Henry Morgan is one of the most notorious pirates during the Age of Piracy in the Caribbean.
His Early Life is a mystery. He was born in south Wales and somehow made it to the West Indies and eventually became a member of a group of raiders led by Sir Christopher Myngs.
Morgan became a close friend with Sir Thomas Modyford the Governor of Jamaica. Modyford would give Morgan a letter of marque which would allow him to attack Spanish ships. He would prove to be a successful privateer and become a hero in England.
He would go on to play a significant role in Jamaican politics from 1675 – 1688. After his death his life would be romanticized.
Early Life and Career
Little is known about the early life of Henry Morgan.
He was born in Wales around 1635, but history does not reveal the names of his parents. He did attend school for a short period of time but from Henry Morgan’s own words he said he was, “much more used to the pike than the book”
There are three theories that explain how Morgan arrived in the Caribbean:
- He traveled as part of the army of Robert Venables, sent by Oliver Cromwell as part of the Caribbean expedition.
- Served as an apprentice to a maker of cutlery for three years in exchange for cost of emigration.
- Travelled as a “private gentleman” after the 1655 capture of Jamaica by the English.
- Abducted in Bristol and transported to Barbados and sold as a servant.
In the early 1660s, Henry Morgan most likely became active with a group of privateers led by Sir Christopher Myngs. These raiders led attacks on Spanish cities and settlements in the Caribbean and Central America.
It is believed that in 1663, Morgan became captain and led one of the ships in the fleet during the attack on Santiago de Cuba and the Sack of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Career as a Privateer
During this time, Henry Morgan became a close friend to the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford.
Modyford gave Morgan a letter of marque which gave him license to attack and seize Spanish vessels. Morgan would quickly gain favor with the Governor when he arrived back at Port Royal with a large cargo of valuables seized from various ships.
In 1664 hostilities between the English and Dutch led to a change in policy which allowed colonial governors to issue letters of marque against the Dutch. Morgan did not actively get involved in this conflict, however the conflict did claim the life of his father-in-law.
In 1666, Morgan continued as a privateer and saw limited action in Curacao and the defense of Jamaica. He would purchase his first plantation during this time.
Privateer to Pirate
In 1667 diplomatic relations between the kingdoms of England and Spain were worsening, and rumors began to circulate in Jamaica about a possible Spanish invasion.
Modyford authorized privateers to take action against the Spanish, and issued a letter of marque to Morgan:
to draw together the English privateers and take prisoners of the Spanish nation, whereby he might inform of the intention of that enemy to attack Jamaica, of which I have frequent and strong advice
He was given the rank of admiral and, in January 1668, assembled 10 ships and 500 men for the task; he was subsequently joined by 2 more ships and 200 men from Tortuga.
The letter of marque that Morgan received permitted him to attack Spanish ships but he was not allowed to raid Spanish cities unless there was proof of an attack against the English.
When raiding ships the booty that was taken was divided among the government and owners of the ships the privateers were renting. If the privateer stepped outside of his commission the spoil was his entirely which made sacking cities much more profitable than robbing ships.
Raid of Puerto Principe
Henry Morgan’s initial plan was to sack Havana, but the capital city was well defended so he opted to plan an attack on Puerto Principe that was located 50 miles inland.
He and his men boarded 25 canoes and landed on the beach of Cuba. They then traveled the distance inland and successfully raided the town. However, the booty was much smaller than anticipated.
When Morgan reported the taking of Puerto Principe to Modyford, he informed the governor that they had evidence that the Spanish were planning an attack on British territory:
We found seventy men had been pressed to go against Jamaica … and considerable forces were expected from Vera Cruz and Campeachy … and from Porto Bello and Cartagena to rendezvous at St Jago of Cuba [Santiago]
After the small take there was much division and quarreling among the ranks. A fight broke out which resulted in a French member of the crew getting killed by an Englishman. Morgan quickly stifled the bickering by placing the English crew member under arrest and promising to hang him when they reached land.
Morgan stood by his words and the man was hanged, but it did little to stop the bleeding from the Frenchmen in his crew. When Morgan announced that he wanted to attack the 3rd largest colony in the Caribbean, Porto Bello, the Frenchmen opted to return to Tortuga.
On July 11, 1668, Henry Morgan and his men anchored short of Porto Bello and transferred his men in 23 canoes.
Porto Bello was guarded by two casted by the harbor and another one in the town.
Morgan executed a brilliant attack on the city and took the three castles and the town quickly,
Morgan and his men remained in Porto Bello for a month. He wrote to Don Agustín, the acting president of Panama, to demand a ransom for the city of 350,000 pesos.
Don Agustín organized an attack to retake the city, but was repelled by the privateers. After the failed attack he negotiated a ransom for the city of 100,000 pesos.
Morgan returned to Port Royal with somewhere between 70,000 – 100,000 pounds. It was more than the entire agricultural output of Jamaica and made him a national hero in England.
Maracaibo and Gibraltar
Morgan did not stay long in Port Royal and in October 1668 sailed with ten ships and 800 men for Île-à-Vache, a small island he used as a rendezvous point.
His plan was to attack the Spanish settlement of Cartagena de Indias, the richest and most important city on the Spanish Main.
In December he was joined by a former Royal Navy frigate, Oxford, which had been sent to Port Royal to aid in any defense of Jamaica. Modyford sent the vessel to Morgan, who made it his flagship
On 2 January 1669 Morgan called a council of war for all his captains, which took place on Oxford. A spark in the ship’s powder magazine destroyed the ship and over 200 of its crew.
Morgan and the captains seated on one side of the table were blown into the water and survived; the four captains on the other side of the table were all killed.
The loss of his flagship meant his flotilla was too small to attempt an attack on Cartegena. Instead he chose to take a similar action as the pirate François l’Olonnais and attack Maracaibo and Gibraltar.
He arrived at Maracaibo and found the fort deserted. He and his men stormed the fort and found a slow burning fuse leading to a magazine of gunpowder that Morgan quickly put out.
They then spiked the guns of the fort to prevent their use when the buccaneer and his men sailed back through after completing their mission.
The town of Maracaibo was also deserted. Morgan plundered what he could, tortured some residents to find other locations of hidden jewels, and then continued to move forward to Gibraltar.
The residents of Gibraltar refused to surrender, and the fort fired enough of a barrage to ensure Morgan kept his distance. He anchored a short distance away and his men landed by canoe and assaulted the town from the landward approach.
He met little resistance, as many of the occupants had fled into the surrounding jungle. He plundered what he could and sailed back across Lake Maracaibo towards the Caribbean Sea.
Naval Battle in Lake Maracaibo
A Spanish squadron, the Armada de Barlovento, was waiting for him at the narrow passage between Lake Maracaibo and the Caribbean. The Spanish had rearmed the fort that Morgan had previously spiked and looked to attack him from land and sea.
The Spaniards had orders to end piracy in the Caribbean, and negotiations between Morgan and Espinosa continued for a week. The final offer put by the Spanish commander was for Morgan to leave all their spoils and slaves and to return to Jamaica unmolested, but no agreement was reached that would allow Morgan and his men to pass the fleet with their spoils but without attack.
Morgan put the Spaniards’ offers to his men, who voted instead to fight their way out. As they were heavily outgunned, one privateer suggested that a fire ship aimed at Espinosa’s flagship, Magdalen would work.