John Oxenham is a prime example of the daring and courage with which Elizabethan seamen and adventurers assailed the Spanish empire. Other than a strong likelihood that he was born in Devonshire, Oxenham’s early life is almost completely unknown. In 1572, he sailed with Sir Francis Drake on an expedition that attacked Nombre de Dios on the isthmus of Panama. When the English raiders captured a mule train carrying silver up the isthmus from Peru, both Oxenham and Drake realized the advantages of gaining access to the Pacific. Because Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific felt safe from attack, they were virtually unarmed. Drake eventually devised a plan for a voyage of circumnavigation to raid the west coast of South America. Oxenham came to believe that a permanent English presence in Panama would allow privateers to intercept treasure as it came up from Peru. Once seized, the treasure could be transported across the narrow isthmus for quick shipment to England. He began making preparations for an expedition to seize Panama, convincing Drake, John Hawkins, and others to invest in the venture.
Oxenham left Plymouth on 19 April 1576 with a company of about 50 men. Traversing the Lesser Antilles, Oxenham, reaches the Spanish Main west of Cartagena with his 11- gun, 57-man, 100-ton frigate. Concealing it along this shoreline, he then strikes west-southwestward aboard a captured Spanish frigate and two pinnaces to intercept coastal traffic visiting the annual plate fleet fair at Nombre de Dios (Panama). In September Oxenham transfers his English frigate and two Spanish prizes with 18 prisoners to Pinos Island (north of Acla, Panama), leaving a 40-man anchor watch aboard while exploring inland with 12 men, guided by black cimarron allies. During his two-week absence, Oxenham’s vessels are surprised and captured by a Spanish frigate and brigantine bearing 20 soldiers out of Nombre de Dios. All his men except a young French page escape ashore.
Having established good relations with the local Cimaroons (Africans who had escaped from Spanish slavery and banded together against their former masters) during the 1572 expedition, Oxenham was depending on their assistance to capture the isthmus. The Cimaroons did not disappoint him, and the English raiders were able to hold Panama for most of 1577.
Oxenham in the Pacific. January 1577, after building a 24-oar launch, Oxenham rafts down the Chucunaque and Tuira rivers (eastern Panama) with 50 Englishmen and 10 cimarron allies to gain the Gulf of San Miguel. His expedition then falls upon the off shore Pearl Islands by February 20 (Ash Wednesday), pillaging them over the next three weeks, as well as intercepting Spanish coastal traffic between Peru and Panama.
Learning of this threat from two escapees who reach Panama by canoe on March 6, Gov. Dr. Gabriel de Loarte prepares his defenses, dissuading Oxenham from trying a surprise attack the next evening. As the English withdraw toward the Pearl Islands, they seize a rich bark arriving from Guayaquil, so they return into the Gulf of San Miguel with considerable booty. Meanwhile, de Loarte dispatches a 200-man counter-expedition under Pedro de Ortega Valencia aboard a half-dozen boats on March 13 to hunt down the intruders.
This Spanish contingent meets the rich Peruvian galleon Miguel Angel, a 50-man detachment guiding it safely into Panama by March 28. De Ortega in the meantime continues his search for the retiring Englishmen, while Vice Adm. Miguel de Eraso (Don Cristobal’s son) detaches two frigates from his plate fleet at Nombre de Dios-plus a Panamanian coastguard frigate and brigantine-to cut off Oxenham’s retreat on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus. De Eraso also personally leads 30 harquebusiers to reinforce Panama City.
After ascending the Tuira River for eight days, until his vessels can go no farther because of shallow water, de Ortega proceeds afoot along the Chucunaque’s banks with 60 soldiers. At 10:00 a. m. on April 2, after another four-day march, he overtakes 30 Englishmen and 80 Cimarrons eating near the “Piñas” confluence (possibly the modern Tupisca or Chico River), slaying nine Englishmen and capturing four-a wounded sailor and 3 boys-plus scattering the rest into the jungle. Oxenham’s 12-man party is also attacked two days later at the village of “Catalina” (possibly modern Yavisa), winning free after suffering 3 killed in an hour-long defense of their extemporized fort. The 4 English captives are then carried back to Panama by April 18, along with the bulk of their supplies and booty.
In May 1577, 40 Spanish soldiers under Capt. Luis Garcia de Melo travel from Panama City to Nombre de Dios with two English captives to destroy Oxenham’s launches, which are hidden underwater on the north coast. Instead, Adm. Cristobal de Eraso appropriates these prisoners, delegating Gabriel de Vera’s 80-man royal warship to carry out this mission. Eventually, both Spanish contingents unite and raise the prizes together, after which Garcia de Melo rampages south through cimarron territory with 60 soldiers in a punitive sweep, emerging into the Gulf of San Miguel, while de Vera gains Cartagena.
Deprived of all means of escape, the English survivors remain in mid-isthmus until late August, when they are surprised by another 120 Peruvian troops in two search columns under recently arrived Diego de Frias Trejo, who seizes Oxenham and 8 of his followers. Other captures follow in mid-December 1577 and early February 1578, until 13 Englishmen are executed in Panama by April. Oxenham and his officers were imprisoned in Lima (Peru), where they were executed in 1580.
Isthmus of Panama
Although the narrowest span between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Isthmus of Panama represented a formidable barrier. Convoys sailing out from Spain had to anchor at Nombre de Dios to discharge passengers and cargoes. People and light merchandise traveled overland by mule train, taking fve or six days to complete a crossing. Heavier goods were ferried 50 miles westward along the coast by hired boat to the port of Chagres. They then were lightered another 44 miles up the snaking Chagres River to a way station called Venta de Cruces. The last 18 tortuous miles up Obispo Valley, over the continental divide and down the Rio Grande Valley into Panama City, was completed by pack animals. Such trips could take three weeks or more to complete. If droughts dried up the river course, extra portages meant even slower progress.
South American produce, passengers, and bullion were brought back in the opposite direction, after which a commercial fair was held at Nombre de Dios, and the galleons finally weighed anchor. A system soon evolved whereby Spanish merchants avoided living in the torrid climate at Nombre de Dios during its tiempo muerto or “dead time”-before a plate fleet arrived in the spring. Instead, they lived more comfortably, and warehoused their goods more safely, in Panama City. Early each year, they began preshipping bulk items via the Chagres River to have an inventory on hand at Nombre de Dios. This route was two to three times less expensive than mule trains, despite being monopolized by a handful of boat owners. Heavier South American produce followed once the Peruvian silver convoy appeared, its royal bullion temporarily housed at Panama City.
Once a dispatch vessel brought word that a plate fleet had reached Cartagena (Colombia), trans-isthmian traffic began to accelerate. The 1,000-2,000 mules engaged in the trajin-literally “haulage”-were fully committed to shuttling private bullion and other high-value items directly overland to Nombre de Dios. Once the plate fleet dropped anchor there, Chagres boats began ferrying the first purchased Spanish goods along the coast and upriver to Venta de Cruces. Trading at Nombre de Dios ceased once the king’s Peruvian silver and dispatches were brought from Panama City, at which point the galleons left. With business at an end, the Panamanian mule teams-consisting on average of 30 mules and nine teamsters apiece- resumed servicing the bulk river traffic out of the Cruces way station, as local and South American traders brought their purchased goods back upriver. If it was too late in the year, such shipments could be held up by strong countercurrents in the river, which occurred every June through December during the rainy season (especially along the final four-and-a-half mile stretch between Gorgona and Venta de Cruces). Once the Peruvian convoy cleared Panama City for its homeward voyage to Callao, a sleepy calm descended on the Isthmus, until the next spring.