Sir Henry Morgan and Pirates of the Caribbean: Plundering and Looting the Spanish Gold on the Isthmus of Panama

Sir Henry Morgan

Whoever would have believed that the son of a simple farmer in Llanrhymney, Wales, born in a year around 1635, would eventually become Sir Henry Morgan. This pirate would eventually bring the Spaniard colonists in what is now the nation of Panama to their knees.

Hardened as an Indentured Laborer in the West Indies

According to, Captain Morgan began his experience in the New World as an indentured laborer, alongside Indians and Blacks who were not indentured, but slaves. Workers such as Morgan represented less value since they were in a sense, temporary, not permanent capital assets.

It’s no wonder that when these men were released penniless, they had no reason to respect their former masters. It was a hard world and survival trumped rules. In many cases, the result was the life of a pirate seeking loot. So it was with Morgan.

Spain, the Economic Rulers of the Caribbean ( Atlantic) and Pacific Coast

Although the French, Portuguese, Dutch, and British had a stake in the New World, none could rival the Spanish. This was particularly true in what is now the Republic of Panama. It is no coincidence that the Panama Canal was eventually built here.

Because of geographic considerations, gold harvested on the Pacific coast could be easily transported across the continental divide. There, at the port of Portobelo, it could be combined with Atlantic coast gold (notably from Peru), loaded onto ships, and transported to Spain.

Morgan Recruited by John Esquemeling, Assigned to Edward Mansvelt

After being recruited, he was assigned under Captain Edward Mansvelt for duty. Mansvelt was a clever judge of character, and recognizing certain mercenary characteristics in his new ward, appointed him Vice Admiral.

They were tasked with taking island of Curacao from the Dutch for England. Mansvelt had other ideas. With 15 ships and 500 men, they instead set out to plunder the island of St. Catherine. They were now officially pirates of the Caribbean, although not the romantic Jack Sparrow version.

Onward to Sack Portobelo, Panama

The pirate partnership soon broke up. Mansvelt died of undocumented causes which left Morgan in control of the fleet.

After increasing his cash flow by 50,000 pieces of eight by raiding the Cuban town of Puerto del Principe, he set his sights on the lucrative Portobelo. The harbor there was sandwiched by two forts with high ramparts.

Since a direct assault didn’t seem like a prudent idea, the plan was to land and disembark down the coast and attack from the land side. The first fort was taken quickly by surprise, and the second with a bit more effort.

The Next Objective: the City of Panama

After a sidestep of looting the port of Maracaibo in Venezuela and the island of St. Catherine, Captain Morgan set his sights on the City of Panama, on the Pacific side of the isthmus. But to get there, he would have to conquer the fort of Chagres, on the Chagres River.

The battle was fierce but the pirates persevered. They continued overland to their objective. On the morning of January 18, 1671, battle was joined. The pirates were outnumbered but the Spaniard cavalry was impeded by marshy land which gave Morgan’s forces the advantage.

The Spanish troops fell back in disarray and the pirate force soon overran the city and began looting. Mission accomplished.

From Pirate to Hero

Morgan returned to British Jamaica only to discover that during his absence, a treaty had been struck with Spain which rendered him a criminal. He was transported back to Britain for trial but once again the tables were turned.

The treaty fell apart, he was made a Baronet, and returned to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Morgan. All going to prove that sometimes, crime does pay.