May 17, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean - Sir Henry Morgan

Sir Henry MorganHari Morgan was born, circa 1635, in Llanrhymni, Wales; he was reputedly the son of a squire. He became known by the English version of his Welsh name, Henry. In 1658, he arrived in Jamaica, where his uncle was the Lieutenent-Governor. He married his cousin, Mary Morgan. It was from Jamaica that he began life as a sailor, progressing quickly to becoming a pirate around the Caribbean Sea. His attacks included ports along the coasts of New Granada, Honduras and Mexico.

By 1661, he was in command of his own ship and soon had permission from the governor of Jamaica to attack Spanish ships on behalf of England. One of his first acts was to capture several Spanish ships just off the coast of Compeche, on the Yucatán Peninsula. Morgan and his men also over-ran the Spanish owned Island of Providence, destroying every settlement and all but one of the forts. This briefly turned into a pirate owned island, but the Spanish returned with greater forces and managed to reclaim it.

When word came that the Spanish were going to attack Jamaica, in retaliation for Providence, Morgan assembled a fleet of 500 of the most notorious pirates active in the Caribbean at the time. In order to do this, he dressed in fine silks and decked himself out in expensive jewellery, then trawled known pirates haunts to find the best. They saw his garb and assumed that there were rich pickings aboard his ten ships. Their remit was to find and capture Spanish citizens throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They began in Cuba, where they planned to attack the Cuban town of Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe (now Camagüey). However, bad weather forced them to dock early. A Spanish prisoner managed to escape and warn the residents of Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe, who all fled with their valuables. Those who remained were captured and tortured for information about where their neighbours had gone. It was all to no avail though. Morgan's men managed to recover very little wealth from the town; far too little to pay his pirate horde.

Clearly there was going to have to be another raid. Morgan thought big and set his pirates towards one of the most prosperous cities in the New World: Porto Bello in Panama. What followed was fourteen days of pillage, torture, rape and murder. The city was stripped of its wealth. The pirates stayed for another month and a half, which was the time it took to transfer all of the valuables from the city onto their ships. All told their two raids brought them over 200,000 pieces of eight (the standard currency of the time, which would later evolve into the peso). By modern standards, the booty would have been worth millions. It certainty boosted Morgan's reputation. The governor of Panama itself promptly sent Morgan an emerald ring, as a bribe not to attack his own city; while the English crown sent Morgan the 34 gun HMS Oxford, a much superior ship, to help him with his career.

Despite the gift of a ship, the English could not officially be seen to endorse Morgan's behaviour. They were supposed to be at peace with Spain at the time. The governor of Jamaica was sent a message to recall Morgan and stop his piracy. This was duly ignored. Instead, Morgan sailed out with a fleet much inflated by pirates flocking to his banner. Word of mouth was a powerful recruiting tool, when the riches of Porto Bello flowed so freely. Eleven ships filled with 900 pirates set out for Cartagena, in Colombia, but first they paused for a party on Isla Vaca, in Mexico. This resulted in a rum fueled disaster, when a fuse was accidentally lit on the HMS Oxford. This ignited explosives which destroyed the whole ship with a massive loss of life on board. Morgan was one of only ten men to survive, after he was rescued from the water.

Some pirates took this as a bad omen and deserted immediately. However, there were still ten ships and eight hundred men, which set out along the Yucatán Channel towards Cartagena. Unfortunately, the wind was against them and some ships simply weren't strong enough to fight against it. Already rattled by the loss of the HMS Oxford, some crews gave up easily, so only five hundred pirates reached Colombian waters. This wasn't enough to take the heavily fortified city of Cartagena. They decided to take the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo instead. A nearby fort spotted them and gave warning in time for most of the residents to flee, taking their valuables with them. Nevertheless, the pirates stayed in the city for three weeks. They were as merciless as they had been in Porto Bello. Any remaining people were tortured and many killed, though some were kept as messengers. Then the pirates moved around Lake Maracaibo to attack the neighbouring town of Gibraltar. Here no-one had had warning, so the town was filled with its people, all of whom were tortured to discover any hidden wealth. It was all carried away.

On the way out, three Spanish warships intercepted them. But Morgan had spotted them in advance. He ordered one of his own ships to be packed with explosives. Logs were dressed up as pirates and placed around the riggings and on the decks. This fire ship was sent straight onto a course with one of the warships and the resulting explosion destroyed both of them. A second warship was captured and the third, now isolated amidst a fleet of pirate ships, was set alight by its own crew, rather than allow it to fall into Morgan's hands. The fleet managed to escape and carry its booty back to Jamaica.

Two years later, Morgan did return to Panama, despite the bribe of an emerald ring a few years previously. He took 1,400 pirates with him and the attack was so vicious that the whole city was nothing but smoldering ruins at the end of it. The modern city of Panama is located a short distance away, because the whole place had to be rebuilt. The majority of the citizens were killed, all of them tortured first for the location of their valuables. Despite all of this, there was little wealth to be carried off. Much of it had been put into safekeeping aboard a Spanish galleon anchored out in the Gulf of Panama. The pirates didn't know it was there.

Though initially arrested and taken to England for the sack of Panama, Henry Morgan defended himself in court and ended up with a knighthood instead of execution. In 1674, it was as Sir Henry Morgan that he returned to Jamaica. He took the opportunity to retire from piracy and settled down on the island. He became its deputy governor, then acting governor. He gained a reputation for drunken rowdiness and died of cirrhosis of the liver, on August 25th, 1681. He was buried in Jamaica's Palisadoes Cemetery, which sunk beneath the sea during the 1692 earthquake.

* Isla Vaca, Mexico: Morgan's ship, HMS Oxford, lies on the seabed just off the coast of Isla Vaca.

* Campeche, Mexico: Raided by Morgan in 1662. He sacked two forts and took away fourteen Spanish ships.

* Vilahermosa, Mexico: Raided by Morgan in 1663.

* Yucatán peninsula, Mexico: Morgan's ships were once stolen by the Spanish, during a land raid. He used canoes to sail around the Yucatán peninsula in order to escape.

* The drinking establishment of your choice: Captain Morgan rum is named after Sir Henry Morgan.

Captain Morgan Rum


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