Henry Morgan was a Welsh sailor and one of the preeminent buccaneers of the buccaneering era. Henry Morgan's buccaneering career lasted about a decade and yet in that short span of time he was able to launch remarkable assaults on the colonies of the Spanish Main and was one of the few who actually lived long enough to spend his vast fortune.
He is well known for being a leader of the Brethren of the Coast. He plundered the coastal towns of the Spanish Empire and was essential in disrupting the hegemony of the Spanish Empire and allowing the other empires of the world to establish more successful colonies in the New World.
Very little is known about his early life and there are many conflicting accounts regarding it. His commonly told story is that he was born into a Welsh farming family around 1635. Some of his family were officers in Oliver Cromwell's army which allowed him to get quickly promoted as well.
When he was about twenty years old in 1655, Morgan was a junior officer ordered to help attack the Spanish in the Caribbean. This however, is in direct contrast to what was originally written in Alexander Exquemelin's primary source book. A lot of information is known about Henry Morgan through his French or Dutch physician and writer, Alexander Exquemelin. Exquemelin accompanied Morgan on two of his privateering/pirating expeditions and saw first hand the raids he conducted. In 1684, Exquemelin published the book De Americaensche Zee Roovers which documented the exploits of buccaneers in the mid and late 17th century.
Exquemelin instead wrote that Morgan was originally an indentured servant like Francois L’Ollonais that was brought to the island of Tortuga in 1666 where he served a brutal and cruel master. He ran away from him and became a buccaneer which would explain his many affiliations with French buccaneers and the island itself.
However, Henry Morgan later in his life, now a knight and governor of Jamaica was less than pleased with an introduction that portrayed him as an indentured servant coming to the West Indies as a slave and under less than fortunate circumstances.
Henry Morgan sued Exquemelin for libel and and this forced Exquemelin to change the preface of the book and add an apology saying Morgan was "a gentleman’s son of good quality in the county Monmouth, and never was a servant to anybody in his life, save unto his Majestie."
While there is some debate over weather Morgan was a privateer or a pirate, the distinction is very much a gray area. Some say his actions were carried out in the capacity of his Letter of Marque, however this does not take into account some of the major exploits such as the burning on Panama Viejo that almost landed him and his Governor sponsor in chains.
Henry Morgan arrived in the West Indies as the Buccaneering Era was in its final decades and was about to bring it to new heights. In 1667, Morgan was commissioned by the governor of British Jamaica named Thomas Modyford to capture Spanish prisoners in Cuba in order to outline the details of an upcoming invasion of the island to recapture it by the Spanish.
Despite a treaty in place that would ensure no such thing would happen, Modyford was still paranoid about the assault. Commissioning Morgan with 10 ships and more than 500 men, Morgan landed on Cuba and sacked the town of Puerto del Principe. It was originally discussed that Morgan would try and take Havana, however a lack of men and ships proved this to be a foolish effort.
While on their quest to capture Spanish ships and prisoners, Morgans fleet sailed through heavy storms that changed the course of their expedition. Instead of landing on the north shore of Cuba, the fleet ended up on the south side.
At this point there was very little food or water left, so the privateers / pirates were forced to scavenge the country side for supplies. Once they landed, Morgans crew met up with another French buccaneering crew from Tortuga and decided to join forces.
However, before they could even begin the assault a Spanish hostage escaped and managed to warn the entire city of Puerto Principe of the impending attack. The Spanish colonists quickly dispersed, taking all of their valuables with them.
After tirelessly searching the town, the buccaneers only found 50,000 pieces of eight, nothing compared to their debts back in Port Royal. This forced Morgans crew to seek out more treasure elsewhere, however not before raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants left in Puerto Principe.
According to Exquemelin, the Spanish were locked in a church and tortured to give up all of their remaining wealth. After only receiving a small some of pieces of eight and some cattle, the restless crew decided to attack Portobello which was thought to house the Spanish Treasure Fleet for a short while and was much less impregnable than Havana.
Portobello was founded in 1597 by Francisco Velarde y Mercado, a Spanish explorer. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the city was a major silver exporting port in the Viceroyalty of New Granada and was one of the main stops for the Spanish treasure fleet. The city was guarded by three major castles, however they were under garrisoned and prone to attack.
After Morgans failed attack on Puerto Principe yielded very little, his buccaneer crew was eager for more. In 1668 he led his fleet of privateers, pirates and buccaneers against Portobello which despite its forts, fell very quickly. During this time Edward Collier joined Morgan's crew as in command of one of the ships leading the raid on the city. Anchoring the fleet of nine ships in a bay a few miles from Portobello, many of the 450 buccaneers silently paddled via canoes to the city under the cover of night. They eventually converged back into one group and attack using the ships bombardment as cover.
The buccaneers first took the castle of Triana and blew it up with all of the defenders inside. Next, they moved into the city and in a series of decisive battles, the buccaneers and pirates captured the city on 11 July 1668. Morgan and his crew raided the city for nearly two weeks, stripping the entire city of its wealth and often raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants. One horrifying story shows that women, nuns and old men were forced to carry scaling ladders and stand between the Spanish troops in order to act as a human shield. These brutal tactics combined with the destructive nature of the assault led many to believe this was an act of piracy rather than legitimate war or privateering.
Initially after the destruction and looting of Puerto Bello, the Panama governor sent between 1,500 and 3,000 militia to recapture the port after Morgan demanded nearly 35,000 pieces of eight in ransom for the city. The Spanish baulked at giving the pirates any more money and opened fire. After a short battle, the pirates proved victorious and walked away with 100,000 in pieces of eight in addition to large quantities of silk, linen and other cargo. Morgan returned to Port Royal with nearly 250,000 pieces of eight in mid-August amidst celebration and congratulations.
While his actions were debated by the English government due to violating a treaty with Spain, eventually in 1669 the Admiralty court declared the Portobello raid legal and Morgan and Modyford avoided punishment. Even if there was repercussions, the treasure was already spent by 1669 in a non-stop drunken spree in 1668, with Morgan the only one to invest in plantation land with his earnings.
Unknown to Morgan at the time, England and Spain signed the Treaty of Madrid in July of 1670, by which Spain recognized English colonies in the Caribbean, and prohibited piracy. While he had set out on the raid of Panama Viejo a privateer, he destroyed it a as pirate. The same bad luck befell Thomas Modyford who supported Morgans raid and made him admiral of his buccaneer army. In August of 1671 Modyford was arrested and replaced by a new governor Sir Thomas Lynch, where he would spend two years in prison in the Tower of London.
Morgan was also arrested and returned to England in April of 1762, but never imprisoned due to well placed political allies along with his massive personal wealth. He simply proved he had no knowledge of the treaty at the time as he was already out raiding and plundering before it was administered. Since documents took months to cross to and from between this sea this was seen as a valid excuse and was released.
Weather or not Morgan had knowledge of the treaty is up for debate by historians, with some believing that he knew full well that a treaty was coming and this would be one last chance to cement in history the fact that that it was he, Henry Morgan who was the most daring and ruthless of all the buccaneers in the Caribbean.
However, by 1674 the whole thing blew over and Thomas Lynch released from prison and removed from office while Henry Morgan was knighted by King Charles II of England and made lieutenant governor of British Jamaica. Morgan returned to his plantations and was soon joined by Modyford who acted as chief justice.
By 1675 Morgan was 40 years old and very rich due to owning several plantations on the island. Morgans reign in office would last until 1682 when he was replaced by Thomas Lynch yet again. It was also during this time that Alexander Exquemelin's work, A History of Buccaneers was released, which Morgan took steps to discredit as it painted him a bloodthirsty pirate and conquerer rather than privateer.
Morgan was known to be a hard drinker and regular face in the town up until his death.
Morgan lived out the rest of his days on his plantation named Lawrencefield, dying on August 25th, 1688 the most successful buccaneer of the 17th century. It is rumored Morgan contracted tuberculosis while visiting London in the 1680's and was diagnosed with "dropsie" at the time. Fortunately Morgan would never see the destruction that overtook Port Royal in the devastating earthquake. He was buried at the Palisadoes cemetery, which was destroyed in the Port Royal Earthquake (1692) along with the rest of the city.
It can be said that Henry Morgan was one of the lucky pirates. He was able to plunder the Spanish Main like no other buccaneer before him and end up dying peacefully due to natural causes, rich on a plantation in the Caribbean.
While not the wealthiest pirate in terms of total haul, it was his stories that would influence and entire following generation of pirates to pick up the cutlass and take the fight to the corrupt imperial system. Henry Morgan is one of the great pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy, right up with the likes of Francis Drake and Henry Every.