Google the words “Captain Morgan” on your computer, and among the search results you will find this famous name gracing a popular rum, a retreat in Belize, a cruise line in Malta and even a pub in the Polish Port of Gdansk.
Such is the universal appeal of the flamboyant character who, for most of the world, personifies the image of a freebooting, swashbuckling buccaneer — Sir Henry Morgan. But the real Morgan is decidedly more difficult to separate from the myth.
Morgan began life in Monmouthshire, Wales, in 1635, evidently born into a good family with old connections to the English Crown. He left his native land around 1655 as a member of a military expedition that later seized the strategic island of Jamaica for England. In 1663 Morgan was part of a force of Englishmen that successfully captured the colonial city of Santiago de Cuba, a major base for Spanish power in the Caribbean.
It might be more accurate to describe Morgan as a licensed privateer of sorts, rather than a pirate, although he certainly associated with pirates on a more or less regular basis. The governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, issued Morgan a letter of marques in 1670 as England’s response to Spain’s instructions to her West Indies governors to wage war on British possessions. Part of this document explains, “Whereas Don Pedro Bayona de Villa Nueva, Captain General of the Province of Paraguay and Governor of the City of St. Jago de Cuba and its Provinces, hath … lately in the most hostile and barbarous manner landed his men on the north side of the Island (of Jamaica), and entered a small way into the country, firing all the Houses they came at, killing or taking Prisoners all the inhabitants they could meet with.” The document continues, “In discharge of the great trust which His Gracious Majesty hath placed in me, I do by virtue of full Power and Authority of such cases from His Royal Highness, James Duke of York, His Majesties Lord High Admiral, derived unto me, and out of the great confidence I have in the good conduct, courage, and fidelity of you the said Henry Morgan to be Admiral and Commander in Chief of all Ships, Barques, and other Vessels now fitted out.”
Which is to say that Morgan was ordered to harass the Spanish with legal sanction. In 1671 he sailed on his most audacious cruise, with a flotilla of 39 ships carrying 2,000 men, including known pirates, to the coast to the Isthmus of Darien. After landing, Morgan marched part of his force across the Isthmus, where he successfully attacked and looted Panama in reprisal for Spanish attacks on Jamaica. When Morgan returned to Jamaica to a hero’s welcome, he carried with him a fortune in personally looted treasure. Unfortunately, delayed word of his exploits at Panama had reached London just as King Charles II chose to seek improved relations with Spain. The king decided to denounce the Panama raid to appease the Spanish, and Morgan was arrested, as was Governor Modyford, who had issued Morgan his credentials.
Morgan was summoned to England, but remarkably, was not tried or punished. He remained at large to charm the society ladies of London and the royal court in general, and easily gained the ear of the king. In fact, he got on so well with his monarch that Charles not only forgave him his past actions, he also knighted him. When relations with Spain again began to sour, Charles sent Sir Henry home to Jamaica as Colonel and Deputy Governor of the island, convinced, no doubt, that Morgan was the best man with whom to entrust island’s security.
Morgan settled easily into the comfortable life of chief gentleman of Port Royal on his return. He did not, however, hesitate to foster the illegal activities of his former pirate friends, while outwardly appearing to suppress those same associates. This continued until his death on Aug. 25, 1688. Capt. Lawrence Wright of the frigate HMS Assistance recorded the event in his diary: “This day about eleven hours noon Sir Henry Morgan died, and the 26th was brought over from Passage-fort to the King’s house at Port Royal, from thence to the Church, and after a sermon was carried to the Pallisadoes and there buried. All the forts fired an equal number of guns; we fired two and twenty, and after we and the Drake had fired, all the merchant-men fired.”
Sir Henry Morgan died a much respected citizen and hero, unaware that his name would remain a household word more than 300 years after his death — a name that would lend itself to advertising everything from liquor to tourist travel and be the catalyst for countless myths and tales of Caribbean pirates and buried treasure.
J. Gregory Dill