Sir Henry Morgan

According to some accounts Henry Morgan was born around 1635 at Llanrumney (in Welsh, Llanrhymny). In those days, Llanrumney was a manor in the ancient Hundred of Newport in Monmouthshire but nowadays is thought of as a suburb of Cardiff.. The manor had been the property of the ancient family of Kemeys but an heiress married Henry Morgan of Machen in the 16th century and the Morgans were here for six generations. Towards the end of his life Henry Morgan is said to have bought an estate in Jamaica and named it Penkarne. The manor of Pencarn (again in the Hundred of Newport) was itself associated with the Morgans for many centuries. An ancestor Owen, son of the Lord of Caerleon, lived there in the 12th century. Sir Thomas Morgan of Pencarn became known as "the warrior" after commanding English forces overseas in the 1580s and 1590s. His nephew, Sir Matthew Morgan was wounded at the siege of Rouen in 1591. Matthew's brother, Sir Charles also served overseas with distinction and became a member of the privy council of King Charles I.
A brief note of his career (revised March 2000)
Of the generally available literature on Henry Morgan, I have found Dudley Pope's "Harry Morgan's Way" (Secker and Warburg, London 1977) to be the most satisfactory and I have followed this in describing Morgan's exploits. Dudley Pope consulted British and Spanish archives and brought his wide knowledge of maritime history to the topic. It is worth remembering that Morgan's raids were carried out in his capacity as a "privateer". Like commanders in many colonial outposts of the time, he was authorised to act as an agent of his country at a time when official government forces were often not available so far from home. His reports to the governor of Jamaica and papers between Jamaica and London survive. His own official reports of his exploits are usually laconic in the extreme and seem to reveal a naturally modest man, not comfortable with the sometimes rather flowery prose of his day. As he once wrote, "I ... have been more used to the pike than the book ...".
There is little doubt that the detailed descriptions of his famous raids on Spanish colonial outposts are based on the writings of a Dutch (or possibly French) man known as Esquemeling who took part in some of these raids and published his account as De Americaensche Zee-Rovers. This was translated for the Spanish market and entitled Piratas de la America y Luz ... . An English translation followed and this was called Bucaniers (sic) of America ... Wherein are contained ... the Unparallel'd Exploits of Sir Henry Morgan, our English (sic) Jamaican Hero. Who sacked Puerto Velo, burnt Panama etc ... . This (and another English translation) incorporated material which Esquemeling seems to have included with an eye to his Dutch and Spanish readers many of whom would have been antagonistic towards Morgan . When the English translations were brought to Morgan's attention he promptly sued the publishers, who eventually settled out of court. Each paid him 200 pounds in damages and issued new editions with apologetic prefaces. The original books had accused Morgan of permitting atrocities while raiding Spanish colonial outposts but he seems to have been most upset by passages which stated that he had arrived in the West Indies as an indentured servant, like so many of the early settlers. The new prefaces pointed out that Morgan "was a gentleman's son of good quality in the county of Monmouth, and never was a servant to anybody in his life, unless unto his Majesty ..." . It is well known that Welsh people were particularly proud of their pedigrees and in this respect Morgan was true to type.
Henry Morgan was born around 1635. He arrived at the West Indian island of Barbados in 1655 as a junior officer in an expedition sent out by Oliver Cromwell and commanded by General Venables (the naval commander was Vice-Admiral Penn, whose eldest son gave his name to the American state). This was the time of the Commonwealth. King Charles I had been executed and Cromwell's head appeared on the coinage. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Henry's uncle Edward was sent out to Jamaica as lieutenant governor. The Venables expedition had by now captured the island of Jamaica with its large natural harbour and strategic position. Henry, already famous in Jamaica, courted and married his uncle's oldest surviving daughter Mary Elizabeth, and her sisters wed two of his trusted friends. Henry remained faithful to his wife until his death in 1688, but they were not blessed with children.
Henry learned much from Commodore Christopher Mings when he sailed as part of the flotilla which first attacked and plundered Santiago (Cuba) and in 1663 when he commanded a vessel in the attack on the Mexican coast. In this, 1100 men described as privateersmen, buccaneers and volunteers sailed more than 1000 miles to attack Campeche. The town, defended by two forts and regular Spanish troops, fell after a day of fighting and the buccaneers took fourteen Spanish ships from the port as prizes.
Why did the English authorities seem to encourage the activities of the buccaneers? The answer lies in the fact that people in power in London knew that Britain's future prosperity rested on her ability to expand trading markets. The Spanish had claimed the New World and Spain had become dependant upon the gold and silver it produced. They sought to control trade and limit it to Spanish ships. At the time in question, it was not unknown for the Spaniards to capture British ships in the West Indies and to enslave their crews. The Spanish Armada had sailed to attack England only seventy or so years ago and the perceived threat from Spanish catholicism was probably greater than the more recent worry about eastern European communism. England had no colonies where slaves toiled in gold mines and knew that only the outposts of the enfeebled Spanish empire prevented British merchants from exploiting new opportunities for trade.
Why were buccaneers so called? The original boucaniers were the native inhabitants of the West Indies who had developed a method of preserving meat by roasting it on a barbecue and curing it with smoke. Their fire pit and grating were called a boucan and the finished strips of meat were also known as boucan. In time, the motley collection of international refugees, escaped slaves, transported criminals and indentured servants who roamed along the coasts if the islands became known as buccaneers and the term came to describe an unscrupulous adventurer of the area.
In 1663, Henry Morgan was one of five captains who left the old Port Royal in Jamaica and set a course for New Spain. They were not to return for about 18 months. Although his fellow captains were experienced privateers, it seems likely that Morgan became leader of the expedition because of his background as a soldier. It might be as well to remind readers that the renowned exploits of the buccaneers took place on land. In most cases, ships were simply used to carry them to a safe landing from which they could march to attack a fortified town. Battles on the high seas were not liable to be so rewarding so these were generally not sought. It is also worth pointing out that whereas Morgan seemed to lead a charmed life in the face of danger on land, at sea he was rather unlucky. One ship exploded beneath him when his crew, the worse for drink, lit candles near the gunpowder stores and on another occasion his ship struck a reef near shore and he had to be rescued from a rock.
On the expedition mentioned above, the small fleet sailed from Jamaica and rounded the Yucatan peninsula to the Gulf of Mexico. They landed at Frontera and marched 50 miles inland to attack Villahermosa. After sacking this town they found that their own ships had been captured by the Spanish so they had to themselves capture two Spanish ships and four coastal canoes in which to continue their epic voyage. They sailed and paddled 500 miles against an adverse current to return around the Yucatan peninsular and continued along the coast of Central America. They landed on the coast of modern Nicaragua and again struck inland to attack a rich town called Granada. This was taken in a surprise raid and the official report said that more than a thousand of the Indians "joined the privateers in plundering and would have killed the (Spanish) prisoners, especially the churchmen ...".
Morgan and his men returned to Jamaica with great riches. As Dudley Pope points out, by 1665 Morgan had taken the lead in the most audacious buccaneering expedition ever known in the West Indies. He could have settled to the comfortable life of a planter and this might have been expected after his marriage to Mary Morgan but it was felt that Jamaica was threatened and it seems Morgan was asked to organise the island's militia and defences. This task completed, in 1668 he gathered a fleet of a dozen privateers at a rendezvous in the tiny islands south of Cuba known as the South Cays. 700 hundred men crewed vessels we would regard as very small in these days. The largest was perhaps the Dolphin, a Spanish prize. She was of fifty tons, carried 8 guns and was perhaps 50 feet along the deck. Some of the vessels were merely large open boats with some shelter for the crews and provisions. They would have a single mast and could be rowed when necessary.
It was decided to attack the town of El Puerto del Principe, which despite its name was 45 miles inland from the Cuban coast. In Morgan's words "we marched 20 leagues to Porto Principe and with little resistance possessed ourselves of the same. ... On the Spaniard's entreaty we forebore to fire the town, or bring away prisoners, but on delivery of 1,000 beeves, released them all." This raid did not provide much plunder and on their return to the coast most of the French captains decided to join up with their countryman, the bloodthirsty privateer L'Ollonais, at Tortuga. Thus, in May of 1668 Morgan sailed with his remaining force south, across the Caribbean to a place near the present day Panama Canal, called a council of war and announced his intention to attack the heavily defended harbour of Portobelo. He was soon to write "we took our canoes, twenty-three in number and rowing along the coast, landed at three o'clock in the morning and made our way into the town, and seeing that we could not refresh ourselves in quiet we were enforced to assault the castle ..." When they had captured the fort of San Geronimo they made their way to the dungeon and there found eleven English prisoners covered with sores caused by the chafing of their heavy chains. The story of the plundering and further attack on a fort in the centre of Portobelo is too long to be told here but it made Morgan's name as a daring and successful leader. So much coin was plundered that Spanish pieces of eight became additional legal currency in Jamaica.
Later 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 defence 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 and a reinforced fort. Morgan had to use great ingenuity to escape. While doing so added to his treasure yet again.
In 1670 Morgan assembled an expedition of 36 ships and over 1800 men at a safe anchorage off Hispaniola. At a meeting with his captains, English and French, it was decided to attack Panama, the legendary Spanish city of the Indies. All the riches of the mines of Peru passed through here on the way to Spain and the city was known to be full of rich merchants and fine buildings. The task confronting Morgan was extremely difficult and dangerous. There was no Panama Canal and his force would have to take the Caribbean island of Old Providence, sail from there to land at Chagres and cross the isthmus to Panama through thick jungle and across high mountains. Even England's hero Sir Francis Drake had failed in a similar undertaking many decades before. After many battles and privations, in 1671 Panama finally fell. The city burned after some houses were fired (supposedly by the defenders) and after the buccaneers left, the ruins were overgrown with vegetation. Ultimately a new city was built miles away at Perico. (If you are interested in a more informed account of Morgan's activities in Panama, Sean P. Kelley knows the country and describes Morgan's exploits there within his resource on Colonial Panama

Morgan returned to Jamaica minus his ship the Satisfaction which had been wrecked on a reef but his fleet docked at Port Royal with hundreds of slaves and chests of gold, silver and jewels. Under the strict agreement that governed the division of the spoils in those days, Dudley Pope estimates that Morgan would have made 1000 British pounds (around 1600 USD) from the Panama expedition and it is known that ordinary seamen pocketed 200 pieces of eight (worth 50 pounds or 80 dollars). In those days, 50 pounds would have been considered "a small fortune".
By the time that the sack of Panama was known in London, politics had taken a turn. There were those who sought to conciliate Spain, especially since reports from some European capitals suggested that she was near to declaring war on England. It was thought prudent to arrest Modyford, the governor of Jamaica and later to arrest Morgan. In 1672 Morgan sailed for London in the Welcome, a leaky naval frigate. He arrived in a country which differed greatly to the one he had left seventeen years before. Then it had been Puritan, now the monarchy had been restored and London was once more a city of theatre, fashion, corruption and fascinating figures. Some of Christopher Wren's new classically inspired churches already adorned the city and the diarist Samuel Pepys became secretary to the Board of Admiralty in 1673. There is no record of Morgan having been detained and he seems to have spent three years in London at his own expense but free to meet the people he chose. He became friendly with the second duke of Albermarle (Morgan's uncle had fought with the duke's father in the Civil Wars) and it seems that this friendship brought Morgan to the notice of King Charles II. In time, England's attitude to Spain changed and when the King became aware that the English colony of Jamaica was under threat again, he asked Morgan for advice about the defence of the island, knighted him and wondered if he might like to return there as Lieutenant Governor.
At the age of 45, Sir Henry was acting governor of Jamaica, Vice-Admiral, Commandant of the Port Royal Regiment, Judge of the Admiralty Court and Justice of the Peace. Dudley Pope sketches a picture of a tall and generally lean man but one who now exhibited a paunch. He was known to drink heavily and to be fond of the company of his old comrades in the rum shops of Port Royal. He seems to have worked to transform the island's fortifications and he survived various political upheavals while expanding his estate. In 1687 the duke of Albermarle arrived in Jamaica to take up his post as the new governor. Christopher Monck's private yacht was of a type never seen in those waters and the merchant ships which accompanied it carried 500 tons of his possessions and stores as well as around a hundred servants. His wife, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, formerly the toast of London society had, by the age of 27, become mentally unstable and to attend on her the duke had brought out young Dr. Hans Sloane. Sloane's name was to become famous in many fields but for those with an interest in the history of the buccaneers he is always remembered for his notes on the last days of Sir Henry Morgan. Sloane attempted to treat Morgan, finding him yellow of complexion and swollen, but it seems that Morgan's frame did not respond. At one time Sloane describes Morgan as having sought the advice of a black doctor who plastered him all over with clay and water but even this treatment failed and he signed his will in June of 1688. On the 25th of August he died.
For many, Henry Morgan is little more than the name of a romantic "pirate" of yore, but I now see signs of Morgan being re-evaluated 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. Of all the great figures in Welsh history he must be counted among the most attractive and able.
However ...
I must be admitted that there is a case for a different viewpoint. A Spanish reader of this page has drawn attention to the atrocities carried out by Morgan's men on many of his raids. (These typically involved the torture of residents of the towns attacked in order to make them divulge the location of hidden valuables.) He sees Morgan as "a man who used clergy as human shields, tortured civilians, organized gigantic looting expeditions in in the full knowledge that no state of war existed between the parties, and did not hesitate to put whole populations to the sword". There is little doubt that by today's standards Morgan could be accused of crimes agains humanity. As their leader, he would be held responsible for the actions of his men.

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