PART 1: BIENVENIDO A PANAMA
It’s hot in Panama. I land around midnight, so there’s not much else to tell about the place right off the bat. I get picked up by a driver and we drive a while. Lights blink from the shantytowns and the 20-million-dollar mansions that flank the highway into Panama City. From the city, I can see the sea in glimpses, a dark mass beyond the skeletons of half-constructed high-rises.
A 480-mile, S-shaped sliver of land connecting the top part to the bottom partof the Americas, Panama laps the humidity off the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, pooling clouds of smog and water that tamp down tight over the country. It’s so humid it’s hard to breathe.
I’m in Panama on account of pirates. Not some new, Somali-style encroachment. Historic pirates. Like a specific, you’ve-seen-his-mug-on-a-jug, 17th century pirate.
PART 2: SATISFACTION
Rum icon Captain Henry Morgan was once more man than brand. A British privateer, Morgan defended the Crown’s interests in the New World, which mostly meant raising hell with the Spaniards on land and sea. Captain M. hit a hitch, however, when in 1671, after succeeding in capturing Panama City, five of his fleet’s ships scraped up their hulls on the Lajas Reef that surrounds the Spanish fort, Castillo de San Lorenzo. The boats, including the flagship, Satisfaction, sank.
Underwater archaeologists have recently discovered what they believe to be one of these ships — complete with coral-encrusted treasure chests — at the mouth of Panama’s Rio Chagres, where it runs northwest into the Caribbean Sea. (Is there a more badass job than underwater archaeologist? Doubtful.)
We think of these times, the 2000s, these post-banking fiascos, post-wars in the Middle East, post-wars on drugs, post-Occupy stretches as being about this close to an imploding Instagram apocalypse. Like a Leonard Cohen “Everybody Knows” presage come true, our society’s ruthlessness appears ever more cutthroat. And it’s true, times are tough. But we don’t know cutthroat.
Pirates, however, pretty much invented cutthroat. Forget Johnny Depp’s hyped-up accolades as Jack Sparrow. A couple of hundred years ago, say the late 1660s or thereabouts, it was more thugs-at-large looting than “Yo-ho-ho” jollies. Think boat-poaching and city-burning and worse. The sheer violence exerted to drum up coin was nothing we’ve seen in our lifetime.
PART 3: SMOKING GUNS
“Yeah, I think pirates are romanticized,” says Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, Research Faculty and Chief Underwater Archaeologist /Dive Training Officer with the River Systems Institute and the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University, and the Director of the Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project. Fritz looks like a brawny, sun-bleached Viking. Fritz knows pirates.
We’re on a bus, snoozing intermittently, popping anti-nausea pills, talking pirates, about to cross the Panama Canal. (The 51-mile-long canal that carves through the Isthmus of Panama and connects the Atlantic to the Pacific doesn’t look like much up close, by the way — if you’ve seen locks you’ve seen locks.) The landscape is all bush and broken buildings, haciendas collapsed into themselves, their burnt orange rooftops cracked over sand-colored walls. The air is also sand-colored. It’s a trick of the heat, maybe.
One of the first clues he’d landed a pirate wreck, says Fritz, apart from its historic location, was the telltale miscellany of the canons he and his crew recovered.
Unlike a navy vessel, he explains, which would boast identical rows of standard-issue guns, a pirate ship would have nabbed its artillery from various sources and would likely hold a greater ratio of short-range canons than long, says Fritz. Shorter-range guns were more effective at clearing a deck of sailors, making it easier for pirates to clamber aboard a boat and claim it. “You don’t want to sink the ship you’re trying to take,” he says.
PART 4: THE SWORD AND G.I. JOE
Picture a 90-foot sailboat piloted by a dude in Bob Marley trunks. There are a few of us onboard. We’re on the Rio Chagres, right at the mouth, where the river runs off into the Caribbean. We’re floating on top of the recovered wreck.
Way out there, in the middle of a murky no-place, a small craft rendezvouses with our boat and a posse of well-dressed officials in life jackets climbs aboard. These are the museum experts, here to ensure no one steals any artifacts from the dive site.
Among the group is an old American guy in crisp khakis. He’s maybe 95. I didn’t catch his name. I’ll call him G.I. Joe. G.I. Joe sits at the bow of the boat and tells me and a few others there that those abandoned buildings we saw on our way up were where the American soldiers were stationed prior to handing the canal over to the Panamanians in 1999. He points to a beach not far from Fort Lorenzo and tells us it was a hopping place, back in the day.
Fritz pinches his nose and jumps off the side of the boat to excavate a sword from the wreck. He’s under a while. I don’t see him come up. He does come up and shows off the sword, only I don’t see it. Another boat motors over to take me back to shore. I’ve got to catch a plane to Canada. G.I. Joe also has places to go.
G.I. Joe goes first. We jump into the arms of a copper-skinned guy with a naked barrel chest who’s standing on the top part of the motorboat. Then G.I. Joe and I sit leg-to-leg in the boat, cresting over waves, until we get to the dock where his car’s parked and a bus is waiting to take me back to the airport. Joe knocks on the window of the bus to say good-bye, and I wave to him, but the windows are tinted and he can’t tell I waved.
My driver, Joaquim, starts the engine. He shows me a picture on his phone. “This is my son, Joaquim,” he says in Spanish. And we wind back towards Panama City.