Look at him up there. All smug with those ships burning up on Lake Maracaibo in the back ground. There's just no getting around the man if you're going to talk about buccaneers and privateers so today and tomorrow, Brethren, it's one of the greatest of all time: Henry Morgan. (Who, just as an aside, always reminds me of Oliver Reed in his role as Athos in The Three and Four Musketeers movies: portly, scruffy, a little sullen and very apt to kill you just because you looked at him funny.)
Morgan's origins, aside from his birth in Wales in 1635, are rather shadowy. He seems never to have spoken of his youth and many writers, including the famous Doctor Alexander Exquemelin who penned the first bio of our intrepid buccaneer, assume that this is due to humble begins. My take on this is just the opposite.
We know that Morgan had uncles who were officers in the British Army and, at the time of his birth, you didn't get to be an officer in that service without some aristocratic blood swimming around in your veins. I'm not saying Morgan's family was anything more than gentlemen farmers, but I think that Morgan avoided talking about that part of his upbringing so that his leadership among the buccaneers would be more valid. Pirates and privateers - and sailors in general - are far more accepting of an everyman who comes up through the school of hard knocks. And Morgan actually did.
After joining a failed British expedition to capture Hispaniola, Morgan followed the same fleet to an overwhelming victory in Jamaica in 1655. He had learned seamanship and the ways of battle and now he had a stomping ground that was ripe not only as a home port but also as a place where a man could distinguish himself, own land and possibly become someone important. Morgan was certainly one of the most intelligent buccaneers in history, and he set out to do all of those things and more.
By 1661 Morgan was commanding his own ship. He signed on with the privateer Christopher Myngs and sailed in his expeditions against the Spanish. The most notable of these were the successful raids on Santiago, Cuba and San Francisco, Mexico. Under Myngs, Morgan learned not only naval tactics but how to lead large numbers of ships and men. The stage was set for Morgan to come into his own.
After peace with the Dutch was declared, King Charles II sent an edict to the Governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, stating that no further raids on Spanish shipping or territory should be carried out by British ships. Modyford, who was living pretty high on the hog off his share of privateered booty, decided to declare what today might be called a state of emergency in Jamaica. He claimed that his island was at risk from Spanish attack and he began handing out letters of marque to buccaneers who would swear to "protect Jamaica" from Spain. Morgan was probably first in line to purchase one of Modyford's commissions. (Yes, purchase; you didn't think he'd give them away for free, did you?)
Armed with a virtual get out of jail free card, Morgan went in search of intelligence. Legends abounded in buccaneer havens about virtual cities of gold on Spanish held ground. Gran Granada, Portobello, Havana, Cartegena and many more were spoken of in hushed tones as if they were El Dorado and, to some degree, they were. Morgan determined to take as many of these fabled treasure ports as he could, and his status as a trusted and successful leader brought him reliable information. By 1664, Morgan, at the lead of four captains and over 200 men, was ready to sail into history on a voyage that would make him rich and famous.
After some quick raids on the gulf coast the privateers hit Nicaragua, where a city inland was said to literally sit on top of a heap of silver. Morgan used native guides who had managed to escape from certain death in these silver mines to lead he and his men up the San Juan River in canoes. A hundred miles inland they came upon the city of Granada whose only occupation was dragging silver from the earth around it. Morgan used stealth to attack the unsuspecting town from the land side and in very short order he had taken the citadel and it's arms. The buccaneers loaded every piece of silver that was not still in the earth into their canoes and left the small Spanish fleet in Lake Nicaragua in flames. Morgan, with very few men lost, returned to Jamaica a wealthy man.
Perhaps to his surprise, Morgan found that his own uncle, Edward Morgan, had been appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and that he was now living in Kingston with his family. This gave Morgan entree into the elite upper crust of Jamaican society and he took full advantage of the opportunity. He bought a plantation with the spoils from Granada, attended balls given by Governor Modyford and the Duke of Albermarle (a friend of Uncle Edward) and chose a strategic marriage. In 1665 Henry Morgan married Mary Elizabeth Morgan, the daughter of Edward Morgan and his own first cousin. Shortly thereafter, Uncle Edward died and Modyford, impressed with the daring Captain, made Henry Morgan Lieutenant Governor.
At the age of 30, Henry Morgan was a respected landowner with wealth, a wife and a title. Could it get any better? Do you really need to ask.
Tomorrow: all hell breaks loose in Panama and Venezuela, and then Panama again. Come back for Part 2 of the better-than-any-fiction life of Captain Henry Morgan.