Sir Henry Morgan
(1635 - 1688)

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Sir Henry Morgan

Sir Henry Morgan was born Llanrhymni, Wales in 1635.  He went on to become one of the most successful privateers ever to roam the Spanish Main.

As young boy he was sent from Bristol, England to the island of Barbados as an indentured servant.  This was a form of white slavery which was widely used at that time.  Supposedly indentured servants were to work for approximately seven years and then be granted their freedom to pursue their own careers.  Many holders of these servants tried to circumvent the English law by various means so that the servant would spend a longer time working for little or wages.

Morgan's freedom came when in 1654 Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, then ruler of England, sent a large invasion force to the West Indies with the intention of capturing Hispaniola from the Spanish. The fleet anchored in Barbados, where many young men deserted their owners to join up with this invasion force.

This fleet sailed for Santo Domingo on March 31st 1655.  The invasion was not a successful one.   The commanders did not want to return to England without some success, so they invaded the smaller Spanish colony of Jamaica and took it over. 

Due to illness among the soldiers left guarding this new English colony, Cromwell recruited persons to settle there by offering them 30 free acres of land.  Later King Charles II offered letters of marque to privateers using Jamaica (Port Royal) as a base.   These privateers became the English "naval protection" force for the Island.

The British government sort of closed their eyes to the privateers' exploits as it needed the privateers in the area to protect its land holdings.  In fact, the Governor of Jamaica was usually given a cut of the booty the privateers gained.

Henry Morgan did not go to sea until sometime between his twentieth and thirtieth birthdays.  His early sea exploits have not been chronicled so little is known about this phase of his life.   He did have command of his own ship by 1666.  He led raids against Puerto Principe and Porto Bello.  Port Bello was very brutal and involved rape, torture, and murder.

Battle Of The Maracaibo Lagoon

In 1669 Morgan ventured through the tight inlets of the Maracaibo lagoon with four hundred men and a few small ships. He sacked Maracaibo, which the Spaniards had hastily abandoned upon seeing his approach. His fleet then sailed further south to Gibralter where he lingered for weeks, torturing residents and trying to raise a ransom for the town, but only gaining about 5000 pieces of eight in total. The French buccaneer L'Ollonais had raided the area only three years earlier and had done a good job plundering the Spaniards of their riches.

Morgan at last weighed anchor and sailed north. He must have been unsettled to find that three Spanish war galleons under the command of Admiral Don Alonso Del Campo waited for him by the narrow inlets that were the only exit to the Caribbean. These war galleons -- the 40 gun flagship Magdalena, the 30 gun Luis, and the 24 gun La Marquesa -- far outclassed anything Morgan had in his motley collection of sloops and converted merchantmen. Furthermore, behind the galleons, the Spaniards had fortified an island in the narrowest stretch of the inlet with cannon and infantry.

Strangely enough (given the atrocities Morgan had inflicted), Don Del Campo offered to let Morgan go provided the privateers turn over the loot they had taken from the area. Del Campo gave Morgan and his men two days to decide their fate. The buccaneers decided to fight.

At dawn on April 31st, Del Campo awoke to find a half dozen small English ships sailing towards his fleet. He ordered the galleons manoeuvre into position and fire a broadside. The Magdalena had barely discharged her first barrage when a small English ship, ladened with explosives, crashed into the side of the galleon. A skeleton English crew of twelve men grappled their ship to the galleon, lit several fuses, then jumped over the side and swam for their lives. Behind them the exploding fireship ripped a hole in the side of the Magdalena and flames raced uncontrollably through the galleon. Within minutes Del Campo gave orders to abandon ship.

Meanwhile the captain of the Luis had ineptly run his ship aground in the narrow waters by the inlet, and she too began to sink. Morgan focussed his attention on the La Marquesa, which was soon surrounded by his ships and boarded. After a short, bloody fight she was in English hands.

In the euphoria of victory Morgan ordered an immediate frontal assault against the Spanish fortifications on the island. Here, however, the Spanish held and the buccaneers were beaten back with over 30 dead and many wounded. The setback chastened Morgan to adopt a brilliant plan of deception. He sent rowboats ladened with men to the far shore of the island, only to have the men duck when the boats were out of sight and return to the ships with every man. The Spaniards, fearing a land assault from behind, turned their heavy guns away from the inlet and towards the vulnerable side of their fortifications. While the Spaniards were busily shifting their cannons and preparing themselves for infantry attack, Morgan raised anchor and sailed through the inlet unscathed.

Attacking Panama

In late 1670 Morgan sailed for Panama with a fleet of thirty-five small ships and over two thousand English and French privateers. It was the largest force of privateers   brought together for one venture, and it was big -- the sack of Panama, then considered the wealthiest city in the New World.

The attack was difficult because of the city's location -- on the far side of a mountainous, jungle-covered isthmus. The opening move involved reducing a Spanish fortress at the mouth of the Chagres River. In a few days the buccaneers had carried the fort, but at the expense of one hundred dead and many wounded. They then began a grueling march through the thick jungle to the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama. Morgan had planned to feed his small army with stores of food captured from the Spanish or foraged from the jungle. However, the retreating Spaniards set fire to all provisions before they retreated.   After a few days Morgan's men were reduced eating leather, leaves, and tree bark. Malaria and yellow fever delibeted many of the men. Snakes, mosquitos, ticks, alligators, and  insects tormented them. Men sank chest deep into foul swamps, hacked through thick undergrowth with cutlasses, and suffered occassional musket fire from Spanish snipers. A few men died from poison arrows fired from natives.

After eight days, Morgan's drained force camped within sight of Panama City. The next day  Spanish army marched out to meet them on the plain. The Spanish governor, Don Guzman, had 2000 infantry and 500 calvary; however, most of the infantry were slaves or ill-trained militia. The governor's secret weapon, by which he set much store, was a herd of several hundred head of cattle, which he planned to have driven through English lines during  the battle. Then, his forces would then swoop down to mop up the trampled buccaneers.

The battle proved short. The governor first ordered the calvary to make an ill-advised frontal attack on the buccaneeers. A couple salvos from the English and French muskets decimated the charge and the attack collapsed. The infantry put up half-hearted resistance until a detachment of Morgan's men appeared over a small hill and attacked their flank. The famed cattle scattered in all directions and soon every Spaniard was running for his life.

Morgan entered Panama with his half-starved men waving banners and blowing horns. The city was set ablaze by the Spaniards (or by the privateers themselves accidently) and burned down around them. Warehouses full of silk, spices and other riches brought from Spain's colonies in the Pacific were destroyed in the blaze. Morgan's force camped in the smoldering ashes for weeks, torturing captives to find the whereabouts of treasure they may have hidden away, and sending expeditions out into the surrounding countryside in search of fleeing citizens and their loot.

The Spanish had plenty warning of Morgan's approach and the takings from the attack were far less than anticipated. Most of the wealthier citizens had long since collected their valuables and disappeared. On the long march back to their ships the men grew mutinous as word spread that each sailor's share would amount to less than 200 pieces of eight. Rather than try to allay them, Morgan wisely took his cut of the loot aboard his ship and sailed for Port Royal, leaving a bloodthirsty mob of buccaneers behind.

Later Life

Spain's reaction to the sack of Panama was to threaten war, and England's King Charles II made a show of having both Morgan and Jamaica's governor arrested and brought back to England. They lived comfortably in  the Tower of London until the furor had died down. Charles II then knighted Henry for his deeds and sent him back to Jamaica as lieutenant-governor.

Morgan never sailed again.  He spent the rest of his life in Port Royal.  He died there in 1688.

Ho! Henry Morgan sails today
To harry the Spanish Main,
With a pretty bill for the Dons to pay
Ere he comes back again.
Him cheat him friend of his last guinea,
Him kill both friar and priest - O dear!
Him cut de t'roat of piccaninny,
Bloody, bloody buccaneer.

February 20, 2000

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