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.
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.
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 in Cartagena.
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 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 loot.
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.
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 Royal’s 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”.
Just 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 Western Design.
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 as “a 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”.