Captain Henry Morgan
Sir Henry Morgan, often referred to as the greatest of all the "Brethren of the coast," was a Welshman born at Llanrhymmy in Monmouthshire in the year 1635. The son of a well-to-do farmer, Robert Morgan, he took to seafaring at an early age. Morgan's only recorded words on this period of his life were, "I left school too young and have been more used to the pike than the book." As a young man Morgan went to Barbados, and afterwards settled in Jamaica. It is likely that he was part of the original expeditionary force sent by Cromwell to wrest the island from Spanish control. In any event it remained his home for the rest of his life.
The most thorough and colorful contemporary account of piracy, The Buccaneers of America, deals at great length with Morgan's exploits. Written originally in Dutch by the adventurer, Henri Esquemelin, who sailed with Morgan as a surgeon, the book was an immediate success. Translated into English it went through numerous editions. The portrait of Morgan that emerges from the book is that of a man of terrific energy and one possessed of great powers of persuasion. Esquemelin's depiction of Morgan's cruelty was probably exaggerated, though there is no doubt that he could be absolutely unscrupulous when it suited his ends. Morgan actually sued William Crooke, the English publisher of the book, for libel. He made it clear, however, that he was more offended by the author's claiming that he had been kidnapped in Wales and sold, as a boy, into slavery, and sent to Barbados, than by any allegations of barbarism.
As a result of this trial Crooke paid 200 francs for damages to Morgan and published a long and groveling apology. Later editions of the book tone down the general character of the pirate. Clearly Morgan saw himself as a patriot, out to defend the English Crown against the depredations of its most deadly enemy, Spain. He sailed as a privateer. But his behavior was at times indistinguishable from that of the most mercenary pirate. For example, when returning from his successful assault on the city of Panama in I67I, he left most of his faithful followers behind in Chagres, without ships or food, while he slipped off in the night with most of the booty to Jamaica.
Morgan served his apprenticeship with Sir Christopher Mings, an intrepid seaman who had commanded a ship during the invasion of Jamaica. Mings ravaged the Spanish Main and in an incredible stroke of good fortune stumbled upon a store of Spanish silver containing 1.5 million pieces of eight, an astronomical sum. The first document that mentions Morgan by name refers to Captain Henry Morgan as commander of one of ten ships sailing under letters of marque in Mings's admiralty. Returning to Jamaica Morgan entered into partnership with the buccancers Jackman and Morris, successfully plundered the coast of present day Central America, and returned once more a wealthy and highly regarded man. While he was away his uncle, Edward Morgan, had been named lieutenant governor of Jamaica, a post Henry Morgan later held.
In the spring of 1665 Edward Morgan assumed command of an attack on the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The exertion proved too much for him he died of "surfeit" while pursuing the enemy. His nephew asked for the hand of his late uncle's daughter, Mary Elizabeth, and was married early in the following year. Morgan now found himself in a uniquely favorable position. Married to one of the belles of island society and on friendly terms with the government, he was at the same time well-known and respected by the buccaneers who frequented the West Indies in search of booty. In 1668, when he was 33 years old, Morgan was commissioned by the Jamaican government to gather together a force of privateers. Spain and England were again at war, and Morgan was made admiral of the fleet. His first sortie was an attack on the Cuban city of Puerto Principe. Unfortunately, the Spanish got wind of his plans and managed to hide most of their treasure. The attack netted him the negligible sum of 50,000 pieces of eight.
His next move proved more rewarding. He sailed for Portobello, a collection point for Spanish treasure on the Caribbean coast of Panama. With a combination of guile and courage he and his men took the city and spent 31 days in unrestrained looting. Warned by the local Indians, who hated the Spaniards, he was able to set an ambush for an expeditionary force that was sent overland to retake the town. He returned to Jamaica with spoils valued at more than œ100,000 and was met with general rejoicing. Although Morgan was becoming rich, his buccaneer companions were not faring nearly so well. At their urging he put to sea again with a motley fleet of twelve vessels. His flagship was a handsome frigate called the Oxford.
One evening when Morgan was hosting a banquet for all the captains of his fleet, a sudden explosion gutted the ship. Practically the entire crew was killed. By a stroke of good luck Morgan and a few of his dinner guests survived. Apparently unruffled by his close escape from death, Morgan seized a fine ship, the Cour Volant, from a French pirate, made her his own flagship, and christened her the Satisfaction. He then set off to raid the port of Maracaibo on the Gulf of Venezuela. Unknown to him, the Spanish had recently fortified the area. Once again his ability to rethink his strategy according to conditions on the ground served him well. He attacked by land and took the fort, and over the course of the next two months succeeded in divesting the inhabitants of almost œ50,000 worth of silver and jewels.
By now the Spanish fleet was out to get him. Three warships lay at the mouth of the only passage out of the gulf. Decisively out-gunned, Morgan sent a ship right at the Spanish flagship, the Magdalen. The admiral confident in his superiority let it approach and prepared to board it, when all at once it exploded. The flames spread quickly to the Magdaler', and Morgan made his way into the channel and from there to a triumphant return to Jamaica. Now Morgan began preparations for what was to be the greatest coup of his career the sacking of Panama.
Morgan's first action in the raid was to land a party that took the Castle of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River. Morgan left a strong garrison there to cover his retreat and on January 9, 1671 pushed on up the river with 1,400 men in a fleet of canoes.
The journey across the isthmus, through the tropical jungle, was very hard on the men, particularly as they, expecting to find provisions to supply their needs along the way, had carried no food with them. They practically starved until the sixth day, when they stumbled across a barn full of maize that the fleeing Spanish had neglected to destroy. On the evening of the ninth day a scout reported he had seen the steeple of a church in Panama. Morgan, with that touch of genius that so often brought him success, attacked the city from a direction the Spanish had not thought possible, so their guns were all placed where they were useless. They were compelled to do just what the buccaneer leader wanted them to do namely, to come out of their fortifications and fight him in the open.
The battle raged fiercely for two hours between the brave Spanish defenders and the equally brave but nearly exhausted buccaneers. When at last the Spanish turned and ran, the buccaneers were too tired to immediately follow up their success. But after a brief rest they advanced, and at the end of three hours of street fighting the city was theirs. The first thing Morgan now did was to assemble all his men and strictly forbid them to drink any wine, telling them that he had secret information that the wine had been poisoned by the Spanish before they left the city. This was, of course, a scheme of Morgan's to stop his men from becoming drunk, when they would be at the mercy of the enemy should they return to attempt to retake the city. Morgan now set about plundering the city, a large part of which was burnt to the ground, though whether this was done on his orders or by the fleeing Spanish governor has never been established.
After three weeks the buccaneers started back on their journey to San Lorenzo, with a troop of 200 pack mules laden with gold, silver, and goods of all sorts, together with a large number of prisoners. The rearguard of the march was under the command of a relative of the admiral, Colonel Bledry Morgan. On their arrival at Chagres the spoils were divided, amidst a great deal of fighting, and in March 1671, Morgan sailed off to Port Royal, Jamaica, with a few friends and the greater part of the plunder, leaving his followers behind without ships or provisions.
On May 3, 1671, the Jamaican legislature passed a vote of thanks to Morgan for his successful expedition, and this in spite of the fact that in July of the preceding year a treaty had been concluded at Madrid between Spain and England for "restraining depredations and establishing peace" in the New World. The political winds were changing and with them Morgan's fortunes. His friend, the governor, was removed from power, and in order to appease the Spanish court, Morgan was placed under arrest. In April 1672 Morgan was carried to England as a prisoner on board the frigate Welcome. But because of his enormous popularity he was never incarcerated or convicted. In fact, he passed much of his time in London consulting with high government officials, and in 1674 he was knighted and returned to Jamaica, this time as lieutenant governor.
Morgan was a man of action and a "normal" life ashore proved tiresome to him. We learn from a 1674 report sent home by the governor, Lord Vaughan, that Morgan "frequented the taverns of Port Royal, drinking and gambling in unseemly fashion." But nevertheless the Jamaica assembly voted the lieutenant governor a sum of œ600 as a special salary, hardly a sign of disfavor. In 1676 Vaughan brought definite charges against Morgan and another member of the government, Robert Byndloss, of giving aid to certain Jamaican pirates. Morgan made a spirited defense and, no doubt owing largely to his popularity, got off, and in 1678 was granted a commission as captain of a company of 100 men. The governor who succeeded Vaughan was Lord Carlisle. Carlisle seems to have had a soft spot for Morgan, in spite of his jovial "goings on with his old buccaneer friends in the taverns of Port Royal. Carlisle speaks in his letters of Morgan's "generous Manner," and hints that despite whatever allowances are settled on him "he will be a beggar."
In 1681 Sir Thomas Lynch was appointed governor, and trouble at once began between him and his deputy. Among the charges the former brought against Morgan was one of having been overheard to say, "God damn the Assembly!" for which he was suspended from that body. In April 1688 the king, at the urgent request of the Duke of Albemarle. ordered Morgan to be reinstated to the Assembly, but Morgan did not live long to enjoy his restored honors he died on August 25, 1688. An extract from the journal of Captain Lawrence Wright, commander of H.M.S. Assistance, dated August 1688, describes the burial ceremonies for Morgan held at Port Royal that show how important and popular a man he was. It states:
Saturday 25. This day at about noon Sir Henry Morgan died, & the 26th was brought over from Passage-fort to the King's house at Port Royall, from thence to the Church, & after a sermon was carried to the Pallisades & there buried. All the forts fired an equal number of guns, we fired two & twenty & after we & the Drake had fired, all the merchantmen had fired. Morgan's will, which was filed in the Record Office at Spanish Town, apparently made provisions for his wife and near relatives. He was given a hero's burial.