It was October of 1668 and the legendary Captain Morgan was getting restless. Earlier in the same year, he had thrilled all of England and stunned Spain with his daring attack and sack of the city of Portobello. Now back in Port Royal, he and his men had spent all of their loot and the sweet call of treasure on the Spanish Main was once again beckoning them to the sea. Morgan put out a call for all privateers, pirates, buccaneers and corsairs and began organizing another legendary raid: this time on the Lake of Maracaibo in present-day Venezuela. The attack took place in March of 1669 and was another huge success for Morgan.
Captain Morgan, Privateer
Welshman Henry Morgan was the foremost privateer of his era. Spain and England were intermittently at war at the time, and privateers like Morgan had carte blanche to attack Spanish ports and shipping. In the 1660's, Morgan had made a name for himself attacking the Spanish up and down Central America, but his reputation boomed in July of 1668 when he led an expedition to sack Portobello. It was a hugely successful venture and all of the buccaneers involved took home a large share of plunder. His fame and reputation ensured that when he sent out the call for men hundreds would flock to his banner.
The Sinking of the Oxford
In October of 1668, Morgan set sail for Isla Vaca off the south coast of Hispaniola and sent word that he was planning another raid. Immediately dozens of ships of all sizes and hundreds of pirates, buccaneers and other seagoing villains began arriving. They were briefly joined by the 34-gun frigate Oxford, which Morgan made his flagship, but it exploded one night after a long night of drinking and Morgan barely survived. The privateers had been planning on sacking Cartagena, but now turned their attention to weaker Maracaibo instead.
The La Barra Fort
French corsairs had sacked the area two years previously and the Spanish had responded by constructing the Fuerte de La Barra at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo. Morgan was surprised to find a fortress there, and it gave him pause, but he attacked it anyway on March 9, 1669, sending his men overland to take it. Morgan was lucky: there were fewer than a dozen defenders and after fighting for a while they slipped away in darkness, abandoning the fort. They had set a fuse in some powder to destroy the castle, but the privateers managed to snuff the fuse before it detonated. Morgan had to decide whether or not to garrison the fort: he made the fateful decision that he could not spare the men, spiked and buried the cannons and took all the gunpowder. They sailed past the fort and into Lake Maracaibo.
Capture of Maracaibo
The small fort garrison had escaped to the town of Maracaibo, where they warned the residents that 500 English corsairs and pirates were on their way. The commander of the town tried to rally the men to defend the town, but in vain. The people of Maracaibo packed up whatever goods they could carry and fled into the nearby forests. When Morgan and his men arrived, they found the town deserted. They spent the next few days running down the townspeople in the nearby woods and making them tell them where they had hidden their treasures. Morgan now set his sights on the smaller town of Gibraltar, located at the other end of Maracaibo Lake.
The Capture of Gibraltar
The privateers sailed across the freshwater lake to find that the people of Gibraltar had abandoned their town just at the inhabitants of Maracaibo had. So, as before, the pirates chased them through the forest and captured who they could. Their captives were then tortured to tell where they had hidden any treasure. They took any gold and jewels they could find, in addition to silks, slaves and anything else they thought they could sell. Several citizens were taken hostage in the hopes that their friends and family would ransom them. The pirates also took all of the boats they found in both towns, including a large merchant ship from Cuba.
The Privateers Cornered
Meanwhile, word had gotten out of Morgan's activities. Spanish Admiral Don Alonzo de Campos y Espinosa, in charge of the Armada de Barlovento (the Barlovento Fleet), made way in all haste to Maracaibo once he learned where the privateers were headed. At the time, he only had three ships: the frigates Magdalena and the San Luis, and a converted French merchant vessel, the Nuestra Señora de Soledad. Any of these ships was more than a match for any of Morgan's vessels. He reclaimed the abandoned fort at La Barra, parked his three vessels right in the only channel that led out of the lake, and waited for Morgan to try and get out. He must have been very confident: he had far superior firepower and position on his enemy.
A Fight to the End
Don Alonzo sent Morgan a message demanding his surrender and the return of all loot taken from Maracaibo and Gibraltar, as well as the safe return of all hostages and slaves. If not, the letter said, he would attack once reinforcements from Caracas arrived and would offer no quarter. Morgan talked it over with his men, who decided to fight and die before returning any of their ill-gotten treasures. Morgan wrote back, an insolent reply scoffing at clemency and informing of his intention to attack. Both sides began their preparations for battle.