Captain Henry Morgan, Part 2 – Morgan Plunders the Spanish Main

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Sir Henry Morgan

Morgan made his name plundering the Spanish Caribbean colonies on behalf of the English crown, while pocketing more than one or two pieces of eight for his trouble.

In the previous article, part one of the life of Captain Henry Morgan, the privateer Morgan had succeeded in making off with a king’s ransom after the battle for Porto Belo

Back now in Port Royal, Jamaica, Morgan’s reputation soared considerably, and there was no shortage of new recruits willing to sail with him.

Morgan sailed out again in October, 1669, assigned with the task of attacking Spanish interests along the coast of Venezuela. He had 900 men and nine ships at his disposal.

Morgan set his sights first on Cartagena, the principle harbor of the Spanish colonies known collectively as the Spanish Main. However, the operation did not get off to anything like the resounding peaches-and-cream start that Morgan had envisioned. In England it is said that you should never trust the food served in a pub if that pub’s name has a “parrot,” “rat” or “hog” in it. (The Parrot’s Rat’s Hog, for example, should strictly be avoided.) Perhaps this rule against not trusting funny animal names should be applied to islands as well. After docking his fleet at the nearby Cow Island, which was to serve as Morgan’s base of operations, bad cow-arma (lousy, two-bit pun intended) struck: Morgan’s lead ship, The Oxford, blew up, killing 300 of his men. The cause? Lady drink, as might be predictably guessed, was to blame. It seems that some of the besotted lads lit one or more candles near the gunpowder kegs in the hold, with the result that they bought a star-spangled one-way ticket to Davy Jones’ Locker. (By pirate standards, however, it was probably exactly the way they would have wanted to go.) Morgan, who was by no means a stranger to excess drink himself, was in the dining cabin at the time and barely escaped with his life.

Having lost a third of his men, Morgan now felt that he had insufficient numbers to carry out his intended looting, sacking and maiming attack on the Cartagena harbor. He instead cast about for something more small fry, and found it in the form of the harbor city of Maracaibo.

The fruits of success were not to be partaken of in Maracaibo, however, as most of the city’s people had fled in advance of Morgan’s arrival. There is something about the sight of a Jolly Roger flag flying in the wind that can send inhabitants scurrying away like frightened rabbits. Parties of men were sent out after the Spanish rabbits, some of which were caught, but very little of monetary value could be got out of them.

Morgan next took his fleet into the Lagoon of Maracaibo for an assault on the town of Gibraltar at the southern end. Alas, it was the same routine as before: more fleeing rabbits and little to no loot. It might as well have been a pleasure cruise, because there was nothing to be gained through honest pirating work in this lagoon.

After eight forever weeks spent in the lagoon and little to show for it, Morgan headed back toward Maracaibo and to the open waters of the Caribbean. This time, there were to be no panicky rabbits running off. Instead, waiting to greet Morgan at the inlet to the Caribbean were three imposing and highly destructive Spanish man-of-wars, commanded by Vice-Admiral Alonso del Campo y Espinosa (who perhaps felt that having a longer name signified greater importance).

The vice-admiral’s ship was the Magdalen, with its 48 guns. By contrast, Morgan’s ships typically had 20 or fewer guns each.

The vice-admiral said surrender. Morgan said pooh. Battle commenced. Morgan cleverly sent a burning ship, outfitted with wooden cannons and manned by a 12-man skeleton crew as the lead ship in the direction of the Magdalen. Nearing the Spanish flagship, the crew threw out grappling hooks to snare the Spanish ship. The skeleton crew then lit the fuse connected to explosives on their ship, which they abandoned at the last possible moment, resulting in the Magdalen being loudly and resoundingly blown up as only 48-gun ships can. The Santa Louisa then turned rabbit and fled the scene, while the third Spanish ship, the Marquesa, was captured by Morgan and his buccaneers.

The vice-admiral didn’t get to be vice-admiral without gumption and survivability skills, which he now demonstrated as he swam from his doomed ship and managed to make his way to the nearby San Carlos island and its Spanish fort, which conveniently protected, with its abundance of cannons, the entrance (or exit, depending on which direction you were headed) to the Lagoon of Maracaibo.

A stand-off now ensued. Morgan had the ships and held Maracaibo, while Vice-Admiral Alonso held the fort and controlled the only exit out of the lagoon. Morgan and his buccaneers politely agreed to the citizens of Maracaibo to not torch their city in exchange for 20,000 pieces of eight. The vice-admiral, however, was unrelenting: on no account, 20,000-pieces-of-eight deal or no 20,000-pieces-of-eight deal, would he allow Morgan to escape. Undoubtedly influencing the vice-admiral’s decision was the sight of Morgan and his men calmly salvaging the gold plate and pieces of eight from his recently sunk man-of-war. Vice-Admiral Alonso’s expression must have been priceless as he looked out at this sight. Perhaps anyone looking at him might have thought he’d accidentally sat on his conquistador helmet.

The stand-off was then broken when Morgan, ever the shrewd tactician, ordered a night-time attack on the fort by landing men at the edge of the island using longboats. Only it wasn’t a real attack. The purpose was merely to prompt the Spanish to direct their cannons toward the direction of the supposed attack, which the Spaniards readily did.

With the cannons facing the opposite direction away from the water, Morgan’s ships were now able to exit the lagoon unmolested by any cannon fire from the fort.

The outfoxed vice-admiral must have been hopping-mad irate– which soon enough turned to humility when he was arrested on a charge of incompetence. Fortunately for him, he was able to successfully plead his case to the king after being brought back to Spain, and subsequently released. What he was really guilty of was not being as clever and resourceful as Henry Morgan.