Captain Henry Morgan, Part 1 – Real Pirates of the Caribbean

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Sir Henry Morgan

Captain Morgan was a ruthless privateer and ingenious naval strategist who eventually settled down to a knighted life of ease and wealth as deputy governor of Jamaica.

Henry Morgan (1635-1688) was born into a well-to-do farming family in Wales. Unlike Francisco Pizarro, who first took a stab at pig farming, Morgan had his sights set on sailing the high seas from an early age. After a buccaneering stint on Tortuga and Barbados, he moved to Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1660, which had been wrested from the Spanish not many years before (1655). There Morgan was taken under the wing of Admiral Christopher Myngs.

In 1662 Morgan received his first privateering commission, which more or less meant that he was now a fully qualified privateer who knew his cutlass from a yardarm. According to the contract of his commission, Morgan was to split any spoils of war with the British government where sea-related activities came into play. Clever Dick Morgan soon realized that he could avoid splitting the spoils if he were to gain them on land. For this reason, many of Morgan’s battles throughout his privateering career would be fought on land.

The first of Henry Morgan’s successful large-scale raids was in 1668 when Jamaican governor Sir Thomas Modyford commissioned Morgan to capture certain Spanish prisoners held in Cuba. These prisoners, it was believed, had knowledge of an impending attack on Jamaica and would presumably spill the beans. (One way or another, the information would be got out of them; Morgan was not a squeamish man when it came to the necessity –or some pirates might say enjoyment– of torture.)

Morgan set out from Tortuga with 10 ships and disembarked in central Cuba with 500 men behind him. Their objective was the town of Puerto Principe, located 30 miles from Havana. The Spaniards, however, had apparently been forewarned of Morgan’s arrival and ambushed the party along the way, causing many casualties. The warning had also given the Spaniards ample time to stash away their gold and valuables. After a short battle, Puerto Principe was taken. Morgan and his buccaneers, far exceeding the scope of Morgan’s commission, proceeded to go on a bloodthirsty (as pirates or privateers are wont to do) rampage. The inhabitants were tortured into revealing the whereabouts of their treasure. Eventually, the inhabitants were freed in exchange for 50,000 pieces of eight.

At the sight of this relatively modest stash, there were droopy, discouraged faces all round, which resulted in the decision by the French captains to withdraw their French contingent to join up with the privateer L’Ollonais at Tortuga. However, a ship with fresh, eager-beaver English let’s-go-get-some-gold-and-rum reinforcements soon arrived, taking the departed Frenchmen’s place.

Morgan’s next target that same year was the heavily fortified city of Porto Belo on the Isthmus of Panama. With its three forts and large contingent of soldiers, it was presumed by most to be the sort of daunting task you would file away in the are-you-kidding-me? cabinet drawer. Many of his men must have said, “Shiver me timbers!” in response, but Morgan was resolute and steadfast– and probably made very sure not to keep his back to his men for any length of time. Morgan devised a plan whereby his buccaneers rowed quietly into the harbor under cover of darkness in canoes. Taken by surprise, the first two forts quickly fell. The third fort, however, was a more difficult walnut to crack, with two attempts to take it being quickly repulsed. Here again Morgan’s tactical skills, though not the sort of thing acceptable at a London societal ball in the company of gentlemen and ladies, helped win the day. Captured Jesuit priests and even nuns were brought up to the front battle lines and used by Morgan’s men as shields while scaling the walls of the fort. This as well as other piratical excesses did not win him any friends among the Spanish.

Having taken the remaining fort and city of Porto Belo, a predictable month-long spree of looting, torturing and drinking ensued. A hefty ransom of 350,000 pieces of eight was set for the remaining inhabitants of the city. Balking at this excessive amount, the governor of Panama dispatched 3,000 troops to retake the city. The governor’s troops were promptly ambushed by Morgan’s buccaneers along the way, with the result that the governor suggested 100,000 pieces of eight. Perhaps surprisingly, Morgan did not stick to his flintlocks and continue to demand 350,000; he accepted the lower amount of 100,000, the hostages were released and Morgan’s forces were withdrawn to Jamaica.

Happy sea chanties must have been sung along the way in their ships laden with a combined haul value of 250,000 pieces of eight for the two raids.