Sir Henry Morgan was born in 1635 in Monmouthshire, Wales, the son of a farmer. As a boy he was sent to work in Barbados. The Caribbean was a hotbed of pirates at this time and young Morgan quickly realized that a life of piracy would bring him far more wealth and adventure. He joined a ship, and his leadership skills soon won him the reputation as a good captain.
Morgan loved the finer things in life, the best wine, delicious foods, and elegant cloths. He saw piracy as the quickest path towards winning these for himself. But he was clever enough to cover his back by making a career in "legitimate" thieving.
In 1667, Britain and Spain signed a treaty in which they promised not to attack each other's ships. This treaty quickly broke down and months later the Spanish were preparing to attack Jamaica from their base in Cuba. The Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, knew his defenses were inadequate. He called up a mercenary force made of local pirates.
This was Henry Morgan's moment, and he grasped it. From now on he could attack the Spanish at will, all with the permission of the English government.
At first he limited himself to the taking of ships. But he soon concluded that there was far more wealth to plunder ashore. Taking a few dwellings would not be enough for him. He held ambitions of taking whole towns.
With 20 or so men, he swept down on the town of Puerto del Principe (now known as Camaguey, Cuba), ran through the streets firing left and right, shooting down anyone who opposed him. They left with much gold and silver, and a few hostages later sold for good ransom. It was an easy take, as the town's people were in no way prepared for such raids. It seems that unpredictability and imagination had much to do with Morgan's success as a pirate.
photo credit: UNESCO - Fortifications on the Caribbean
The target of his second raid, Porto Bello (now Portobelo in modern Panama), was more daring, as it was defended by three castles. His forces this time were considerably larger. The pirates fired a few volleys at the first castle, knocking open an entrance, and charged. They made a gallant fight and won, releasing many English prisoners. Then, so not to be burdened by prisoners, Morgan and his men locked the castle with its remaining defenders inside, placed kegs of gunpowder in the cellar, and blew the whole.
The castle, men, and arms all vanished into smoke. Under the cover of confusion, Morgan and his men ran into the town. They scaled the walls of the second fort and took it after intense fighting. The third castle fell without a fight as all it's soldiers surrendered. All the town had surrendered except for the Governor who faced the bloody gang alone until a bullet laid him down. Then wealth and wine belonged to the pirates.
The pirate's exploits became even more wild and adventurous when Morgan and his men attacked Maracaibo (modern day Venezuela). After a rather easy fight and looting of the town, they found their escape to sea blocked by three Spanish men-of-war. Morgan offered to return all he had taken if the Spanish were to let his ship pass out to sea unharmed. But the Spanish admiral laughingly rejected this offer.
Things looked favorable for the capture of Captain Morgan, for he was sailing with two small ships straight towards the three Spanish men-of-war. The first of Morgan's ships seemed to be especially seeking disaster. In spite of continued cannon bombardment, she kept a straight course until she was alongside the first Spanish warship.
Then all became clear. A half dozen pirates leaped into the water and the pirate ship burst into flames! She was a fire ship properly prepared with oil soaking from stem to stern, her decks piled with resin and pitch. Flames leaped, barrels of gunpowder exploded, and embers rained on the sails and rigging of the Spanish warship. Both ships died together.
The second men-of-war made her escape. And the third, the pirates boarded and took for themselves.
Taking Time to Relax
In 1669, Captain Henry Morgan was having a pig roast on the deck of his HMS Oxford off the coast of Haiti. The swashbuckling Morgan was dining below deck in his luxurious cabin when a spark from above ignited the gunpowder magazine and blew away the front of the ship.
By some miracle, Morgan was able to survive when he was thrown through a porthole. He was thankful to have another ship in the area, and he returned to his base in Jamaica.
Source: Leslie F. Larson
The news of the battle at Maracaibo shook the English speaking world and adventurers everywhere were ready to enlist under Captain Morgan. Now Morgan had an urge for even bigger game. With his pirates now numbering over 2,000, he prepared them for a mighty plan.
He obtained a charter as a privateer from the governor of Jamaica. For his men he picked fierce rapscallions with a desire for adventure. As quick appetizers he took the fortified island of Saint Catherine, then the Castle of Chagres. It then became clear to his crew that he had in his sights nothing less than the taking of Panama.
Up the Chagres River he sailed with 1,200 men until the boats could go no further. Into the wilderness they went. It was thick with thorn bushes, fever, stagnant waters, strange flowers, and poisonous insects. To make matters worse, the Spanish had stripped the countryside of anything valuable to human life. Morgan and his men grew tired and hungry as the days passed. But bull-headed perseverance won and at least 800 pirates saw Panama.
The year was now 1670. Captain Morgan and his 800 men marched on Panama against two thousand soldiers and armed civilians, as well as 400 horse soldiers. In two hours of fierce combat, six hundred Spanish soldiers lost their lives. When the day was finished, Morgan and his pirates had taken Panama.
175 mules were loaded with treasure taken, most of which went to Morgan himself. Again the story of the daring raid reached England where it was fashionable to be anit-Spanish, making Morgan a national hero.
Back in Great Britain
But the government in Britain was feeling uneasy about the overly successful Captan Morgan. The country was on the brink of war with the Dutch and wanted to make sure Spain would remain neutral. In London, the Spanish ambassador furiously complained about the destruction Morgan had wrought on Panama.
So Morgan was summoned home to England "to answer for crimes against the King." He spent three years in London waiting on the King's verdict. But he was never arrested. In fact he was treated like a national hero. He was fiercely defended by many claiming that Jamaica would now be in the hands of the Spanish if it were not for Henry Morgan.
Morgan is knighted and returns to Jamaica where he was given the post of Deputy Governor. He was now Sir Henry Morgan, gentleman and patriotic hero. He became the owner of a prosperous sugar plantation.
But Morgan could not completely shake his desire for a more adventurous life and in 1675 took command of a new ship, the Jamaica Merchant. He took this ship back to the shores of Haiti to salvage some of the looted Spanish treasure he had hidden on the Oxford. But the seas were too powerful and the ship went down in a hurricane. He hung up his sword and rifle for good and never again led privateering raids.
Morgan was known as "The Pirate King" among the community of pirates in Jamaica. In total, he cleared some 4 million dollars during his time as a pirate. He dies from alcohol poisoning on August 25, 1688 at the age of 53 in Lawrencefield, Jamaica.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Originally published October 11, 2020
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman
True Stories of Pirates by Lucy Lethbridge
The Pirates of Panama by John Esquemeling
1888 Pirate Trading Cards