La Peregrina

The Archipiélago de las Perlas has produced some of the world’s finest pearls. However, none is as celebrated or well documented as La Peregrina (Pilgrim Pearl). Enormous and pear-shaped, this white pearl weighs 203.84 grains or 31 carats. More than 450 years ago, it earned the slave who discovered it his freedom.

In the mid-16th century, the pearl was given to King Phillip II of Spain, who later presented it as a wedding gift to his wife, Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) of England. Later the British Duke of Abercorn acquired it from the son of French emperor Napoleon III.

In 1969 actor Richard Burton purchased the pearl for US$37,000 for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. La Peregrina was briefly lost when Taylor's puppy scampered away with the pearl in its mouth. In 2011 the pearl was auctioned at Christie's as part of Taylor's estate and fetched US$11 million.

Pirates in the Bay

From the late 17th century Golfo de Panamá (Panama Bay) was the scene of pirate exploits unsurpassed anywhere in the New World. It served as both hideout and springboard for attacks. After Captain Henry Morgan’s successful sacking of Panama City in 1671, other buccaneers flooded in to pillage and plunder along the Pacific coast.

In May 1685 the largest number of fighters ever assembled under a buccaneer flag in the Pacific played cat and mouse with a Spanish armada of 18 ships. English captain Edward Blake's French and English pirate fleet was deficient in cannons but had plenty of muskets on board, so avoided long-range fighting. Despite inferior numbers, Blake itched for a close encounter with the Spaniards.

When the two great forces crossed paths on May 28, Blake ordered two of his principal ships to attack the Spanish fleet. Fearing the cannons, both refused to obey. The forces exchanged fire, but with the odds stacked against Blake he ordered the slower ships to flee while his ship and another fast vessel delayed the conquistadors.

The pirates managed some risky evasive maneuvers between rocky islets and anchored that night, expecting the Spanish armada to engage them the next day. Instead the Spanish fleet fled to Panamá. Soon dissent arose among the buccaneers, and the short-lived, French–English pirate confederacy dissolved.

Today almost the only evidence of pirates in the Archipiélago de las Perlas are distant descendants of the Spaniards and their slaves. Forests once felled to build ships have grown back. Storms, termites and woodworm have destroyed the old Spanish structures, though a church and a stone dam on Isla Taboga testify to the Spaniards’ erstwhile presence.