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Sir Henry Morgan
The Down and Dirty on Sir Henry Morgan
||Caribbean and Central America
|Date of Birth/Location
||August 25, 1688/Jamaica
|Claim to Fame
||First "great" Caribbean pirate (although he was really a privateer)
Sir Henry Morgan had an unlikely background as far as pirates are concerned. Born to “respectable parents” in Wales, he followed other family members and joined the military. His had a distinguished military career and this profession brought him to the West Indies.
Morgan’s first experience in the Caribbean was difficult (to say the least). As part of a British expeditionary force, he attempted unsuccessfully to capture Hispaniola from Spain. Illness and the debilitating climate forced them to look elsewhere for conquest. Thus, the British expeditionary force successfully set its sites on Jamaica.
Morgan was known as an exceptional military leader, and he began his pirating ways a privateer conducting raids in Central America, especially Panama (following in the historical footsteps of Sir Francis Drake).
At 32 years old, Morgan became Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast, the predecessors of what would become buccaneers. With a fleet of 12 ships, Morgan captured the Spanish treasure port of Portobello in Panama in 1668. (Cordingly has an excellent description of the events in Under the Black Flag.) Upon capturing the city, Morgan demanded a ransom of 350,000 pesos for the port. The president of Panama actually gave him 250,000! (That’s probably about $8 million U.S. dollars today. See how we figured this out by reading about Sir Francis Drake.)
Morgan’s success and boldness made him a hero in Britain.
When hostilities with Spain ceased shortly afterward, Morgan bought 856 acres near Chapleton Village on Jamaica. The site is still known as “Morgan’s Valley”.
Although Spain and Britain were technically not at war, the Queen of Spain continued to wage war in the West Indies. Fearing for their safety, Jamaica commissioned Morgan as Commander in Chief of all the ships harbored in Jamaica in 1670. Morgan’s commission (from the Jamaican government) allowed him to do whatever was necessary to preserve the island.
So, Morgan had at his disposal a fleet of 38 ships and sailing vessels with more than 2,000 men. This was the largest buccaneer fleet to ever sail the Caribbean. With this kind of support and firepower, Morgan set out to attack Panama again.
Morgan’s target was the city of Panama, then under the direction of Dan Juan Perez de Guzman. Don Juan’s “secret weapon” was two herds of oxen that would be unleashed in a stampede on the attacking buccaneers. It didn’t work. According to Cordingly—and what must be one of the funnier events in military history—the oxen were “simply shooed away by the buccaneers and sent back to the city” (pp. 51-52). In retaliation, the retreating Spaniards blew up the city.
While Jamaica was happy about Morgan’s success, England was not. Spain and England were technically at peace.
In 1672, Morgan was arrested and sent to England. He spent two years waiting to find out what his fate would be. Finally, unwilling to imprison one of England’s biggest celebrities of the time, King Charles III knighted him and appointed him Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. He would be responsible for defending the island from a potential attack by the French. (Britain, France, and Spain were continually at war during this period, and alliances shifted often.) Morgan even became acting Governor of Jamaica for a while.
Alas, and perhaps not unexpectedly, Morgan died at 53 years old on his estate, the victim of his own excesses (mainly alcohol) as a follower of the buccaneer life.
Historical Note: We have used “England” and “Britain” interchangeably in this biography. This is technically incorrect. Britain is made up of three regions: England (South and Central), Wales (West), and Scotland (North). The United Kingdom, or U.K., includes Britain plus Northern Ireland and other territorial possessions.