Sir Henry Morgan - Pirate or Patriot?
By Donald Callum
Arrrrrghhh! Shiver me timbers!
Everybody and his brother’s cousin knows that Henry Morgan was a pirate or more correctly, a privateer, but not many know he was a patriot too.
There were differences between pirates or buccaneers, and privateers. Pirates were “loose cannon” (pun intended), in that they owed allegiance only to themselves and their comrades and their looting and pillaging was done strictly for their own benefit.
Privateers were raiders, usually merchantmen that were given a guise of legality by a letters of marque, or, lettre de course, in French(giving us the word “corsair”). These documents were issued by governments to vessels allowing them to attack and capture enemy vessels and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale, thereby disrupting their enemies’ sea trade. This practice dated back to at least the 1500’s.
The word ‘buccaneer’ itself comes to us as an Anglicisation of the French use of a Taino word. Got that?
Please let me try to explain: The Tainos used wooden barbecues called “buccans” to smoke manatee meat on the beaches. These “buccans” became “boucans” (pronounced: boo-con) in French and those hunters in Hispaniola who practiced smoking beef and pork, were called “boucaniers”(boo-con-ee-ayr). When the Spanish chased them from what is now Haiti they fled to Tortuga and joined English, French and Dutch sailors attacking Spanish shipping through the Windward passage.
Now back to Morgan. Henry was descended from an old Welsh family of warriors called Morgan who owned estates around present-day Cardiff. He was born in
1635 in Llanrumney (in Welsh, Llanrhymny). Young Henry was said to be better with a lance than with a book so a life of action was early on indicated.
Henry did not reach the West Indies as an indentured servant as has been long-rumoured but was in fact a junior officer in Penn and Venables’ expedition sent by Cromwell to the Caribbean to damage the Spanish hegemony in the region.
This expedition was unsuccessful in capturing Havana in Cuba, and then Santo Domingo in Hispaniola. Fearful of the wrath of Cromwell the Lord Protector if they returned from this very expensive sortie with nothing to show, Penn and Venables attacked the lightly garrisoned island of Jamaica which having no gold, silver, or jewels was used as a provision depot for the returning Spanish treasure fleets.
By 1660 with the monarchy restored, Henry’s uncle was sent out to be the Governor of Jamaica. Henry who was still in Barbados followed his uncle to Jamaica where he was already famous from his exploits with Penn and Venables, married his uncle’s eldest daughter and two of her sisters married his closest friends.
Morgan apprenticed at sea one might say under Commodore Christopher Mings, sailing as one of his captains as they attacked and looted Santiago de Cuba, and a couple of years later in 1663 down the Mexican coast attacking Campeche’s two forts and coming away with 14 Spanish ships as prizes.
Hollywood glamourises pirate sea battles but the truth is these encounters were costly and therefore largely avoided. Most of Morgan and other buccaneers’ successes came on land. In 1663, Henry Morgan the leader of a small fleet of 6 ships that set sail to attack the Spanish Main and did not return until 18 months had past. Morgan must have possessed great leadership skills because time and again he rose to the head of joint efforts involving disparate individuals, possibility due to his background as a soldier. This expedition left Port Royal and headed to New Spain first to the Yucatan and down along the Central American coast landing at Frontera. Morgan’s force marched 50 miles to attack the town of Villahermosa only to find that after capturing and looting the town their own ships had been taken by the Spanish. This forced them to capture 2 Spanish ships
and several coastal canoes to carry them back against the currents to regroup at the Yucatan. They then set out again down the Central American coastline to what is now Nicaragua and again inland to surprise the wealthy town of Granada which was taken with the assistance of local Indian tribes. In 1668, Morgan sailed with ten vessels to Cow Island off the coast of Hispaniola (modern Haiti). Here the Oxford, a warship sent out for the defense of Jamaica by the British government, found the French privateer ship Le Cerf Volant. The British master of a ship from Virginia had accused the French vessel of piracy so the Cerf Volant was arrested and condemned as a prize by the Jamaica Court of Admiralty. After the Oxford was blown up (in an explosion said to have killed 250 people) while Morgan dined in the great cabin, the Cerf Volant ultimately became his flagship, under the new name of Satisfaction. After cruising east along the coast of Hispaniola and attacking coastal towns along the way, Morgan turned south to sail across the Caribbean again, making for Maracaibo in the Gulf of Venezuela. This he took, together with the more southerly town of Gibraltar. On their return journey, the privateers were bottled up at the lake of Maracaibo by several large Spanish warships and a reinforced fort. Morgan had to use great ingenuity to escape and doing so added to his treasure yet again. In 1670 he met off modern-day Haiti with his captains and with their 1800 men decided to attack Panama, the legendary city of the Indies. They landed at Chagres and had to fight their way through the jungle first before reaching the first of three fortifications. Remember this was attempted by the legendary Sir Francis Drake who failed miserably. Morgan succeeded in capturing Panama, during the siege the city caught fire and was burned to the ground. Morgan and his comrades returned to Port Royal with hundreds of slaves and chests of gold and silver and jewels. As happened often in Europe during the 17th century, politics had taken a turn back in England, attacking Spanish ships and cities became for a time an embarrassment for the English government and Henry Morgan and his protector, the Governor, were summoned home, but not punished. After three years
England’s attitude toward Spain again changed and once again Morgan was sent to relieve the threat against Jamaica. Morgan at the age of 45, returned as Lieutenant Governor organized the island’s defenses and survived political treachery, whilst expanding his estates and their value. He also still enjoyed the company of his former colleagues a bit too much in the rum bars of Port Royal and his once admirable physique became bloated and his pallor yellowed. Morgan was said to have been faithful to his wife from the day they were married, but they were never able to have children He died on the 25th of August 1688. For many decades, Henry Morgan’s name meant only the name of a romantic "pirate" of yore, but there are recent signs of a re-evaluation by scholars. As John Weston asserts Morgan is being looked at “as one of Britain's most successful military strategists and as a man with the leadership qualities of an Alexander. He gained the loyalty of the buccaneers, who followed him without question, and the respect of kings and princes”. P.S. As I finished putting this piece together, there came news reports in the media about an amazing discovery near the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama. It appears an archaeological team from Texas State University who had been researching Morgan’s lost ships for the Panamanian government, have retrieved 6 iron 17th century cannons from the wreck of a ship they feel might be Morgan’s flagship, the Satisfaction. There are crates and boxes within the perimeter of the remains of the ship’s hull and so it appears this episode of Caribbean History may soon have much new evidence to fill in the 300-year-old story. The company that sells Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum is helping to fund the research for publicity only as all artifacts will become the property of the government of Panama for display at the Patronato Panama Viejo.