Buccaneer and Governor of Jamaica
Born in Abergavenney, Wales to
a military family, he had two uncles who were successful soldiers
of fortune. They fought on opposite
sides during the English Civil War, Thomas for the parliamentarians,
rising to the rank of major-general in the New Model Army,
and Edward for the Royalists. After a period of exile before
the Restoration, Edward became deputy governor of Jamaica.
Henry Morgan left school early – in his own words “being
more used to pike than book”. In early 1655 he ended up being
shipped from Bristol to become an apprentice cutler to Timothy Townsend
(a Bristol man himself) in Barbados. Life as a servant on a foreign
plantation apparently did not agree with him and he promptly escaped
to serve as subaltern in Cromwell’s “Western Design”,
sailing under Bristol Admiral William Penn.
entry in an Indentured Servants
Book (Shown with kind permission of Bristol
The expedition was initially unsuccessful, they were repulsed from
Santo Domingo with heavy losses, but they eventually conquered
Jamaica late in 1655 to avoid going home empty handed. When Penn
and his joint commander General Robert Venables returned
to England they were briefly thrown into the Tower of London for
dereliction of duty. [Admiral Sir William Penn’s Tomb is
in St Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol – resplendent
with recently refurbished battle pennants]
After the English victory Morgan became a captain in the Jamaican Port Royal
Regiment and given a ship with a privateering commission, sailing with Christopher
Myngs on his raid on Puerto del Principe, here he first showed his genius as
a military strategist. Booty was scarce however, and his fellow troops were dissatisfied.
He followed this with a brutal raid on Portobelo, Panama, where he and his buccaneer’s
massacred the garrison.
on Puerto del Principe that made his name
After these battles he held a meeting of the pirate kings on
his flagship, HMS Oxford, but disaster struck and the vessel
blew up killing many, but sparing Morgan. The Spanish thought
it was just retribution and the work of their Virgin Mary sculpture
Although not a brilliant seaman, Morgan’s reputation as a commander
was not in question. In 1669 he led a famous victory at the Bar of
Maracaibo where he attacked the Spanish flagship Magdalena, exploding her
after being set ablaze by a fire ship.
The end of the Magdalena
The highlight of his career was leading a band of 2,000 English
and French pirates against the rich port of Spanish held Panama
in 1670/1671. He achieved this remarkable feat by crossing the
Isthmus with a forced starvation march. After sacking the
city, and with allegations that he had tortured his hostages,
Morgan returned to the Caribbean and made off with most of the
Map of Morgan’s
march across the Isthmus of Panama
On his return from Panama the political climate changed
and he was made to return to London to answer charges
of piracy (of all things!). At home though he was
treated as a hero, and despite being under arrest,
he led life in his usual manner, repeatedly exonerated
due to his popularity.
Engraving of Morgan
probably done during his exile in England c.1673
Once the political climate changed again, Morgan was knighted
by Charles II and sent back to Jamaica where he was appointed
Lieutenant Governor. Then under the King’s orders, he proceeded
to hang every pirate he could find, including his former henchmen. A
classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper.
He was dismissed from official duties due to his heavy drinking
in Port Royals taverns. He was described by Sir Hans Sloane (later
founder of the British Museum) as ”lean, sallow coloured,
his eyes a little yellowish and belly jutting out – much
given to drinking and sitting up late”.
4 years after Morgan’s death, an earthquake destroys
Port Royal killing over 2000 souls. ‘Devine Retribution’ according
to the few Puritan’s left in Jamaica from Cromwell’s
Despite being treated by a voodoo man he died in 1688 leaving
his wife of 20 years, a huge sugar plantation and £5000. Plus
a multitude of rumours regarding Treasure hordes. His
body was carried through the streets on a gun carriage, and
he was buried in the church he helped found, St Peters.
He was described by author George Wycherly in the 1920’s
depraved, vicious, treacherous, almost unparalleled human
brute, who was born of respectable people in Wales but deliberately
chose the most evil life possible in this vicious age”.
Morgan as we remember him