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Henry Morgan
By Jude Ellery

Henry Morgan
This tale must begin with a disclaimer: Captain Henry Morgan was no pirate. A rogue maybe, a privateer for sure, but the Welshman would have been gravely offended if anyone dared to label him a pirate. While the boundaries between privateering and piracy were some way short of cut and dried in the 17th century – in fact, during times of peace, practitioners of the former often indulged in the latter – there was one important difference between the two professions: only one was legal.

A letter of marque, issued by Oliver Cromwell’s government, allowed Morgan and his crew of privateers to carry out attacks on the Spanish pretty much as they pleased, so long as the two nations were at war. While the Spaniards provided Morgan with an enemy, it was the exotic West Indies and not the Bay of Biscay that provided the backdrop for his infamous career, the Spanish having settled in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola (the island containing the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in the 16th century. As you’ll read later, slow communication between the English court and the privateers sometimes made it difficult to adhere to the on-again/off-again peace treaties, but luckily for Morgan, the two nations were at war for long periods throughout his career and thus his often self-serving attacks were nearly ceaseless.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Who exactly was this “Captain Morgan,” the man often pictured in an expensive, bright red-and-gold jacket, with a tricorn hat perched upon his thick mane of jet black hair and a glimmering, silver cutlass in hand, whose neatly-bearded face today promotes the famous brand of rum that’s sold around the world?

Well, Henry Morgan was born some time around 1635, in Llanrhymny or Abergavenny, Wales, depending on who you ask. He was the son of local squire Robert Morgan.

And that’s about all we know about his early days. Luckily, maritime historian Dudley Pope consulted both British and Spanish archives, and there remains a full story of Morgan’s professional life. Obviously, some details remain hazy, though, and differing accounts may vary. For example, legend has it that Morgan found himself in the English colonial outpost in the Caribbean, having been “Barbadosed” – beaten over the head in Bristol one day, then waking up on a westward-bound ship the next. Another version of the tale is slightly less dramatic, claiming he voluntarily signed up with General Robert Venables’ troops in 1654, in Plymouth. An entry in Bristol Apprentice Books showing “Servants to Foreign Plantations” and dated 9 February 1655, details Morgan being indentured to Timothy Townsend of Bristol for three years, and to serve this time in Barbados.

So, whatever the exact details, there he was, a junior officer in a foreign land during the time of the Commonwealth. Morgan’s career in the Caribbean actually began in disastrous fashion. General Venables, one of Cromwell’s most trusted men during the Civil War and who excelled in the conquest of Ireland, was trusted with the rather ambiguous mission of “‘gaining an interest’ in that part of the West Indies in possession of the Spaniards”, which included many Spanish strongholds: San Juan, Santo Domingo, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Vera Cruz, and Cartagena. (Haring, 86) After consulting with his Vice-Admiral, Sir William Penn (whose eldest son would give his name to the American state), Venables set his sights on Santo Domingo, but his self-proclaimed “cowardly” army was defeated with embarrassing ease, and what remained of the bruised and battered troops headed to the virtually uninhabited island of Jamaica. Here they at least managed to capture the country’s only town, held by the Spanish, of course: Santiago de la Vega.

This minor victory did little to hide the absolute failure of the mission. Cromwell had sent an army to capitalise on the riches of the New World, which were being exploited impressively by their enemy, the Spanish. Backed by a huge fleet and around 9,000 men recruited from both England and the West Indies, defeat at the hands of the now enfeebled Spanish empire ­was not an option. For their part in the poor performance, Venables and Penn were thrown in the Tower of London on their return to England.

Back in Jamaica, yellow fever, dysentery, and malaria proved to be as dangerous adversaries as the Spanish, decimating the remaining troops. Luckily for this story, amidst all this death and decay, Henry Morgan survived. Gradually, first lead by Vice-Admiral Goodson and then by Commodore Myngs, the English began to salvage the situation through courageous raids on Spanish ports. Morgan proved to be a clever, fearless leader, who learned a lot from Myngs in particular. His carefully planned attacks helped him work his way up the chain of command, appearing as captain of various ships during these raids.

In 1665 Morgan married his cousin, Mary Elizabeth Morgan, who had ventured to the West Indies the previous summer with her father, Governor Edward Morgan. Her two younger sisters married two of Morgan’s most trusted friends. By 1666 Morgan had been made Colonel of the Port Royal Militia, assigned to supervise the expansion of its harbour defences. Taking his spoils from the successful campaigning in the Caribbean, he had become a considerably wealthy man. When the Dutch leader of the Brethren of the Coast, Edward Mansvelt (Mansfield, to the English) died on Tortuga, Morgan was elected to take his place and became an admiral.

Sacking a Spanish townNow the undisputed king of the buccaneers, Morgan successfully raided Puerto del Principe in Cuba, bringing in 50,000 pieces of eight. His crew, not content with this amount because it was insufficient to repay debts they had accrued back in Jamaica, swiftly demanded a more daring attack. Puerto Bello, the third most important city in the Spanish Main on the north coast of Panama, was to be their target, but it was a risky mission. During the attack in Cuba, Morgan’s French and English troops had fallen out over a dispute between two members of the crew, one from either side. After agreeing to a duel, the Englishman stabbed his enemy in the back before the duel could take place; he was chained and eventually hanged on their return to Jamaica. However, relations were irreparable, the French believing they had been cheated out of their fair share of the loot from Puerto del Principe. Morgan reported that the French “wholly refused to join us in that action, as being too full of danger and difficulty.” (Marley, 256)

The French weren’t far wrong. Most privateers would have conceded defeat, but Morgan, unperturbed, continued with his original fleet of ten ships and only five hundred men. A combination of a rousing speech and surprise night attacks on two forts saw Morgan triumph, taking the third fort without any Spanish resistance. He even held off a counter-attack through a carefully planned ambush of the Spanish fleet in a narrow passage. He and his men inhabited Puerto Bello for over two months in 1668, collecting all the wealth they could find and ransoming the Spanish for their safety. Through this ransom alone, they raked in 100,000 pieces of eight (after initially demanding 350,000), raising the total earned on this daring voyage to over 200,000. Now that was a fortune.

In October 1668, Morgan and his crew were off again, this time aiming a pre-emptive strike at Cartagena. Morgan’s superior, Governor Modyford, felt the Spanish were preparing an attack on Jamaica, and that this tactic would stall the attack or even prevent it altogether.

Sinking ShipHowever, after setting up base on nearby Cow Island to prepare for the attack, disaster struck in January 1669. Morgan’s prime boat, the frigate HMS Oxford, exploded. While our fearless captain was renowned for leading something of a charmed life during battles on land, it is worth noting that he was rather unlucky at sea. Apparently, some of his crew, the worse for drink, had lit candles near the gunpowder store. Morgan sat down to dinner on the quarterdeck with the other captains of his flotilla: Aylett, Bigford, Collier, Morris, Thornbury, and Whiting. The ship’s surgeon, Richard Browne, later wrote: “I was eating my dinner with the rest, when the mainmasts blew out and fell upon Captains Aylett, Bigford and others, and knocked them on the head.” (Marley, 258)  Out of two hundred on board, only six men and four boys survived the blast – including, somehow, Captain Morgan.

So, with a large chunk of his 900 to 1,000-strong army of freebooters now gone, even the ambitious Morgan knew he was in no state to attack one of the main Spanish strongholds. He instead decided to target the harbour town of Maracaibo. This venture proved of little value, though, as most of the inhabitants had fled, and those who were rounded up provided little monetary gain. Sailing farther into the Lagoon of Maracaibo toward the town of Gibraltar, Morgan and his crew were again disappointed, as most inhabitants had heard of his coming and already fled. (They may well have been primed for defending their lot, as Jean Davide Nau, also known as Franҫois l’Olonnais, had conducted the very same raid, along with famous freebooter Michel de Basco, two years earlier.)

It was when Morgan sailed back to Maracaibo itself that he famously met with Vice-Admiral Alonso de Campos y Espinosa and his three powerful men-o’-war. On 1 May 1669, an epic battle took place, which saw another of Morgan’s ingenious plans come to fruition. They sailed a ship towards Campos’ flagship, Magdalena, as if to board her, but when the Spanish surged over the bulwarks, they found Morgan’s ship full of wooden dummies and a skeleton crew hastily decamping over the far side. It was a brilliant trap: the ship was on fire and quickly engulfed the Spaniards’ 38-gun ship. Campos leapt into the water and watched Magdalena sink, while the San Luis fled and, after being run aground, was deliberately set ablaze to avoid capture. Morgan’s buccaneers managed to capture the third ship, Marquesa.

Morgan's Fireship

Admiral Campos survived, securing himself in the fort of San Carlos, some way inland. A stalemate ensued. Morgan controlled Maracaibo and all the ships, but Campos controlled the only exit from the lagoon. While the Spanish citizens were happy to pay a ransom of 20,000 pesos to allow Morgan’s exit and save their city from being attacked, Campos steadfastly refused to let him out so easily.

It was then that Morgan’s cunning came into its element. He faked a night attack on San Carlos. Boats full of men were shuttled to and fro from ship to mainland, making it appear as if Morgan planned to raid the fort. Campos turned all his guns toward that side of the fort and, as soon as he did so, Morgan cheekily slipped out of the unguarded channel of the lagoon. What Campos hadn’t realised was that none of the buccaneers had actually set foot on the mainland. They sat up in the boats on the way there, and then lay flat to give the impression of an empty boat on the way back.

Morgan arrived back in Port Royal a hero, while Campos was promptly deported back to Spain for questioning. Eventually, he was cleared and rewarded for his bravery in the battle with the now infamous Captain Morgan.

After this, Morgan set his sights more on raising his status than plundering the Spanish. With his riches he invested in sugar plantations and soon became known for his immense wealth as well as his infamy.

By 1670 he was at it again, though, having been made Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of all the ships belonging to Jamaica. With thirty-eight captains under his control – English, French, and Dutch – and 2,000 men, it was the largest buccaneer venture ever mounted. He reconquered Providencia Island at Christmas, overcame Fort San Lorenzo, and headed for his main goal: Panama, the legendary Spanish city of the Indies. Morgan sought to succeed where England’s hero, Sir Francis Drake, had failed many decades before.
Map of PanamaIn January 1671, now with a slightly reduced army of 1,500 men, Morgan began an epic seven-day trek through the jungle towards Panama, and another 300 died due to the difficult conditions and lack of provisions. Still, the Spaniards retreated from the marauding hordes. When the buccaneers reached Panama, Governor Juan Perez de Guzman possessed an army of similar size, but his men were inexperienced, had few firearms, and no artillery. Their resistance was brave, at first, but short-lived; half of them fled after the first shots were fired, leaving around 500 dead. Only fifteen buccaneers had fallen; it seemed Morgan’s cutthroat reputation went before him, and the mere mention of his name struck fear into the hearts of the Spaniards. The city was burned to the ground, and Morgan’s men made off with 400,000 pieces of eight. While this was a sizeable amount, records revealed the men were disappointed because they were led to believe the city, the capital of Spanish America and thus one of the richest cities in the world, would hold untold riches because everything passed through Panama on its way back to Spain. Unbeknownst to Morgan’s crew, all of the silver gathered from the Peruvian mines and the merchants’ fortunes had been taken to safety prior to the attack.

Worse was to follow. Remember the communication problems alluded to in the introduction? Well, word came to the Caribbean that the attack had actually come during a time of peace, England and Spain having signed a treaty. Despite the message having been received after Morgan set sail on his bloody mission, Governor Modyford, who had sanctioned the attacks, was arrested and immediately dispatched to England. It is thought this was a symbolic gesture to appease the Spanish, but as more and more news reached the Spanish court of Morgan’s role in the attacks, there was outrage at his remaining in Jamaica. Governor Modyford’s replacement, Sir Thomas Lynch, was reluctant to deport the island’s hero, but eventually he obeyed and sent Morgan on his way back to London. Curiously, perhaps due to reported “ill health,” which may or may not have been genuine, Morgan never met the same fate as Modyford, imprisonment in the Tower of London, but he did remain a prisoner of the State for some time. During this period, he seemed to enjoy himself more than the average prisoner, though, swanning around the capital, dining at the houses of lords, and regaling them with tales of his exploits. Modyford was incarcerated for two years, but eventually was not charged and allowed to return to his plantations in Jamaica.

In 1672 the English were at war with the Dutch, and without Morgan, their fearless leader, to guide them, things weren’t going too well in the Caribbean. King Charles II sought the advice of Morgan, who explained, in writing, exactly what should be done. Impressed with his expertise, the king granted the infamous buccaneer a pardon, knighted him, and then sent him back to his beloved Jamaica in 1674.

Having reached the grand old age of forty-five and being a man of great respect and power, Morgan became Deputy Governor of Jamaica, for which he showed great aptitude. Such a good politician was he that he even sued the English publishers of Alexander Exquemelin’s tales about his activities in the Americas. The English translation defamed Morgan and claimed he had never served his full three years of indenture, which called his honour into question. Henry Morgan might have been a heavy-drinking, ruthless, fighting man in a bloody trade, but he was never the sadistic, drunken lout that Exquemelin’s English publishers made out in the book.

So, far from being a pirate of yore, Morgan is considered by many to be one of England’s finest exports, a superb military strategist with leadership qualities to boot. Spanish readers may disagree, since he committed terrible atrocities, including torture, on their towns and people. He has even been described as a man who “used the clergy as human shields, tortured civilians, organized gigantic looting expeditions in the full knowledge that no state of war existed between the parties, and did not hesitate to put whole populations to the sword.” (Weston)

Let’s just say that today Morgan would surely be tried for crimes against humanity. Like all good politicians he grew fat in his “old age,” and on 25 August 1688, he died in his fifties of “dropsy” (called oedema nowadays), basically severe swelling, “the result of being ‘much given to drinking and staying up too late,’ according to his physician.” (Marley, 264) He left behind a personal estate worth over £5,000. He had not borne any children, but the legacy he left behind more than made up for this. Though this was something of a demure end for a cutthroat buccaneer, he was nevertheless celebrated as a hero in England and Jamaica and buried with a twenty-two-gun salute from all the ships in Port Royal harbour.

For additional information, Jude and I recommend the following:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.

Earle, Peter. The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean. Thomas Dunne, 1981.
Exquemelin, Alexander O. The Buccaneers of America translated by Alexis Brown. Dover, 1969.

Franco. “The Life and Times of Sir Henry Morgan,” Franco’s Cybertemple. [accessed 19 September 2012].

Guttman, Robert. “Henry Morgan: The Pirate Who Invaded Panama in 1671,” Military History October 1991 [accessed at Historynet.com on 19 September 2012].

Haring, Clarence Henry. The Buccaneers in the West Indies in the XVII Century. Methuen & Co., 1910.
Hickman, Kennedy. “Privateers & Pirates: Admiral Sir Henry Morgan,” About.com [accessed 19 September 2012].

Kemp, P. K., and Christopher Lloyd. Brethren of the Coast: Buccaneers of the South Seas. St. Martin’s, 1960.

Little, Benerson. How History’s Greatest Pirates Pillaged, Plundered, and Got Away With It. Fair Winds, 2011.

Marley, David F. “Morgan, Sir Henry” in Pirates of the Americas. ABC-CLIO, 2010, 1:251-264.
Minster, Christopher. “Captain Morgan, Greatest of the Privateers,” About.com [accessed 19 September 2012].

San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola: AD 1492-1493” in History of the Caribbean (West Indies) at History World [accessed 24 September 2012].
Spanish-English Rivalry in the Caribbean, 1498-1670” at National Humanities Center’s Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History & Literature. [accessed 19 September 2012]

Talty, Stephan. Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe that Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign. Crown, 2007.
Tortello, Rebecca. “Henry Morgan: The Pirate King,” Pieces of the Past 9 December 2002. [http://jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/history/story0038.htm accessed 19 September 2012 -- link no longer active 8/1/2015].

Weston, John. “Henry Morgan, 1635-1688,” Data Wales [accessed 19 September 2012].

About the Author:

Jude Ellery is the web manager for Fancy Dress Party Ideas, which sells cheap pirate fancy dress online for buccaneers, swashbucklers, pirates, and privateers. They are situated on the south coast of the UK, and recently ordered in loads of new pirate accessories.

Copyright © 2012 Jude Ellery

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