Soon he was again in Spanish waters—this time as a spy. He gathered knowledge of Panama, the great funnel through which passed the gold of Peru and the silver of fabulous Potosi in Bolivia. The treasure was hauled in galleons to the city of Panama on the Pacific, carried across the isthmus on muleback or ferried down the Chagres River, and loaded in galleons bound for Spain at Nombre de Dios on the Caribbean. By the end of his second journey to Panama, Drake even possessed a map of Nombre de Dios.
/N 1572 he sailed from England again with 73 men and two small barks. Aboard were the frames and planks for three pinnaces—small oar-equipped sailboats. They would enable the freebooters to move about at night, when the wind was often still.
“He had his nerve,” said Dean Edwin C. Webster of the Cathedral of St. Luke at Ancon in the Canal Zone, for many years a student of Drake’s exploits. “Across the North Atlantic with a handful of men and a couple of tubs not the size of many yachts around here, to take on the whole Western Hemisphere.”
Drake set up a base on a small island he called Port Pheasant, off the San Blas coast near Cape Tiburon, 160 miles from Nombre de Dios. Cimarrons—escaped slaves—brought intelligence and reinforcements; like Drake, they had no love for Spain.
Landing in the now-assembled pinnaces, Drake’s assault force got into Nombre de Dios all right-61 men armed with bows and muskets. Some carried flaming pikes that, by one participant’s account, lit the town “as if it were neere day” while “our Drums and Trumpets sounding in so sundry places” gave the impression that a large force was attacking. Even so, the inhabitants fought back with “a jolly hot volley of shot.”
Drake entered the governor’s house and saw a stack of silver ingots. He knew that even more valuable loot—gold or jewels—was to be had elsewhere in the town. But a sudden squall damped the invaders’ powder, put out their matches, and slacked their bowstrings. Then Drake fainted. His men saw that the earth where he had been standing was soaked with blood from a leg wound. They staggered away empty-handed.