I ’ll cross the world for green and gold
But it’s those Spanish eyes
The seventeenth century was a chaotic era with nearly incessant struggles amid the nations of Europe. It was an age when Spain still held the strong belief that she possessed the Americas by divine right and was at liberty to hang anyone who infringed upon their territories. Along with Spain’s determination England boasted a long convention of issuing commissions called Letter of Marque to private ships as a way of enlarging its navy in times of conflict. These two events transformed the Caribbean during the middle of the seventeenth century and caused privateering to take on a more nebulous form of sailors called buccaneers. Nowhere else was the carrying out of privateering more cleverly or cynically applied than around Jamaica.
During this period the island of Jamaica was called Cagway and it sat in the heart of Spanish America. Exposed to attack from the foes of England, more often than not it was Spain. Most historians say that the isle would have remained Spanish if not for its “privately commissioned navy under the command of men like Henry Morgan.” These privateers were often the only navy Jamaicans had to defend themselves against their enemies. Port Royal was located on southern coast of Jamaica, known as "the Wickedest City on Earth" it was into this large population of plantation owners, pirates ans buccaneers that Morgan stepped. And it was there that he outfoxed his adversaries becoming notorious as a daring seaman and cagey strategists.
Brethren of the Coast
For two decades the buccaneers of the Caribbean called themselves the Brethren of the Coast. Between 1640-1680 they essentially created a fraternity with a loose code of ethics. These began as simple hunters on the Spanish controlled island of Española, but as their numbers grew the Spanish authorities persecuted them without mercy until they finally became a small band of refugees on the island of Tortuga. The harassments created a deep loathing for the Spanish giving rise to a number of the cruelest acts of violence in the history of piracy. To stem this tide Lord Cromwell deployed a large offensive. Setting sail for the West Indies in 1654 they were to invade the island and capture Española from the Spanish. The flotilla weighed anchor and when they reached Barbados they hired hundreds of men including Henry Morgan.
By March 31, 1655 the expedition was bound for Santo Domingo with eight thousand soldiers and nearly three dozen ships. There, the Spanish defenders defeated the English force.
General Venables' attack on the City of Santo Domingo was defeated. Exhausted and bruised the beaten army dragged itself back to its ships and limped on downwind to the then almost worthless island of Jamaica. There the remaining seven to eight thousand troops stormed the weakly defended shore against the efforts of 200 Spanish soldiers and conquered the island's only town, Santiago de la Vega. But this apparent victory was in fact a complete catastrophe. Cromwell had sent an army, backed up by a huge fleet. Venables had recruited in both England and the Caribbean around eight to nine thousand men...
Anxious about the response they would be given in England, commanders decided to assault the less significant Spanish colony of Jamaica. Even though they captured the colony in a few weeks, to their dismay the English invaders quickly discovered they possessed a colony it could not secure. Soon Letters of Marque
were offered to all who would prey upon Spanish shipping and put together a navy to protect Jamaica.
...(Venables) had been expected to achieve a significant victory, capturing a Spanish stronghold, the likes of San Juan, Santo Domingo, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Vera Cruz or even Cartagena. Instead the English had taken a totally undeveloped island. Both General Venables and Admiral Penn, the commander of the fleet, were immediately thrown in the infamous Tower of London on their return to England.
Was Sir Henry Morgan a swashbuckling adventurer or a bloodthirsty pirate?
The death and dying in Jamaica was unrelenting. Tropical diseases they knew little or nothing about were decimating the troops. Yellow fever, dysentery and malaria killed men in droves. Spanish resistances, fighting the English in the forests and savannas as well as runaway slaves, called Maroons, were reducing their numbers one by one. During the first five years of English occupation in Jamaica, Henry Morgan was one of the lucky few to survive the epidemics. After trying his hand unsuccessfully as a farmer in Jamaica he began an apprenticeship to the master of a ship. When he was close to 30 years old Henry had joined up with the ill-fated Venables' forces.
In 1666 he received a commission, had his own ship and was soon a member of a group operating out of Port Royal. The commission meant that he was a privateer and empowered to fight the Spaniards as a representative of the English government. His compensation was whatever he managed to steal from Spain. This was an acceptable form of conduct in the world of the 17th century navies and the fights among the powers of Europe. It’s for this reason that most historians classify Morgan, not an outlaw pirate, but a privateer authorized by an English Letter of Marque.
Another interesting controversy about Morgan’s life is his obscure arrival in Jamaica and one has to wonder if this is what inspired Robert Louise Stevenson’s well known adventure Kidnapped. John (Alexandre) Esquemeling (1645–1707) was the surgeon on ship for the majority of Morgan’s Caribbean campaigns. The Dutchman kept a fascinating set of written accounts of his adventures with the buccaneers. Initially published in the Netherlands in 1678 as De Americaensche Zeerovers it was later translated into English as The Buccaneers of America. Esquemeling was himself a buccaneer and maintained that he was an eyewitness to his collection of tales about piracy on the high seas. To date it has proven to be a rare first-hand account of the 17th century buccaneers of the Spanish Main. For the true blue bookworm it’s absolutely positively a must have on any sea faring fanatic’s wish list:
An exaggerated account of Morgan's exploits, written by one of his crew, created his popular reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate. 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. Esquemeling’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.
From what is known of Henry's family, he was more likely the son of a gentleman. It’s long been established by many historians that Morgan’s family were experienced in the art of warfare. Two of his uncles, Edward Morgan and Thomas Morgan were officers of various accomplishments. Even though they were from rival camps both had notable military careers in England as well as continental Europe.
The same year that the Spanish defeated General Venables Morgan married Mary Elizabeth one of the belles of island society. He was on pleasant terms with the government and respected by the buccaneers who frequented the West Indies. In 1668 he was commissioned by the Jamaican government to assemble a force of privateers. By the time he was the vice admiral of a fleet of fifteen ships, Spain and England were again at war. These privateers and buccaneers were closely integrated into the official naval forces. His first foray was an assault on the Cuban city of Puerto Principe. However the Spanish got wind of his campaign and hid most of their treasure. Ambushed along the way Morgan took the city, but only after a bitter struggle and great loss. Things got worse for Morgan when word came that the city’s treasure had been hidden. Morgan and his crew were required to settle for a paltry sum of 50,000 pieces of eight in exchange for sparing the lives of his captives. Demoralized half of Morgan’s crew quit.
His next scheme proved more rewarding. Located off the coast of Panama, Portobello was a collection point on the Caribbean for Spanish treasure. With devious courage he and his men took the city:
Experienced sea pirates scoffed at the plan: Porto Bello (sic) was larger, better fortified, and had an army troop when compared to Puerto Principle. Morgan, however, had a plan. When he attacked Porto Bello, (sic) he arrived on canoes, silently, and under the cover of darkness, Morgan’s men slipped into the harbor before anyone knew they were there. The first two forts of Porto Bello (sic) both fell quickly, but the third withstood each attack the pirates implemented. Morgan finally devised a sinister plan: he used captured Catholic priests and nuns to shield his crew as they climbed the walls of the fort. It was only a matter of time before the city fell into the hands of Henry Morgan, along with 250,000 pieces of eight, and 300 slaves. When word of this attack spread, Morgan’s force swelled …and Henry Morgan was quickly known by the nickname: Morgan "the terrible".
Let's set sail with Captain Morgan and never reach dry land.
Within a year Morgan had regrouped and set his sights on two Spanish occupied cities. Marcaibo was a coastal city in Venezuela located at the mouth of an inland lake. Across this lake was the city of Gibraltar. It was here with eight ships manned by 650 fellow buccaneers that Morgan’s abilities to use sly strategies and tactics in his surroundings served him well. Finding both cities deserted they reaped the trifling proceeds of, “ 50,000 English pounds, and slaves and goods of the same value.” But when they tried to put out to sea from the lake, they discovered their exit by Marcaibo had been blocked. The fortress trained their cannon on Morgan with three imposing Spanish men of war stationed just outside the channel. The privateers were trapped.
The Spanish were amused when Morgan offered them the chance to surrender. The savvy admiral soon taught them a lesson they would never forget. Launching a small sloop covered with “pitch, tar, and brimstone “ Morgan filled the holds with kegs of gunpowder. Dummies “made of pumpkins and wood, dressed as buccaneers” were placed at battle stations. As the tiny vessel fearlessly approached the Spanish ships it exploded into flames blowing itself to bits sinking the nearest man of war. A second man-o-war caught fire from the raining debris and burned until nothing but the hull was left. Then Morgan’s crew easily captured the remaining man-o-war.
It was among all of their own flotsam and jetsam that the Spanish were once again offered the option to surrender. Once again bemused by this audacity the Spanish refused and watched while the privateers made their way to shore with longboats. Assuming Morgan was assembling for an attack by land the Spanish relocated their only cannon to the other side of the fort. But instead of landing, Morgan’s men snuck under the gunwale and returned to their ships. While the Spanish had their gun aimed the other way, Morgan sailed safely by the fort under the cover of darkness.
As an interesting aside it's recorded that the Captain pioneered the role of the rum rationing on his ship decades before it became the official drink of the Royal Navy. The original rum would have been produced in traditional pot stills. Enjoyed by swashbuckling buccaneers and other characters of daring disposition, traditional dark rums were normally consumed straight or with limejuice. It wasn't until 1945 that Seagram's distillery introduced Captain Morgan's rum to the world.
Last tango in Panama
By Christmas of 1670 Morgan decided he would set sail for Panama. As the undisputed King of Buccaneers he now commanded a ‘fleet of thirty-five small ships and over two thousand English and French privateers, the largest force of privateers ever assembled with the purpose sacking Panama, the wealthiest city in the New World.’ The pillaging and plundering the gold of Panama would be the biggest undertaking of his career.
Once he defeated the Spanish at Fort San Lorenzo Morgan and his crew embarked upon their now infamous and arduous hike through dense jungle. It took sixteen days to make the trek and when they arrived the Spanish were well prepared. Six cavalries routed the privateers. Both sides suffered heavy fatalities as thousands of muskets were fired, but the privateers held their ground. Not even a stampede of two thousand Spanish bulls would daunt them; finally the Spanish fled. The city that now belonged to Morgan and his men yielded 100,000 English pounds.
Unfortunately by the time the dust had settled Spain and England had signed a peace treaty. No longer at war with Spain, Morgan was ordered to England and tossed into the dungeons to await trial as a pirate. Charles II heard about Morgan’s heroic deeds on behalf of England and became convinced of his loyalty. He knighted Morgan appointing him lieutenant governor of Jamaica and in 1672 Morgan sailed back to England on a leaky maritime frigate the HMS Welcome.
Sir Henry Morgan's exploits came to a close with the attack and razing of Panama. Many of the sources attribute the ship's doctor Esquemeling as the originator of the colorful imagery and stories about the buccaneers. While they lived on to tell tall tales it is ultimately Morgan's enemies that won by tarnishing his image. As soon as John Esquemeling's book was in print in 1684, it struck hard upon a ready cord with those that wanted the worst for him. It is this relatively imaginary collection that endured and has since been embroidered by legends and myths of Hollywood and pulp fiction.
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight
On July 25th 1688 Sir Henry Morgan died and was buried at Port Royal with a 22-gun salute from the ships in the harbor. An extract from the journal of Captain Lawrence Wright, commander of H.M.S. Assistance, dated August 1688, depicts the burial service for Morgan held at Port Royal. It’s plain to see that he was greatly admired and an important man to the community:
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.
Though it continued elsewhere buccaneering had reached its zenith and was falling out of fashion with Jamaicans by the time Sir Henry died. Morgan left no legitimate children so the bulk of his personal estate and several properties went to his wife Mary Elizabeth. Almost four years later Morgan’s grave along with two-thirds of Port Royal sank into the sea because of a violent earthquake marking the end the era for the Jamaican buccaneers. At last in 1697 Spain officially recognized all of the West Indian territories occupied by the English and French bringing an end to the need for privateers to protect the islanders from Spanish attack.
From the gallows of Davey Jones’s locker
In mid spring of 2004 wreckage was discovered off the coast of Haiti that many are convinced is a 17th century shipwreck captained by Sir Henry Morgan. The HMS Oxford sank during a formal dinner as a result of an accidental explosion in 1669 and scuttlebutt says that the 150-foot frigate was packed with treasure when it went under. The treasure hunters placed its position from chronological accounts and have documented “cannons, an anchor, muskets and powder barrels.”
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