As I’m currently in Panama and have somewhat of an obsession about pirates, so perhaps it’s time to tell you about the REAL Captain Morgan.
Despite what the rum companies would have you think Harry, or Henry Morgan (1635 –1688) was not a handsome debonair sea hunk, but a fat, squat, redheaded welshman. He apparently looked more like Simon Pegg rather than Johnny Depp. One thing the rum company has right though is Morgan’s flamboyant red pirate coat, as Morgan used to wear a red silk, gold buttoned coat when recruiting pirate crews, to look successful and wealthy, and hence to attract the most ambitious and ruthless teams.
Morgan was from a relatively wealthy welsh family, who had lands outside of Cardiff, and headed to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) as a somewhat ambitious and feisty young man to take part in Oliver Cromwell’s initiative to take over the Caribbean from the wicked (as far as Cromwell was concerned) Catholics. The attempt to take over Hispaniola failed, but the later invasion of Jamaica was successful, and that’s where Morgan lived for many years. He was politically well connected, with his uncle being made Lt Governor of Jamaica, and the upwardly mobile Morgan married his cousin, who was the daughter of said dignitary.
He took part in several privateer (officially sanctioned piracy) expeditions – despite having orders to control piracy, the Governor of Jamaica was an ambitious and greedy man, who used pirates effectively as a guerilla navy to protect Jamaica, and to also line his pockets with gold. Seeing Morgan’s worth, the Governor recruited him to lead several expeditions to Cuba, some successful, some not so. Morgan’s most successful expedition was to Porto Bello in Panama, which was inspired by Morgan’s substantial debts, to which he led a fleet of 10 ships to make a land-based attack. The target was protected by three well-armed and intimidating Spanish fort. The first, Morgan’s crew sneaked up on at night, and they took it over by surprise, without much of a fight. The second, was more or a battle to take, but take it they did. The third simply surrendered. Morgan’s men then took the city, and occupied it for several months, looting it and ransoming the population. A Spanish fleet was dispatched to retake the city, but Morgan’s crew ambushed the fleet as it passed through a narrow passage, and defeated it. In total, Morgan gathered 200,000 pieces of eight in booty. The governor of Panama wrote to Morgan asking him how on earth he managed to capture the city, and sent him an emerald ring and begged him not to attack Panama again.
The Governor of Jamaica received an official reprimand for Morgan’s attack. The Governor lied and said that he had only commissioned Morgan to attack Spanish ships, and not the city. But nonetheless, sent Morgan on several more expeditions, some unsuccessful (including one night when Morgan’s crew got drunk and accidentally blew up his brand new , fancy flagship) some successful, and he as eventually put in control of all of Jamaica’s naval vessels.
Despite the plea of the Governor of Panama, Morgan decided to attack again, this time heading for Panama City, one of the wealthiest cities in the new world. By the time of the attack, Morgan was essentially leading a team of very experienced marines, and easily defeated the troops defending Panama City, with a series of cunning ambushes. However, there were slim pickings on the booty front, most of the city’s wealth being evacuated by ship prior to the raid. Morgan tortured citizens to find whatever slim pickings that remained, and the city was set on fire. After the raid, Panama City was effectively move to a new location and rebuilt – some ruins of the original city remain at Panamá Viejo.
On returning to Jamaica Morgan found himself in trouble as the raid broke a newly-signed peace treaty with Spain. He was arrested and shipped to London, effectively to be a political scapegoat. The lucky bastard was however found not guilty, relations with Spain deteriorated, and Morgan was knighted, and promoted to Lt Governor of Jamaica. Eventually, Sir Henry Morgan was replaced as Governor, the authorities in London growing concerned about the level of independence and unruliness the colony was displaying. In this retirement, Morgan indulged in his favorite hobbies: drinking and getting into trouble. He died in 1688 from liver failure (mot likely), ‘dropsie’ (congenital heart failure), or possibly TB.
Although Morgan is called one of the most famous pirates of the Caribbean, technically he wasn’t – he was a privateer as he had letters of marque and was given official commissions for the various raids he conducted by the Governor of Jamaica, and so was doing so with the British authorities (at least the colonial authorities) blessing. Effectively he was a “naval contractor”. Unlike my favourite pirate, “red legs” Greaves (see earlier post), Morgan was a thorough bastard, and regularly tortured civilians to get them to reveal where their valuables were hidden. Far from the handsome charming rogue on the rum bottles.
The real Captain Morgan