Thursday, January 21, 2010

People: Henry Morgan Part 2

Henry Morgan seems never to have considered himself a pirate. Buccaneer, perhaps; privateer, certainly but never a thief or raider. As we saw yesterday, he sailed out on his expeditions with legitimate commissions from the English government. Throughout the amazing second half of his career, nothing would change - except for his fame and fortune.

The fragile peace between England and Spain had no hope of lasting. By 1667, Morgan had been given the position of Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast. Morgan was ready to lead when Governor Modyford came to him with the news of war. The Captain quickly rounded up twelve ships and over six hundred men and began plotting his next attack.

Initially the flotilla tried to hit Porto Princepe, Cuba, but found that word had come ahead of them and the town was largely deserted. No problem for Morgan. He had a checklist of Spanish cities he wanted to unburden of their treasure, and so it was on to Portobello in modern day Panama.

As he did in Granada, Morgan found local natives who had escaped slavery and were more than happy to give the buccaneers information on how to put the hurt on their former masters. Morgan knew ahead of time what he faced at Portobello, and it didn't take him long to convince his men that the pickings would be ripe.

Morgan dropped anchor away from the citadels of Santiago and San Philipe and his men moved in using canoes as they had in Nicaragua. The forts were captured with only a few shots fired and prisoners in the form of friars, nuns and elderly men and women were rounded up. Morgan had a plan for the swift take-down of the fortress at Portobello, and he wasn't jerking around.

On Portobello plain, the Governor and the Spanish Army were horrified to see the clergy and other prisoners being herded before the buccaneers as human shields. Though there was some hesitation, a cannon was fired on the civilians and some were killed. This spectacle of carnage stayed further resistance and Morgan and his men poured into Portobello. The Admiral allowed his buccaneers to tear the city apart in search of treasure, but he would not allow them to set anything on fire. He would ask for a ransom.

Initially, the Viceroy of Panama refused to pay the demand of 350,000 pesos and responded that Morgan was an "inferior person" that he did not have to bargain with. Morgan waited, comfortable where he was, while the Viceroy believed the Spanish Army in Cartagena would come to the rescue. They never did. The ransom was paid and Morgan sailed off for Venezuela.

At lake Maracaibo, Morgan initially tried a raid on the city of the same name. Unfortunately he came in the wake of Francois L'Olonnais. The buccaneer from Tortuga had stripped the place and Morgan's men were unhappy with the slim booty. They sailed on into the lake and turned their sights on the fortress of Gibraltar, where Morgan allowed his men to chase the frightened citizens hiding in the jungle down and torture them to reveal their hidden treasures.

Meanwhile, the Spanish had blockaded the narrow pass of the lake so that when Morgan tried to return to the Pacific there was no outlet. Through a ruse, he made the small Spanish fleet of three ships think that he was depositing men on shore to attempt an overland escape. This bought him time to dole out each man's share of booty and then ready his ships for a fight. He filled one of his sloops with bombs and black powder and, on April 23, 1669, he sailed out to meet the enemy.

The fire ship, manned by only 12 buccaneers, hit the Spanish flagship first and she burned to the waterline. A second Spanish ship ran aground in the swamplands and the third was captured by Morgan. The remaining Spaniards hurried to the fortress at Maracaibo and prepared for a fight, but none ever came. Morgan, cagey as always, waited for that night's high tide and left the lake under cover of darkness with a new ship and a fortune in each man's pockets.

It wasn't over yet. Morgan dreamed of capturing the treasure city of Panama on the Pacific Coast of the isthmus and - after so much success - his men were ready to follow him anywhere. But Modyford was calling Morgan home. A tentative peace with Spain was at hand once again and Morgan's fleet returned to Jamaica. Fortunately for Morgan and his dream, however, local Spaniards weren't ready to give up the fight. Raids on Jamaica's coastline by Spanish and Portuguese pirates outraged the Governor's council and he was once again in a position to offer a commission to his loyal Admiral Morgan.

This time upwards of 2,000 English and French buccaneers signed on to sail with Morgan. They took the castle at San Lorenzo, Panama and then sailed their smaller vessels into the Chagres River heading west across the isthmus. The dry season was in full bloom, however, and as they went the river slowly shrunk beneath them until they could do nothing but abandon first their boats, then their canoes, and finally trudge like pack animals through the humid, vermin infested jungle. Food ran short since advanced warning had gone out to villages along the way. Alexander Exquememlin, who was on this death march, even left us a recipe for boiling leather bags to eat as it was done by Morgan's men. Delightful.

After seven hellish days the buccaneers finally broke free of the jungle and found not only a refreshing, breezy savanna but a heard of cattle kept for the use of the city of Panama. A respite was declared, beef was cooked boucanier style and the men were again ready to achieve their goal.

The Spaniards did what they could to defend the fort of Panama but the fight was a foregone conclusion. Morgan took the city in two hours, but what he found was not up to expectations. The last of the garrison carried out their final, desperate order as the buccaneers entered the city and put the torch to it. Panama burned to the ground around Morgan and his men. The buccaneers set to picking through the charred ruins and chasing down the townspeople but nothing like their prior success in valuables was achieved. Morgan, in a fit of rage, allowed horrible atrocities to be committed on the local people and took part in many himself (we talked a little bit about Morgan's dark side here). Wealthy women were rounded up for ransom, and more than one civilian was murdered.

The buccaneers began to grumble that Morgan was holding out on them and, despite his protests to the contrary, they never really got over their suspicions. Morgan marched back to the Pacific, loaded up his own ship and sailed off to hit a few more towns and ransom his captives. Most of his flotilla was left behind and to their own devices.

The whole situation exploded when Morgan returned to Jamaica. Peace with Spain had again been declared and Morgan along with Modyford were arrested and taken to London as much to mollify Spanish outrage as to actually be punished. Though Modyford spent time in prison, Morgan instead became a favorite at court. When a new Governor of Jamaica was appointed he quickly made Morgan Lieutenant Governor once again, and Morgan returned to his comfortable life as a Caribbean planter and politician.

Before he left England, Morgan successfully sued Exquemelin for the portrayal of him as a duplicitous, sadistic pirate in the Doctor's book Buccaneers of America. To this day there is a deal of debate as to who was actually right, Morgan or Exquemelin. Probably both of them if the truth could actually be known.

Eventually the ravages of a hard and hearty life at sea caught up with Henry Morgan. After spending time as Jamaica's Governor, Morgan died of an unknown illness at the age of 53. He was given a funeral complete with cannon salutes and he is buried on his beloved island of Jamaica. It can be argued that Morgan achieved all the success anyone could hope for and he was certainly ruthless in his ambition. I like to think, though, that over and above all his faults and flaws what he really did was pursue what he loved - power, wealth and the open, blue water. A good life, if you can get it.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! All in all, a pretty sucessful pirate, errr, I mean privateer, if I do say so myself. Morgans' expedition capture the treasure city of Panama would seem to be the inspiration for the part of "The Sea Hawk" where they try to raid the annual mule train of treasure in Panama, don't you think?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Morgan is so complex, as a man and as a force, that my little posts don't do him any kind of justice. When I finish "Empire of Blue Water", we'll talk about him again here at Triple P. And, re: "The Sea Hawk", yes and no. Sabotini, as I understand it, based that on de Grammont's expedition but there are certainly elements of Morgan in the movie.

Pauline said...

Wait, I meant Drake not de Grammont. Can't tell a sea dog from a filibuste today, evidently. Sorry!