked the city in 1671.
However, not all of the invasions were the product of superior tactics or numbers. In 1679 the crews of two English ships and one French vessel united in an attack on Portobelo. They landed 200 men at such a distance from the town that it took them three nights of marching to reach it. As they neared Portobelo, they were seen by a farmer, who ran ahead to sound the alarm, but the pirates followed so closely behind that the town had no time to prepare. Unaware of how small the buccaneer force was, all the inhabitants fled.
The pirates spent two days and nights in Portobelo, collecting plunder in constant apprehension that the Spaniards would return in great numbers and attack them. However, the buccaneers got back to their ships unmolested and then distributed 160 pieces of eight to each man. At the time, one piece of eight would pay for a night’s stay at the best inn in Seville.
Attacks on Portobelo continued unabated until the city was destroyed in 1739 by an attack led by Admiral Edward Vernon. Although Portobelo was rebuilt in 1751, it never attained its former prominence and in time became a virtual ruin. Later, much of the outermost fortress was dismantled to build the Panama Canal and many of the larger stones were used in the construction of the Gatún Locks. There are, however, still considerable parts of the town and fortresses left and today Portobelo is protected as a national park and as a Unesco World Heritage Site.