Awesome People in History: Sir Henry Morgan

This is who we think about when we hear “Captain Morgan”, a smug-looking pirate in a silly pose, whose rum is advertised by showing customers coming up with some outside-the-box way to get the girl or get a sober ride home.

What is so amusing is that the real Captain Morgan actually was an outside-the-box thinker, and even more than that, he was amazingly courageous and had huevos of steel.

A Welshman by birth, Sir Henry Morgan was related to well-known figures who fought for both sides of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell’s new Puritan regime was itching for a fight with some Roman Catholics, so he sent an expedition to the Americas to steal Spain’s colonial empire. Their plan was to capture Hispaniola, the island that today holds the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Back then, the island was the hub of the Spanish Empire, as ships sailing from Latin America carrying tons of silver had to stop there to resupply before making the Atlantic journey.

Thing is, this wasn’t the first time someone set designs on that island. Because it was so crucial to the Spanish, it was a big target for Spain’s enemies, raided by the English, Dutch, and French quite regularly.

Not knowing this, Henry Morgan volunteered for the expedition, which would be led by none other than William Penn. Yes, the guy they named Pennsylvania after.

No, not this guy. This guy was William Penn Jr. I'm talking about William Penn Sr.

After the long voyage, they arrived in Hispaniola to find this waiting for them:

Um, guys, I think we're going to need a ladder. Guys?

And promptly lost the battle. With significant casualties.

Now, they couldn’t just return home after all of that empty-handed. They had to seriously rethink their strategy. This is when the world’s first “Morgan moment” happened. Henry Morgan said, “Fine. If we can’t take Hispaniola, let’s just go to Jamaica and take over that island instead.”

I guess I'll just be forced to settle for this. *SIGH*

It turns out Jamaica was left practically defenseless by the Spanish, and our intrepid adventurers found themselves some easy prey. Most of the Spanish inhabitants fled, and the tiny expedition now faced the prospect of a Spanish counter-attack to reclaim their island. They needed an army, and fast. Once again, Morgan came up with an ingenious, if unusual solution: “Let’s hire these wandering, homeless white people scattered throughout the Caribbean.”

There were a fairly large number of these so-called buccaneers, who were basically European colonial outcasts known for two things: crime, and their tasty grilled meats. The name buccaneer comes from the makeshift “bukan” grills they used to cook their meat. Apparently, the meat had some kind of a reputation, because they would sell it to people for a quick buck (pun intended) in between committing crimes. So the English expedition put the word out that they would hire the buccaneers to defend the island.

Now the English had their island, right in the heart of the Spanish Empire, and were faced with the question of just what to do with it. It didn’t exactly have very many natural resources, or any way to support itself as a colony. Holding it against the Spanish would be difficult and expensive because of its distance from the nearest English colony, let alone the mother country. Yet it had a very strategic geographic location, right along the Spanish silver trade routes. Oh, if only there were an inexpensive way to simultaneously defend the island, use it to go on the offensive against the Spanish, and jump-start the local economy.

Ooh! I know! Pick me! Pick me!

Now-Captain Henry Morgan soon received a letter of Marque from the English government to sail with a crew of buccaneers to harass Spanish shipping and steal their silver, so long as the government got a cut of the plunder. This made Morgan technically a privateer, not a pirate, but he often ignored the terms of his letter of marque and just did what he wanted. Soon, he and the other buccaneer ships sailing for England against the Spanish were feared across the Spanish Empire, raiding both ships and coastal cities, killing anyone who stood in their way and torturing people to find out where the loot was. They would come back into port, divide up everyone’s shares (including a share for the boat, those things are not cheap to maintain), and go on a spending spree, frittering away their ill-gotten wealth on booze, gambling, and prostitutes. When they ran out, it was back to the sea to find more treasure.

To fully appreciate the awesomeness of Henry Morgan, you have to understand that these pirate/privateer ships were not run like a military vessel. Their captains were democratically elected by the crew, and the crew could vote the captain out at any time. They also selected their targets by vote; if someone wanted to hit a particular spot or ship, he had to convince the rest of the crew that it would be a good target to hit. This tells you something about how charismatic Morgan must have been when he proposed to attack Panama.

Just look at his charisma

Panama was the biggest prize in the New World, funneling all the silver from mines in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina for shipment across the Pacific to East Asia, where it would be traded for valuable Asian goods like silk, jade, and porcelain that would be sent back to Panama, across the tiny isthmus, and on to Europe. Since it was so vital to world trade, and held such incredible riches, it was one of the most well-defended forts on the planet at the time. An assault on the city would have been tantamount to suicide. Who would try to assault it?

Captain Morgan, that’s who.

In one of history’s big military upsets, Morgan’s men outmaneuvered the enemy and mowed them down with gunfire. They made their way into the fort, captured and tortured those residents who hadn’t fled for their lives yet, and burned the city to the ground.

Unfortunately, the Spaniards had enough advanced warning of the impending attack to quietly scurry away all their silver and Asian valuables, so the pirates came away with very little loot for the effort they put into the attack. And to top it all off, they were arrested for violating a peace agreement between England and Spain.

This is where the stories of buried pirate treasure came from; it started with a rumor among Morgan's crew that their captain got away with all the good loot and stashed it somewhere so he didn't have to pay out any shares.

Fortunately for Morgan, he was able to prove he had no knowledge of the treaty, and King Charles II (who by now was the ruler of England) decided to knight him instead. Thus, Captain Morgan became Admiral Sir Morgan, Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. He spent his last years of life in retirement in Jamaica, a retirement that would be envied even today.

Information from a History Channel special I saw; to see the sources of my images hover over them with your mouse.

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