Henry Morgan the privateer

Henry Morgan the privateer

Henry Morgan was a famous 17th century Welsh buccaneer, an adventurer and a privateer who stamps his name in the Caribbean. As a leader, he was known for his courageous personality that led him to become one of the most successful privateers during his time. Despite the honor given, some even called him as being the most dangerous and notorious pirates around although the term “pirate” was not exactly accurate because his actions were basically sanctioned by the English government.

Early Life

Henry Morgan, the eldest son of Robert Morgan, was a Welsh county gentleman from Monmouthshire. There have been records to suggest that Henry was in actual fact originated from Abergavenny within the same county of Wales based on the entry in the ‘Bristol Apprentice Books’ showing ‘Servants to Foreign Plantations’ : February 9th 1655; ‘Henry Morgan of Abergavenny, Labourer, Bound to Timothy Tounsend of Bristol, Cutler, for three years, to serve in Barbadoras on the like Condiciouns’. Other available records that relates to his early life before 1665 was another source penned down by Exquemelin. According to the book, Henry Morgan was said to have left school early and was quoted to be more proficient in swords rather than in knowledge. Further to Exquemelin’s claim, Henry Morgan was also said to be indentured in Barbados but however all these remarks including subsequent editions have to be amended after Morgan sued the publishers for damage. Eventually the outcome goes in favor to him and he was awarded £200 as compensation. Based on accounts related by Richard Browne, who was his surgeon in Panama, Henry Morgan arrived in Jamaica during 1658 when he was young and climbed himself towards fame and fortune through his own effort and valor. Jamaica was originally under the Spaniards before being converted it into an English colony in May 1655.

Henry Morgan was married to his close cousin Mary, who was the daughter of Edward Morgan, the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica after the Restoration of Charles II of England in 1660. It was not clear however, on whether the name “Captain Morgan” was actually referring to Henry himself or his uncle, who led the fleet of Christopher Myngs in 1663 and accompanied the expedition of John Morris and Jackman to capture the Spanish settlements at Vildemos (on the Tabasco river), Trujillo, (Honduras) and Granada (in Coahuila, Mexico).

Towards the end of 1665, Jamaican Governor, Sir Thomas Modyford, assembled buccaneers that included Henry Morgan joining old privateer Edward Mansfield’s expedition to command a ship to seize the islands of Providence and Santa Catalina. When Mansfield was defeated and then executed by the Spanish, Henry Morgan filled the gap to become admiral of the fleet.

In 1667, has was again given the task by Modyford to rescue Spanish prisoners held in Cuba in order to learn from them about details related to planned attacks on Jamaica. Accompanied by 10 ships manned by over 500 men, Morgan managed to land on the island, captured Puerto Principe (Spanish name for Port-au-Prince Haiti), over powered the Spanish garrison, and then proceeded to capture Panama.

The governor of Panama was so amazed with the daring attack and knowingly that he stands little chance of surviving the onslaught, decided to offer large ransom of payment, which Henry Morgan accepted. Though the battle ended with much cruelty and notoriety, all of it were done for the sake of protecting the English Crown and that earn Henry Morgan the title of famous buccaneer and privateer empowered by the governor’s of Jamaica. In London, the administration blatantly denied involvement in that attack, whilst Morgan and his crewmembers returned to Port Royal, Jamaica, to celebrate.

With the success, what followed next was another expedition assigned by Modyford and this time round, it was to ravage the coast of Cuba. England later sent HMS Oxford as a gift to Morgan to protect Port Royal. On January 1669, the ship was accidentally blown up in a freak accident that nearly cost Henry Morgan his life. Apparently the source of the fire was traced to the ammunition’s depot which was lit up during a party. In March, he launched another successful attack on Maracaibo, Venezuela and in the few weeks that followed, he tortured the residents on Gibraltar settlements located on Lake Maracaibo and make them reveal the hidden treasures and wealth that they had kept.

Before he managed to escape from Maracaibo, three Spanish ships, Magdalena, the San Luis, and the Soledad, were already waiting at the exit point to the Caribbean. However, he managed to overpower and defeat all of them when he destroyed Magdalena, captured the Soledad, while for the San Luis, the crewmembers were left with no option but to burn down their ship in order to prevent it from falling into enemy’s hand. Later another obstacle came about, in which he had to maneuver his ship past a long range cannon. He cleverly use his ingenious military tactic when he faked and make it look like there was an attempted landward attack on the fort and that convinced the governor to shift position of the cannon. This allowed Henry Morgan’s ship to elude the guns and escaped to safety. When he returned to Jamaica, his action was rebuked by Modyford but had apparently gone unpunished.

Because of his continued actions, the Spaniards became even more furious and they vowed to react and threatened to attack Jamaica. Morgan was finally appointed as commander-in-chief of all the war ships in Jamaica, to fight the Spaniards on England’s behalf and his pay will be in total of what he managed to steal from Spain. Therefore, Morgan and his crew was in fact just a privateer and not a pirate as some has inaccurately interpreted. After attacking the coast of Cuba and the mainland, Morgan continued on with his campaign on Panama.

On December 15, 1670, he recaptured the island of Santa Catalina while on December 27, after killing over 300 men serving the garrison leaving just 23 alive, he possessed control of the fortress of San Lorenzo in the Caribbean coast of Panama. With only 1400 men left, he then ascended the Chagres River towards the pacific coast and then Panama City.

On January 18, 1671, Henry Morgan came to the knowledge that Panama had roughly 1,500 infantry and cavalry, and he decided to split his forces into two, with one marching through the forest and another group joining later at the flank surprising the enemy. The Spaniards protecting the land were basically untrained and wrong tactical move were made by charging towards Morgan’s line only to be cut down by heavy gunfire and then the remaining were then finished off by the flankers. Although Panama during that period was the richest city under Spanish rule, the size of the loot recovered were far less that what they expected. The main reason for this was because much of the city’s wealth had already been moved onto a Spanish ship and then transported out into the Gulf of Panama. Most inhabitants’ belongings were destroyed in a fire with unknown cause. Morgan and his men tried to recover as much gold as they could find by torturing the residents of Panama but however, the amount obtained was still considered too little for them. The damage inflicted on the city was so devastating that the new Panama City (present site) had to be rebuilt on a new location, few kilometers far away to the west of the original one. The former site had since been renamed to Panamá Viejo and only remnants of the old city were left standing portraying a dark background left by the war.

Despite the success, Morgan was arrested to face the Crown judiciary system because the attack on Panama was deemed unlawful because it took place right after the peace treaty between England and Spain has been signed in 1672. Morgan defended his actions by saying that he had no whatsoever knowledge about the peace agreement that took place then. In 1674, instead of being served punishment, Henry Morgan was knighted by the Queen before being allowed to return to Jamaica the following year to take up the post of Lieutenant Governor.

However, the appointment to the position of acting governor did not proceed any further than that because by 1681, Morgan had already fallen out of favor with the English King. Main reason that led to this was because the king had intentions to get rid of the semi-autonomous Jamaican Council and this was further aggravated by Henry Morgan’s bad reputation especially his rowdy behavior shown when he was drunk. He was later replaced by his long-time political rival, Thomas Lynch.


In 1683, Henry Morgan was removed from the Jamaican Council from a plot engineered by Governor Lynch. This was made even worse when Morgan’s disreputable exploits were all compiled and revealed in a book published by Alexandre Exquemelin, who was once his confidante, probably as a barber-surgeon. The book titled De Americaensche Zee-Roovers (History of the Buccaneers of America) projected the negative image of Henry Morgan being a notorious bloodthirsty pirate and that hurt a lot on his reputation. Morgan took steps to counter the claim and he in fact brought a libel suit against the book’s publisher, securing a retraction and award of damages amounting to two hundred English pounds (Campbell, 2003).

When Thomas Lynch passed away in 1684, Christopher Monck who was a friend of Morgan was appointed as the new governor. In 1688, he overturned the previous decision made by Lynch to suspend Morgan from the council. However, since 1681, Morgan’s health had steadily declined and he was diagnosed with “dropsie” although there are medical opinions to believe that he may actually contracted tuberculosis and passed away in London on August 25, 1688. There is some other clinical evidence to suggest that it was also possible that his death was due to liver failure caused by his heavy drinking. Henry Morgan was laid to rest in Palisadoes cemetery, which later sank beneath the sea during 1692 earthquake.

Henry Morgan was also known to be an opportunist and that he can cleverly take advantage of the conflict between England and Spanish to enrich himself and his crewmembers. Although such tactic set an example for other buccaneers to follow using the same ploy, others were never as successful as him and what he achieved. He was also known as the “famous buccaneer” who managed to retire with great success from the peak of his legacy and suffer little consequences and retribution.

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