The English were driven off by the guns of a fortress

AFTER THE VICTORY Drake went back to Buckland Abbey to live out his days quietly. But peace and day-to-day pur­suits were not for him, and he was only 50 or so.

He had no pension, and he had always been generous. So in 1595 the old partners Drake and Hawkins were off to the Caribbean and Spanish Main again. There was news of a damaged galleon, full of gold, that had put back to Puerto Rico. The Englishmen arrived with thirty ships, but the gold had already been stored on the island. The English were driven off by the guns of a fortress.

 

Drake sailed for Panama. He took Nombre de Dios with ease, but the 750-man force he sent to seize the city of Panama was am­bushed and defeated. Leaving Nombre de Dios in ruins, Drake sailed west along the coast, then doubled back.

 

Drake himself became ill with a fever, and soon was too sick to remain on deck. In his delirium, he struggled from bed on the night of January 27, 1596, insisting that he should don his armor and die like a warrior. He died before dawn the next day. His body was placed in a lead coffin and dropped into the sea off Portobelo.

 

The stone shells of the big gray forts that ring Portobelo’s lovely bay lie silent now, their iron guns rusting. Inside the roofless ruins of the old treasure-house, small descen­dants of the Cimarrons play noisily at some game. A mule-train track of long ago leads into the bush; it crosses a small bridge and is lost, going nowhere. The coastal hills wait to burst the rain clouds blowing in before the easterly winds that once brought Drake. A furious squall breaks. It rains and rains, as if the Lord were trying to wash the ruins of Portobelo into the sea.

 

But the memories live on. At the bay’s mouth I catch in the pattern of sun-broken cloud a vision of a small sailing ship—swift, romantic. On the quarterdeck stands a little man with a jutting beard and a voice like thunder. An instant, and he is gone. And the thunder and the mirage with him.