Sir Henry Morgan
Privateer (1635 - 1688)

Sir Henry Morgan

To understand the life of Henry Morgan, one needs first to understand the times in which the man lived that life. Seventeenth century society was harsher and tolerated far more cruelty than we do now. Torture administered by the state was commonplace. In major seaports, abductions were everyday occurrences. Forced marriages, once consummated, had the same legal status as those voluntarily entered into. Death sentences were handed down for theft and other relatively minor offenses.

The seventeenth century was a turbulent one with almost continual warfare between European nations. It was a time when Spain still believed she owned the Americas by divine right and was entitled to hang anyone who trespassed "beyond the line." Might was right.

Although England had a long tradition of using the practice of issuing commissions ( letters of marquee ) to private vessels as a way of augmenting its navy in times of war, in the mid-seventeenth century Caribbean privateering took a more ambiguous form — buccaneers. And nowhere was the practice of privateering more adroitly or cynically applied than in Jamaica.

Early Years

Born in Llanrhymni, Wales in 1635, Morgan was eventually to become one of the most successful, decorated, and debauched privateers ever to roam the Spanish Main.

As a boy he was kidnapped from Bristol. His captors shipped him to the English West Indies colony of Barbados where he was sold as a slave boy to a plantation owner. This form of "white slavery" was common during the era. White slaves were, theoretically, "indentured servants" who were supposed to be granted freedom after seven or so years of adult bondage. Many white slave holders circumvented English law however by starving the "servant" during his sixth year of service until a contract for another seven years of service could be "agreed" upon.

Morgan's salvation came in unusual form. In 1654 Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the current ruler of England, dispatched a large invasion force to the West Indies with the intention of capturing Hispaniola from the Spanish. The fleet anchored in Barbados, where its invasion force was swelled in numbers by hundreds of young men anxious to desert their owners and gain freedom. Among the recruits was nineteen year old Henry.

On 31st March 1655 some thirty-eight ships with 8000 soldiers departed Barbados for the Spanish bastion of Santo Domingo. The resulting invasion attempt was a fiasco and the English were routed by the Spanish defenders. Anxious to keep their heads, the force's commanders decided they dare not return to England without some token of success. Alas, the smaller, sparsely populated Spanish colony of Jamaica was invaded and captured a couple weeks later.

In the following years most of the invasion fleet dispersed, and many of the English soldiers left to garrison the colony perished of fever. Cromwell found himself with a vulnerable but strategically important base in the middle of Spain's New World. In order to populate the island he offered 30 acres of land free to any emigrant willing to settle there. In following years, especially after the ascension of King Charles II to the English throne, letters of marquee were offered to privateers operating from the island. Since England could not afford to protect the island with a squadron of navy ships, the privateers were the only naval protection Jamaica enjoyed.

At a relatively late stage of his life, between his twentieth and thirtieth birthdays, Morgan's apprenticeship to the sea began. Details from his early privateering days are scarce, but it's fairly safe to assume he served aboard vessels operating from Port Royal. Whether the violent, drunken life of a sea robber was to corrupt his personality, or merely suit it, is not known.

By 1666 he had command of his own vessel, and soon afterwards was leading loosely organized fleets of privateers against Puerto Principe and Puerto Bello. The sacking of Puerto Bello was particularly brutal and resulted in rape, torture, and murder on a grand scale. Although London publicly claimed ignorance about this and most of the privateers activities, in reality Capt. Morgan and other buccaneers worked in close collusion with Jamaica's colonial governor (who was cut in on the loot). King Charles II, who feared what might happen to Jamaica if its only source of naval protection was lost, quietly permitted the privateers to operate out of Port Royal (for, of course, a share of the loot.)

Battle Of The Maracaibo Lagoon

In 1669 Capt. 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 Gibraltar 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.

Capt. 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 Capt. 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 to maneuver into position and fire a broadside. The Magdalena had barely discharged her first barrage when a small English ship, laden 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 fire ship 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 focused 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 loaded 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.

Sacking Panama

In late 1670 The Morgan sailed for Panama with a fleet of thirty-five small ships (between 10 and 120 tons in size) and over two thousand English and French privateers. It was the largest force of privateers yet brought together for one venture. And the proposed venture was big -- the sack of Panama, the wealthiest country 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 bloody cost of one hundred dead and many more wounded. Afterwards began a grueling march through thick jungle to the Panama side of the isthmus. Morgan had planned to feed his small army with stores of food captured from the Spanish or foraged from the jungle.

But these plans proved inadequate and after a few days his men were reduced to eating leather, leaves, tree bark, virtually anything. Malaria and yellow fever weakened hundreds. Snakes, mosquitoes, ticks, alligators, and untold varieties of insects assailed them. Men sank chest deep into foul swamps, hacked through thick undergrowth with cutlasses, and suffered occasional musket fire from Spanish snipers. Small numbers of men died from poison arrows fired from natives who glided like shadows through the dense tangle of jungle.

More than a week after they entered the jungle, Morgan's drained force bivouacked in sight of Panama City. The next day they rose to see the Spanish army march out to meet them on the vista. At his command, the Spanish governor, Don Guzman, had 2000 infantry and 500 cavalry, but 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 a critical juncture in the battle. Ideally his forces would then swoop down to mop up the trampled buccaneers.

The battle proved short. The governor first ordered the cavalry to make an ill-advised frontal attack on the buccaneers. A couple of 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.

Then Morgan triumphantly entered Panama with a gang of half-starved men waving banners and blowing horns. Unfortunately for the city, it was set ablaze by the Spaniards (or by the privateers themselves accidentally) and burned down around them. This destroyed rich warehouses full of silk, spices and other loot brought from Spain's colonies in the Pacific. 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 of 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 buccaneer mutineers behind.


Spain's reaction to the sack of Panama was to threaten war, and England's King Charles II made a show of having both Capt. and Jamaica's governor arrested and brought back to England. They lived comfortably in "prison" (the Tower) until the furor had died down. Charles II then knighted for his deeds and sent him back to Jamaica as lieutenant-governor. Capt. Morgan never sailed again, but lived a comfortable life in Port Royal until his death in 1688. He vacationed often at his fort on Providencia Island.

On the Bahamian island of Andros, the highest point on the island is called Morgan's Bluff as a tribute to the famous buccaneer. Although highly unlikely, some say Henry Morgan once hung a lantern from there to lure a ship onto the reefs and to plunder it after it wrecked.