THE FIRST SOUTH SEA ADVENTURE:
The Battle of Perico Island
Scenario: On April 23, 1680, St. George’s Day, the buccaneers arrive in sight of “New” Panama, built not too far from Old Panama burned when Henry Morgan’s buccaneers sacked it in 1671. Captain Coxon dispatches a captured bark, now commanded by Bartholomew Sharp to search for water. The buccaneers are exhausted from the journey across the Isthmus and from rowing and paddling along the Bay of Panama.
Panama’s shipping anchors at Perico Island, about six miles from the city. The buccaneers hope to capture the five large ships and three large barks they see at anchor. They cannot attack Panama at the moment for they are missing the 137 men sailing with Sharp.
Suddenly the buccaneers espy three barks making a course directly for them. Perico and Panama must wait: the Spanish have sent an armadilla, or little fleet, against them.
Forces: The buccaneers are spread out across the bay in a long line. At the vanguard are five canoes carrying thirty-six men, or roughly seven men per canoe. One hundred forty or so buccaneers lag behind. The piraguas, being heavy and therefore slower to row, lag behind, but enough—probably two, certainly no more than three—will arrive in time such that the buccaneer force will consist of sixty-eight men, including commanders Richard Sawkins and Peter Harris.
The Spanish force consists of three barks, probably of 50 to 100 tons each, one of which they probably briefly engaged two days before, resulting in one buccaneer killed and six wounded:
The “Admiral” is commanded by Don Jacinto de Barahona and is manned by eighty-six volunteer “Biscayners” or Basques, said to be some of the best seamen and fighters of Spain.
The “Vice Admiral” is commanded by Andalusian officer Don Francisco de Peralta and is manned by seventy-seven Africans.
The “Rear Admiral” is commanded by Don Diego de Carabajal and is manned by sixty- five mestizos (men of mixed Spanish and Native American blood).
The odds are three to one—228 to 68—and the buccaneers have the “low ground”
The Historical Action: The buccaneers worry that the barks, being much larger, may simply run them over, so they change course to slip into the wind’s eye, stripping the enemy of much his maneuverability. Even so, the buccaneers know they will “run the ‘extreamest’ hazard of fire and sword as they attack. They attempt to slip to the stern quarters of the attacking barks but Carabajal’s bark manages to sail between several buccaneer canoes. Firing musket volleys larboard and starboard, the bark wounds five buccaneers.
When the smoke clears the buccaneers open fire and kill several of Carabajal’s men in a non-stop fusillade. As Admiral Barahona arrives among the buccaneers, Carabajal slips away and Capt. Sawkins turns his attention to the new bark. The buccaneers kill Barahona’s helmsman and the bark turns into the wind, taking its sails aback. The buccaneers row under the bark’s stern and open fire, cutting the bark’s mainsheet and main brace. The vessel is no longer under command, and any man who tries to take the helm is killed.
Sawkins’s canoe is soon shot to pieces, so he boards a piragua and attacks Capt. Peralta. The fight is even more furious than the rest. The buccaneer admiral lays his piragua alongside, and the two enemies give and receive “death unto each other.”
In the meantime, Admiral Carabajal’s bark comes about and sails to Admiral Barajona’s assistance. Captain Springer leads two canoes into its path and opens fire, the two sides exchanging a brutal fire until most of Barajona’s mestizo crew are dead or wounded—a “bloody massacre” according to one witness. Carabajal retreats. The buccaneers attacking Barajona have driven wedges into the bark’s rudder so that it cannot be steered at all. Soon Barajona and his pilot are killed.
Captains Coxon and Harris quickly lead their men in a boarding action. Harris is shot through both legs, but Coxon helps haul him onto the deck of the bark. There is a brief, bloody close action, and then the Biscayers surrender.
With his admiral dead and his admiral’s bark captured, Carabajal retreats. Only Peralta and his Africans remain, and they refuse to surrender. Three times Peralta and his men repel an attempt by Sawkins and his buccaneers to board. Two more buccaneer canoes join in the attack but Peralta’s Africans will not yield.
Suddenly there is an explosion at the stern of Peralta’s bark—a jar of gunpowder has been ignited by a buccaneer grenade. In turn, the explosion ignites powder spilled on deck. Many of Peralta’s men are burned, some even thrown into the sea. The vice admiral is badly burned in the hands, but jumps overboard to save several of his men.
And yet these Spaniard fight on, even though “scarce one place in the ship was found that was free from blood.” Another jar of gunpowder explodes, and now the Spaniards are all “killed, desperately wounded, or horribly burnt.” Only twenty-five are still alive, including Peralta, and only eight of them can still fight.
The fight has lasted three hours, shortly after sunrise until late morning. The buccaneers have lost eleven dead and thirty-four wounded. The Spanish viceroy will blame the defeat on “accidents of water and wind” in an attempt to save face.
The buccaneers, soon joined by Captain Sharp, go on to capture the ships at anchor at Perico, and claim the Trinidad as their flagship, for Peralta, whom they keep prisoner to pilot them, tells them that it is the best sailor in the South Sea. They later go ashore to attack Panama itself, but the Spanish oppose them, and they quickly realize they have too few men to attack the city. Instead, they will range up and down the Spanish Main in the South Sea, seeking plunder on the ocean and ashore.