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Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

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Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

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Ho! Henry Morgan sails today. To harry the Spanish Main,
With a pretty bill for the Dons to pay. Ere he comes back again...

Sir Henry Morgan

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello

BUCCANEER AND pirate, admiral and general, country gentleman and planter, custos and judge of the court of Vice-Admiralty, governor and knight ­ all are titles held by Morgan during his colourful lifetime. Jamaica in the second half of the 17th century was a pirate haven. Known for plunder and trade, the island's port town of Port Royal (aptly located at the entry to Kingston Harbour) was home to many of these "brethren of the coast". It was at that time that one pirate in particular rose to prominence ­ the Welshman, Henry Morgan. Famed for his exploits on what was known as the Spanish Main (today called South America) Morgan seemed larger than life. Although accounts place him as being of average height and build, there was nothing average about his leadership abilities or his charisma, however. It is not surprising that history regards him as a pirate king, referring to him as the greatest buccaneer of them all (although most likely forerunners of the pirates, the two terms are used somewhat interchangeably). According to noted Jamaican historian, Clinton Black, Morgan was "more than a buccaneer captain. The same man who could swear and curse and drink and whore with the best of them in many a den of murder, or lead a bunch of desperadoes for miles through hostile jungles and fever-ridden swamps...was also to prove an astute politician with a breadth of vision far, far beyond that of the men he drew to him with his rare magnetism" (1989, p. 29).

Born around 1635 at Llanrumney Manor in Monmouthshire, Wales, Henry Morgan came from an old Welsh family. Accounts differ as to his arrival in Barbados close to 1655. Some say he came as an indentured labourer having been kidnapped from Bristol, England, and sold to a Barbadian plantation owner. After serving some time, it is believed he escaped his indentureship by joining up with an expedition sent by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell to capture Hispaniola from Spain. Other accounts place him primarily as a junior officer in Cromwell's army. However Morgan became a part of Cromwell's group, they failed miserably in their attempt at capturing Hispaniola and so turned their attention to another, relatively defenceless island, Jamaica, hoping to save face in front of the Lord Protector. In a cost-saving measure, the British decided to use pirates turned privateers by virtue of "letters of marque" (such as that granted to Morgan by Governor Modyford) to protect their newest colony.

Yet, in their first major test against the Dutch in 1664 the motley crew of buccaneer/pirates failed. A strong leader, a pirate who could command the respect of the men, was lacking. In young "Welsh Harry" Governor Modyford, found that man. After the death of Henry Morgan's uncle Edward in the late 1660s (who had been Lt. Governor after the restoration of the monarchy and whose daughter, Mary, Morgan would eventually marry), Governor Modyford had no qualms about naming Morgan commander of the militia in Port Royal. By 1668 Morgan was already an English vice admiral of a fleet of 15 ships and at the same time the pirates elected him successor to Edward Mansfield (leader of all pirate activities in Jamaica). Thus, Henry Morgan became the terror of all Spaniards in the West Indies.

PIRACY AND PRIVATEERING ­ SAILING UNDER THE "BANNER OF KING DEATH" In 1668 Morgan led fleets of privateers against Spanish-held Puerto Principe in Cuba with the intent of uncovering any Spanish plots to invade Jamaica. Aware of the impending attack, many of the Spanish settlers moved their valuables so Morgan's loot was small. He defended his actions, however, by maintaining that he had confirmed reports of plans to attack Jamaica. With a disappointed crew, Morgan cut his losses and moved on to attempt to sack Puerto Bello, Panama ­ one of the strongest and wealthiest of the Spanish cities. They arrived silently on canoes, slipping into the harbour in the dark of night. The first two forts of Porto Bello fell quickly, but the third proved difficult. Morgan devised a clever plan: he would use captured Catholic priests and nuns to shield his crew as they climbed the walls of the fort. Soon the city was his, along with 250,000 pieces-of-eight and 300 slaves. When word of this attack spread, Morgan's force grew. This endeavour, although successful, also proved particularly brutal as it involved rape, torture, and murder on a grand scale. Naturally, London publicly claimed ignorance about this whilst Morgan and his crew returned to their royally sanctioned base at Port Royal and celebrated in grand style.

1669 saw Morgan back at sea headed towards the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo. He and his 400 men sacked Maracaibo, which the Spaniards had hastily abandoned upon seeing his approach. His fleet then moved on to Gibraltar where he and his men stayed for weeks, drinking and celebrating whilst torturing residents in attempts to try and raise a ransom from the town. He is said to have only gained about 5000 pieces-of-eight in total.

When Morgan finally decided to depart from Gibraltar he encountered three Spanish war galleons under the command of Admiral Don Alonso Del Campo by the narrow inlets that were the only exit to the Caribbean. These war galleons were far superior to Morgan's ships and furthermore, behind the galleons, the Spaniards had cannon and infantry well-entrenched on an island in the narrowest stretch of the inlet. Morgan offered the Spanish the option of surrender. The Spanish merely laughed and Morgan decided to teach them a lesson. Again, he devised a clever plan. He would use "fireships". He covered his lead ship with pitch, tar, and brimstone, loaded it with kegs of gunpowder, and had dummies made of pumpkin and wood, dressed as buccaneers and placed at battle stations throughout his ship. The small vessel slowly approached the Spanish and suddenly exploded, sinking the first man-o-war, and burning the second to the hull. The remaining man-o-war was then easily captured. Morgan offered the Spanish the option of surrender for a second time and once again they refused. He then embarked on phase two. His crew set off for shore with longboats indicating preparations for a land attack. In response, the Spanish moved their cannon to the other side of the fort. Yet later that night, before the Spanish had a chance to move the cannon back into place, Morgan safely sailed past the fort. The Spanish had been duped. Morgan's men (except for the oarsmen) had simply crouched down and returned to their ships. It is said that this battle marked Morgan as the undisputed king of the buccaneers.

In January 1670, Morgan embarked on the largest venture of his career, the gold of Panama. Two thousand buccaneers on 36 ships joined forces with him. He led them on a rough 16-day journey through dense almost impassable jungle. But the Spanish were ready for him. Six hundred cavalry and a stampede of 2000 Spanish bulls swooped down on Morgan and his crew. The pirates held their ground and eventually the Spanish were forced to retreat. The city belonged to Morgan, along with 100,000 English Pounds. He and his crew sailed in triumph back to Port Royal. However, by that time, England was no longer at war with Spain so Morgan (and Governor Modyford) were recalled to England and thrown into the dungeons to stand trial. However, King Charles II, aware of Morgan's great deeds, knighted him instead in 1673, making him Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. Modyford was made Chief Justice and so the two friends were reunited.

Governor Morgan proved as ruthless in that respect as he did in any fighting situation. The heyday of piracy was fast drawing to a close and agriculture's star was rising. Many planters looked down on piracy as it took labour away from the fields. To keep the peace Morgan ordered many who refused to give up the lifestyle to be hung at Gallow's Point (the promonotory east of Port Royal).

Under Morgan's watch Port Royal was lined with warehouses, goldsmiths, taverns and brothels and house rentals were said to be as high as any in London's finest neighbourhoods. Morgan is said to have died in his mid-50s of tuberculosis on August 25, 1688. Morgan was given a hero's burial in a cemetery on the Palisadoes strip while the guns of Fort Charles and those of the ships in the harbour saluted in respect. Four years later, in 1692, an earthquake devastated Port Royal, taking the cemetery and Morgan's grave with it, but it did not kill piracy. The new century saw piracy alive and well, although no longer 'legal' as Spanish control had waned considerably.

Sir Henry Morgan's will can be found in the National Archives. Bequeaths to his wife feature heavily ­ he died childless. Sir Thomas Modyford is buried in the Spanish Town Cathedral. His tombstone reads: "The Soule and Life of all Jamaica who first made it what it now is."

SOURCES: Black, C.V. (1989). Pirates of the West Indies. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Roberts, W. A. (1952). Sir Hen. Morgan ­ Buccaneer and governor. Kingston, Jamaica: The Pioneer Press. http://www.piratesinfo.com, http://www.global-travel.co.uk/morgan.htm, http://www.data-wales.co.uk/morgan.htm

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A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted December 9, 2002
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