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Captain Morgan, Greatest of the Privateers

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Captain Morgan, Greatest of the Privateers

The Sack of Panama by Henry Morgan

Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Biography of Captain Henry Morgan:

Sir Henry Morgan (1635-1688) was a Welsh privateer who fought for the English against the Spanish in the Caribbean in the 1660’s and 1670’s. He is remembered as the greatest of the privateers, amassing huge fleets, attacking prominent targets and being the worst enemy of the Spanish since Sir Francis Drake. Although he made numerous raids all along the Spanish Main, his three most famous exploits were the 1668 sack of Portobello, the 1669 raid on Maracaibo and the 1671 attack on Panama. He was knighted by King Charles II of England and died a rich man on Jamaica.

Early Life of Henry Morgan:

Morgan's exact date of birth is unknown, but it was sometime around 1635 in Monmouth County, Wales. He had two uncles who had distinguished themselves in the English military, and Henry decided as a young man to follow in their footsteps. He was with General Venables and Admiral Penn in 1654 when they captured Jamaica from the Spanish. He soon took up the life of a privateer, launching attacks up and down the Spanish Main and Central America.

The Privateers:

Privateers were like pirates, only legal. They were sort of like mercenaries who were allowed to attack enemy shipping and ports. In exchange, they kept most of the loot, although they did share some with the crown in some cases. Morgan was one of many privateers who had a “license” to attack the Spanish, as long as England and Spain were at war (they fought off and on during most of Morgan’s life). In times of peace, the privateers either took to outright piracy or more respectable trades such as fishing or logging. The English colony on Jamaica, a foothold in the Caribbean, was weak, so it behooved the English to have a large privateer force ready for times of war. Henry Morgan excelled at privateering. His attacks were well-planned, he was a fearless leader, and he was very clever. By 1668 he was the leader of the Brethren of the Coast, a group of pirates, buccaneers, corsairs and privateers.

The Attack on Portobello:

In 1667, Morgan had been sent to sea to find some Spanish prisoners to confirm rumors of an attack on Jamaica. He had grown legendary, and soon found that he had a force of some 500 men in several ships. He captured some prisoners on Cuba, and then he and his captains decided to attack the rich town of Portobello. In July of 1668 Morgan attacked, taking Portobello by surprise and quickly overrunning the meager defenses. Not only did they loot the town, but they essentially held it for ransom, demanding and receiving 100,000 pesos in exchange for not burning the city to the ground. He left after about a month: the sack of Portobello resulted in huge shares of loot for everyone involved and Morgan's fame grew even greater.

The Raid on Maracaibo:

By October of 1668 Morgan was restless and decided to head once again to the Spanish Main. He sent out word that he was organizing another expedition. He went to Isla Vaca and waited while hundreds of corsairs and buccaneers rallied to his side. On March 9, 1669 he and his men attacked the La Barra fort, the main defense of Lake Maracaibo, and took it easily. They entered the lake and sacked the towns of Maracaibo and Gibraltar, but they lingered too long and some Spanish warships trapped them by blocking off of the narrow entrance to the lake. Morgan cleverly sent a fireship against the Spanish, and of the three Spanish ships, one was sunk, one captured and one abandoned. After that, he tricked the commanders of the fort (which had been re-armed by the Spanish) to turn their guns inland and he sailed past them at night. It was Morgan at his most devious.

The Sack of Panama:

By 1671, Morgan was ready for one last assault on the Spanish. Again he gathered an army of pirates and they decided on the rich city of Panama. With about 1,000 men, Morgan captured the San Lorenzo fort and began the march overland to Panama City in January of 1671. The Spanish defenders were in terror of Morgan and abandoned their defenses until the last moment. On January 28, 1671, the privateers and the defenders met in battle on the plains outside the city. It was an utter rout, and the city defenders were scattered in short order by the well-armed invaders. Morgan and his men sacked the city and were gone before any help could arrive. Although it was a successful raid, much of Panama's loot was shipped away before the pirates arrived, so it was the least profitable of his three major ventures.

Punishment:

Panama would be Morgan's last great raid. By then, he was very rich and influential in Jamaica and had a great deal of land. He retired from privateering, but the world did not forget him. Spain and England had signed a peace treaty before the Panama raid (whether or not Morgan knew of the treaty before he attacked is a matter of some debate) and Spain was furious. Sir Thomas Modyford, the Governor of Jamaica who had authorized Morgan to sail, was relieved of his post and sent to England, where he would eventually receive a slap on the wrist. Morgan, too, was sent to England where he spent a couple of years as a celebrity, dining in the fancy homes of Lords who were fans of his exploits. He was even asked his opinion on how to improve Jamaica's defenses. Not only was he never punished, but he was knighted and sent back to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor.

Death of Captain Morgan:

Morgan returned to Jamaica, where he spent his days drinking with his men, running his estates and fondly telling war stories. He helped organize and improve the defenses of Jamaica and administered the colony while the governor was absent, but he never again went to sea and eventually his bad habits caught up with him. He died on August 25, 1688 and was given a royal send-off. He lay in state at the King's House in Port Royal, ships anchored in the harbor fired their guns in salute and his body was taken through town on a gun carriage to St. Peters church, which he had helped fund.

Legacy of Captain Morgan:

Morgan was already a legend when he died and was famous on both sides of the Atlantic. He left behind an interesting legacy. Although his attacks put constant pressure on relations between Spain and England, English of all social classes loved him and thrilled to his exploits. Diplomats loathed him for violating their treaties, but the almost supernatural fear the Spanish had for him most likely helped drive them to the negotiating tables in the first place.

All in all, Morgan probably did more harm than good. He helped establish Jamaica as a strong English colony in the Caribbean and was responsible for lifting England's spirits during an otherwise grim time in history, but he also was guilty of the death and torture of countless innocent Spanish civilians and spread terror far and wide on the Spanish Main.

Captain Morgan remains a legend today and his effect on popular culture has been considerable. He is considered one of the greatest pirates ever, even though he was actually not a pirate but a privateer (and would have been offended to be called a pirate). Certain places are still named for him, such as Morgan's Valley in Jamaica and Morgan's Cave on San Andres Island. His most visible presence today is probably as the mascot for the Captain Morgan brands of spiced rum and spirits. There are hotels and resorts named for him, as well as any number of small businesses in the places he frequented.

Sources:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Earle, Peter.The Sack of Panama New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

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