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.

1 comment:

  1. wow.. i heard almost this history, about Captain Morgan when i were in San Andres Island. really interesting.