Panama has a long coastline on both sides, and used to be controlled by Spain, so not surprisingly we have invaded it a number of times.
To begin with, being in the part of the world where it is, assorted British raiders, pirates and privateers have done a certain amount of damage here.
Panama, for obvious reasons, had long been a place connecting the Pacific and Atlantic. Francis Drake, for instance, dropped in to try to capture the town of Nombre de Dios early in his career because this was where gold and silver from Peru was put onto ships from Spain. He got into the town, but his forces withdrew when he was wounded. Drake ended his career off Panama as well, being buried at sea off Portobelo when he died of dysentery in 1596.
Henry Morgan, under an official commission to attack Spanish interests, invaded Panama in 1670. In December he captured the fortress of San Lorenzo on Panama’s Caribbean coast and then headed across the peninsula with about 1,400 men towards Panama City. When he and his men arrived, in January 1671, he defeated the Spanish garrison and sacked the town. Much of it went up in flames and a new settlement of Panama would eventually be built a few miles away. Apparently unknown to Morgan, by the time he attacked, Spain and England had signed a peace treaty. This was all slightly embarrassing and Morgan ended up being dragged back to England under arrest. However, he convinced the authorities that he really hadn’t known about the treaty and by 1675 he was in Jamaica, knighted and now lieutenant-governor of the island.
At the end of the seventeenth century, an event took place in Panama that may have changed the face of Britain rather more than it did Panama. A Scot called William Paterson had helped found the Bank of England and a lot of people would view that as enough to put on their CV as a lifetime achievement. But Paterson wanted to do more. He decided that what the world and particularly Scotland needed was a settlement in Panama that would facilitate trade across the isthmus, a sort of Panama Canal, in a sense, without actually building a canal. So Paterson set up the so-called Darien Scheme to establish such a settlement. Thousands of Scots invested, thousands volunteered to be settlers. The English parliament, fearing a threat to English trade, forced English investors to withdraw from the scheme.
When the settlers arrived in what they called New Caledonia, the scheme rapidly turned into a disaster. There were two expeditions, but large numbers of the settlers died from disease and malnutrition, and the Spanish sent forces to attack the Scots. By the time the scheme had collapsed and the remaining settlers had struggled home, more than 2,000 had died and Scotland was faced with large financial losses from the enterprise. Some have argued that the impact of Darien contributed to acceptance of the Act of Union with England in 1707.
Later in the eighteenth century, it was the British Navy’s turn to have a go at invading Panama, in an attack that would leave an interesting legacy today. This time the target was Portobelo, a major Spanish naval base on Panama’s Caribbean coast. Yes, we were at war with Spain yet again, this time in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. So, in a rather dashing attack, with only six ships, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon arrived in the harbour (surprising the Spanish defenders somewhat), British sailors and marines scaled the fort walls and the Spanish surrendered. We stayed in Portobelo for three weeks, generally wrecking important parts of it. British losses were light and Brits everywhere were very pleased with Vernon and started naming things after his victory. Hence the Portobello Road in London and the Portobello area of Edinburgh as well.