Monday, April 29, 2013

Henry Morgan – an Explosive Career


Although Morgan was determined to attack Panama, he had more pressing missions at hand. He needed to get back to Jamaica for supplies, pay off the pirates who had been supporting him, and to drop off the share of plunder that was due the authorities.


Unfortunately for him, he was reporting to a local government that was in deep trouble. Two governors in a row had used the services of men like Morgan to make war on the Spanish – profitable war – when, in fact, England and Spain were not at war. Now the central government was cracking down, making serious threats to not only recall the people responsible, but to punish them as well.

The vast wealth Morgan brought back from Porto Bello kept him out of trouble, but just barely. He was reprimanded but not punished. Fortunately for him, Jamaica’s governor still did not want to obey orders and cease hostilities against the Spanish colonies. Since the attack against Cuba had been on the pretense of gaining information about an imaginary Spanish attack against Jamaica, the governor decided to stir up the Spanish so much that they really would attack, vindicating him for all the plundering that had been done so far.
Morgan was just the man for the job.

While the governor decided on a plan, Morgan raised crew to support him. After his last, impressive haul, he easily attracted eleven ships and over 900 pirates. In addition, the governor presented him with the  Oxford, a huge warship which was supposed to be protecting Port Royal.

Always a man who loved his rum, as soon as an objective was agreed on, Morgan pulled the fleet over for a huge party. And, as often happens when liquor is flowing, someone played a prank, or made a mistake. This particular prank/mistake involved taking a lighted match into the Oxford’s powder room. The ship blew up, and dozens of men were killed. Many others deserted, fearing that the disaster was an omen, and Morgan’s force was reduced to 800.

Determined to obtain another flagship, Morgan settled on a French vessel, whose captain had been considering joining his expedition. Morgen lured the French captain aboard one of his own ships for another party, then had his men search the French vessel and accuse them of pirating against the English. When things got heated, Morgan accused the French of blowing up the Oxford.  The confused French captain was thrown into the brig, and his ship was confiscated.

Morgan and his English force had decided to attack the town of Cartagena, an important Spanish port, and the shipping point for all the gold and silver taken from Peru. The city was such an important place that capturing it should bring the (desired) counterattack against Jamaica.

The trip to the mainland, however, proved exhausting. Morgan’s ships had been forced to sail directly against the wind, and the crews,  having worked  night and day, were not physically strong enough to attack a heavily defended port.

Maracaibo, another nearby port, was chosen instead. Still an important city, it was protected mostly by its narrow, shallow outlet to the sea. Morgan’s intelligence, however, was three years out of date.  A fort had been built at the entrance to the harbor. With his men only partly recovered from their earlier journey, Morgen found himself unable to attack the fort by sea.

He managed an overland assault, and captured the fort, only to find, while he had been getting his men ashore, the Spanish had retreated. His men began to search the structure for treasure and supplies and discovered a vast booby-trap. The Spanish had left a burning fuse leading to their own supply of powder. Morgan’s men put it out with only minutes to spare. Then they looted the fort and buried the fort’s cannons.

When they moved on the city, however, they found the place deserted. Another city had been abandoned at the news of Morgan’s coming. The pirates spent two weeks searching the town and torturing the few remaining citizens, then moved on to attack a nearby island, Gibraltar (named after the famous rock). This time, Morgan’s forces had better luck. Ships loaded with plunder, he set out for home.

In the mean time, however, the Spanish had re-taken the fort, dug up the cannons, and brought in three warships. Given a choice of death or surrender, Morgan chose to fight.

His men stripped the largest remaining English ship, the Satisfaction, of treasure and filled her with explosives. They created a crew of wooden sailors, and launched the burning ship at the Spanish. In the confusion, the Spanish flagship was utterly destroyed, another Spanish ship ran aground, and the third was captured by Morgan.

Morgen then faked another overland attack against the fort, and sailed away when the Spanish reversed their guns to fire into the jungle.

Morgan’s triumphant return to Jamaica was somewhat tarnished by an official reprimand from the governor. But with the harsh words came another commission – to make war, legally this time, against the Spanish at Panama. Morgan assembled 1,400 sailors and moved down the coast, sacking cities as he went. When he finally marched inland to attack Panama City, he encountered a strong force of infantry, but lured them out into the jungle and slaughtered them. He then warned his men that the Spanish had poisoned all the city’s wine. It wasn’t true, but it did keep his men sober while they looted the town.

It is not recorded if Morgen ever found the pistol he had sent to the Panamanian governor. He didn’t find much treasure. Once again, the citizens had fled with most of the town’s treasure, and while Morgan was looting the remains, a fire broke out which completely destroyed the town. The site is still in existence, under the name Panama Viejo, but the modern site was chosen because of Morgan’s raid.

Morgen returned to Jamaica once again, and once again found himself in hot water.  Just before he had sacked Panama, peace had once again been signed between England and Spain. Morgan was forced to go to England to prove that he didn’t know he’d been a pirate at the time he had destroyed the city. Once again, his luck held. Instead of being jailed, he was knighted.

Spanish gold probably had something to do with it.

Morgan returned to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor, and acting governor as well. In near-retirement, he drank heavily and frequented the old dockside bars where his exploits were told and retold.
When a permanent governor was finally selected, Morgan received a pension. According to those who knew him, “He is a man who does not know how to keep money, and will be destitute soon, no matter how much he is given.”

Was he a good guy or a bad guy?

Morgan was a hard man who lived in a hard time. His torture of civilians was not unusual. The cities he sacked were treated no differently than many European towns in time of war.  While he operated under warrants issued by representatives of the government of England, most of his activities were illegal. And yet, when a scandalous book was published by a former associate, Morgan took the man to court and won, preserving his reputation.

According to the law, Morgan was a pirate. What he was doing was almost never strictly legal, but he seems to have been a man who inspired affection from those around him. He lived large, inspired great loyalty (It’s impressive that his untrained pirate troops were consistently more obedient to his orders than the Spanish military they fought.) and is fondly remembered to this day.

Sir Henry Morgan, the captain of fame, died in 1688, likely of liver failure from drinking huge amounts of rum. He was buried in the cemetery of what was widely regarded  as the wickedest city on earth, Port Royal Jamaica. He was not forgotten. Then, in 1692, most of the city sank in a devastating earthquake, and the cemetery went with it. His grave was lost forever. The sea had at last claimed Captain Morgan.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Captain Morgan, Pirate or Hero?

Henry Morgan, or Captain Morgan as he was later known, was born in Wales, in about 1635.  Though from a minor noble family, Morgan later said that his education leaned “more the pike than the book.” Someone named Henry Morgen was sent to Barbados as a bond servant in 1655. But Captain Morgan won a lawsuit when a publisher claimed that he was that person.

History agrees that Morgan went to the Caribbean as part of Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design,” a plan to invade the Spanish-held Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The invasion was a failure, but Morgan apparently impressed his commanders with his valor. The invading English fleet, unable to fulfill their original mission, invaded Jamaica instead.

Henry’s uncle, Edward Morgan, was named Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, and brought his family with him, including his daughter Mary. Whether for politics or love, Henry married her. He did not, however, stay on shore long.

The English were determined to take as much land from the Spanish as possible, and Morgan joined a privateering expedition which successfully captured the settlements of Vildemos, Truijillo, and Granada. He then commanded a ship under privateer admirable Edward Mansfield, which seized even more settlements. When the Spanish counter-attacked, captured Mansfield and executed him, Morgan was elected admiral by the privateers.

Morgan went on plundering Spanish colonies, even after Spain and England formally ceased hostilities.
It was the sort of political nightmare that came up when colonies were far away from their central governments and money was on the table. Two Governors of Jamaica, one after the other, gave Morgan license to attack the Spanish, in spite of direct orders from the Crown to cease hostilities. The governors received a share of the plunder, and Morgan brought back quite a lot.

Appointed vice-admiral of an illegal attack on a Dutch settlement, Morgan went out with Admiral Mansvelt to attack Curacao. But the Dutch didn’t have enough plunder to please the privateers, so they went back to attacking their old enemies, the Spanish.

Since they thought there would be good plunder there, (they seem to have had no other motivation) they attacked the Spanish-held settlement of Providence, on Nassau in the Bahamas.

The Spanish were unprepared, and Morgan and his men sacked the town. Mansvelt seems to have had the brilliant idea of holding the settlement as a pirate community (being so far out of bounds that he and Morgan were, in fact if not quite in name, pirates.) However, they were not ready to attempt to hold ground. When the Spanish counter-attacked, they were driven off.

Once again, the Governor of Jamaica wanted a fleet assembled to “protect the Crown’s interest in Jamaica.” This time, Morgan was in charge. He dressed himself in red silk, lace and jewels, and went to the hideouts of the most notorious pirates in the area.

Impressed with his obvious success, the pirates flocked to his banner. In a short time, he had recruited five hundred cutthroats, and ten ships. Since their excuse for attacking Spain this time was a rumor of a Spanish attack against Jamaica, Morgen led his forces against Havana, supposedly to gather information. But when one of his captives escaped and warned the Cubans, Morgen attacked a deserted city. The residents had taken their valuables and fled into the jungle.

Though he tortured the remaining residents, Morgan could not find enough money to pay his expenses, let alone pay his men. With bloodthirsty pirates in his employ, he decided to attack the richest city in the Spanish New World, Porto Bello, the Treasure City.

First sight of the impressively defended town made the pirates nervous, but Morgan gave a rousing speech, mostly about money, and his forces attacked in the dead of night.

Two of the three Spanish forts were taken when the soldiers were still in their beds, and the third surrendered. Morgan and his crew inhabited the town for two months, collecting all the wealth they could find, and gaining ransoms from the families of captured citizens. All in all, they accumulated over 200,000 pieces of eight.

While occupying the town, Morgan received a message from the Governor of Panama, along with a huge emerald ring intended as a bribe. The letter requested to know how Morgan had captured Porto Bello with such a small force, and requested that he not attack Panama.

Morgen sent back his own message, a pistol as an example of how he had taken the forts, and a letter stating that he intended to come to Panama to get the pistol back.
To be continued….

Monday, April 15, 2013

Different Kinds of Pirates

The word “pirate” means a “seagoing robber,” and the word covers a lot of ground, from our jolly friends in 1717 to the modern-day outlaws in Somalia. However, there have been many variations in the types of pirate. Below are some of the major variations.

In the days before governments kept massive standing armies and navies, a sudden outbreak of war brought unusual problems. Buying existing ships and arming them was prohibitively expensive, and building ships could take years. To get around these problems, governments authorized private ship-owners to attack enemy ships.
The paperwork involved was called a “letter or marque,” and the captain/ship that carried one was called a “privateer.” Privateers were authorized to attack and capture enemy shipping. The preferred targets were merchant vessels, because the reward for doing this work was that the privateer got to keep everything, from the cargo to the ship itself. The only requirement was that the government received its cut (usually ten percent).

Being a privateer could be a risky endeavor, but it was also extremely profitable. The famous Captain Kidd, acting as a privateer, made enough money from the capture of a single ship to set himself up as a gentleman, with a large house, carriage, and enough money to live very well for several years.

Some of the most famous “pirates,” including Sir Francis Drake and the famous Captain Morgan, were actually privateers. Successful privateers had it all, the adventure of the chase, enormous profits from capturing valuable ships and cargo, and a chance to become a national hero. To the French and Spanish, Drake and Morgan were pirates, but at home they were heroes, and had the knighthoods to prove it.

When privateers had trouble finding ships of other nations to attack, they often turned to piracy. Since privateers were authorized only to attack ships of certain nationalities, attacking other foreign ships made them pirates. Sometimes a privateer captain could cover up these activities, or buy off their government with cash. But after attacking the ships of friendly nations, taking a ship of one’s own nation was just a step away. The infamous Captain Kidd began this way, and other successful pirate captains, like Henry Jennings, also traveled this path.

Usually referred to pirates operating in the Mediterranean, especially those based along the Barbary Coast in northern Africa. These pirates were authorized by the local governments, and reached an impressive level of success. At their height, they extracted ransoms from European governments to spare their shipping.

Pirates had ships, but buccaneers were land-based. During the Golden Age of Piracy, plantations were operated by slave labor. While today we think of all slaves as being from Africa, in fact most European nations enslaved their own lower classes, and England enslaved so many Irish citizens that the population of that island was cut in half. Slavery on an 18th century plantation was a virtual death-sentence, with most enslaved Europeans living less than two years. The incentive to escape was high.

Escaped slaves, mostly single men, gathered in bands along unpopulated sections of the  mainland coast and on deserted islands.  They supported themselves by gathering wide fruit and killing wild pigs, whose meat they smoked, using what the natives called “buccon” or wooden smoking racks.

Buccaneers preyed on shipping by paddling out in native-style canoes, often big enough to hold 20 or 30 men and support a small sail. Buccaneers had little to lose, and were notably ferocious. They were also often out for vengeance. Sometimes buccaneers captured ships, and moved on to sea-based piracy.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pirate Clothes

What did pirates wear?

We all have a vague idea of baggy white shirts, striped pants, a vest, and a bandana. But why this outfit? Did all pirates dress the same? What’s the deal?

In the early 1700’s, gentlemen were expected to wear a hat and a suit consisting of a coat, vest and breeches (short, tight pants – think George Washington) The shirt was a baggier version of a modern man’s shirt, and instead of a necktie, a long, narrow strip of cloth was tied around the neck and tucked down the front of the vest. The hat was a black, wide brimmed thing, with the brim fastened up on three sides. (Once again, think George Washington – that hat stayed in style for a long time.)

This was the clothing of the middle class, and thereby the clothing of ship’s captains.

Pirates, including pirate captains, usually rose from the lower ranks of sailors, and this was reflected in their
dress. Since they were not used to the “respectable” look of a conservative suit, and had access to very fine clothes (which they did not have to pay for) they wore coats more appropriated to royalty, whenever they could steal them.

Common sailors from the period did not wear a gentleman’s clothes. Doing the hard work of hauling lines and lifting cargo, they left off the coat, and oftentimes the vest. The short, tight breeches were too constricting, so they wore long, loose trousers instead. The shirt, open at the neck, remained, as did the neck cloth. Shoes weren’t necessary on a ship, so often the sailors went barefoot.

Sailors needed the protection of a hat, but it was more comfortable to add a scarf as a sweatband, which gives us the “pirate” look of the colorful bandana under the black hat.

Sailors also commonly wore wide, supportive belts, serving the same function as a modern day “weight belt,” a protection against ruptures when hauling on heavy ropes. Once again, to absorb sweat, a band of cloth was also worn under the belt. This is the pirate sash.

One of the interesting things that one might notice when looking at pirate costumes is that the pirate’s shirt is never untucked. There’s actually a reason for this. Remember the tight breeches worn by “gentlemen”? Well, to reduce bulk under those breeches, the guys went without underwear. That’s right, all pirates went “commando.” But, given the wool pants of the day, they wrapped up the family jewels with their shirt-tails.
Pirates never failed to tuck the shirt!
This is the basics of the classic “pirate costume.”

One of the other, actual facts about why pirates dressed the way they did is that pirates did not have a chance to get into a civilized port and purchase clothing. They patched their clothes with what they had handy, and since they traveled to distant locations and stole the most valuable trade goods, the most easily available materials were often exotic silks or rare printed Indian gauze.

The final item that set pirates apart from ordinary sailors was jewelry. Pirates needed wealth that was easily portable and hard to steal. Rings and necklaces were things they could hang onto, even when falling-down drunk. Pirates also kept jewelry as souvenirs. The notorious Bartholomew Roberts was noted for wearing a huge diamond-encrusted gold cross, intended for a member of the Spanish royal family, which he had stolen from a ship bound back to Europe from the West Indies. It was a mark of success.

Obviously, common sailors could not afford these kinds of things, but the ordinary sailor had one piece of jewelry in common with the most exotic pirate. This was the single gold earring. While some of these were larger than others, they were the most common mark of a seafaring man, and they had a specific purpose.

In the 18th century, communications were slow and expensive and life was often short, especially for people involved in dangerous work like sailing a ship. For these people, dying far from home, among strangers, was a genuine risk, and the religions at the time stress the need for proper burial in order to get into heaven.
This was the reason for the gold earring. All cultures value gold, and it was understood that, should the wearer die, the earring would pay for his funeral.  

If  you are more interested in pirate clothing, come to another post here to learn abut pirate fashions, and get a few ideas for making your own pirate costume! 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Pirate Flags

Pirates have always been said to “Fly under the black flag.” But what does that mean? Why a black flag? Why is the flag significant at all?

During the Golden Age of Piracy, flags were a primary means of communication between ships. Some flags were used by navies to signal orders, reports or maneuvers. These were kept secret, the codes written down in codebooks, weighted so they could be thrown overboard in case of capture. Other flags were an international means of communication, understood by all.

One of these was the white flag. A ship or person carrying a white flag signaled an end to hostilities, usually temporary. Under a white flag, the leaders of two groups might meet to make demands, discuss terms for surrender, or to make arrangements for humanitarian efforts, such as caring for the wounded, exchanging prisoners or getting civilians clear of the fighting. Respecting a white flag, at least long enough to reply “Go away!” was (and is) a requirement of so-called civilized warfare.

The opposite of the white flag was the black flag. A black flag signaled an opening of hostilities. A ship approaching the distant outpost of a hostile nation might fly a black flag to announce formally that the two nations were at war, and battle was about to begin.

Pirates were quick to adopt this signal as a personal standard. Most pirates considered themselves “at war with the world” and had no problems announcing the fact. The black flag also offered a warning. Fight or surrender. We’re not here to negotiate.

Pirates also had a vested interested in making their message as frightening as possible, and they used graphic designs that would be familiar to their viewers. At the time, a skull and crossbones, or death’s head, was a common motif on grave markers. As a religious symbol, it was supposed to remind those visiting the grave that life is short, but death lasts forever, thereby encouraging them to see to their own souls.

When a skull-and crossbones appeared on a pirate flag, it sent an obvious message that life could be very short, and standing up to a pirate was a good way to make it shorter. Some pirate flags had additional symbols on them – a dagger, representing violence, or an hourglass (another popular grave motif) symbolizing that the victim’s time was running out.

The basic design might also be tweaked to offer additional meaning. Henry Avery, a working class sailor who found himself leading a rebellion against the men who had sold him and his crew into slavery, flew a flag that shows the skull in profile and wearing a bandana. Since working sailors wore bandanas, and officers did not, it seems that Avery meant to point out that he and his men were fighting for the rights of the lower classes (at least at first).

Probably the most famous pirate flag is Calico Jack Rackham’s skull with crossed cutlasses, made famous in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Rackham was a noted hell-raiser, who never backed down from a fight, even when the odds were against him. The crossed swords seem to me to be a challenge to fight.

An arm carrying a sword was another item that appeared often on pirate flags. Christopher Moody’s flag featured the raised arm, hour glass, and skull. The three images appear on a red background. Henry Avery also occasionally flew a red flag. Red was another color used often by pirates, as a red signal flag communicated the intention to go into battle immediately.

Some pirates showed Death as a full length figure. The famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts flew several flags, one of which was a picture of himself, standing on a pile of skulls. Another showed him standing in company with Death. Together they are raising an hourglass. Roberts was arguably the most successful pirate of all time, and his ships probably absorbed a certain amount of name recognition from their famous captain.

Edward Teach (sometimes Thatch), better known as Blackbeard, flew a black flag with a picture of Death, in the form of a horned skeleton, holding up an hourglass and stabbing a bleeding heart with a spear. Looking at this flag, I have no trouble remembering that pirate flags were often designed by committee or by vote. I can just hear a group of men throwing out suggestions. “It’s not scary enough. Put horns on the skeleton!” “Make the heart bleed when he stabs it”! “Lots of gore!”

It’s important to remember that the production of these flags was crude. Pirates couldn’t hire flag-makers in port. They produced their products on the ship, out of materials they had on hand. A piece of sail cloth might be blackened with tar, then painted with whitewash to produce an image.

Looking at the superior image on Calico Jack’s flag, I wonder if Anne Bonny might have been responsible. Women had training to put images on cloth in the form of embroidery. Did Anne paint a pirate flag for her beloved Jack? And if history had gone differently, would she be remembered as the pirate Betsy Ross?