Today marks the 322nd anniversary of the death of one of the great names in pirate history: Henry Morgan. After a life full of enough swashbuckling to fill ten Errol Flynn movies, a near-prison experience in Restoration London followed by the gratitude of Charles II and a stint as a pirate hunter and Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, the old buccaneer finally succumbed. And, in large part, he succumbed to his buccaneer lifestyle.
Once he was unceremoniously kicked off the colonial council by old enemies, Henry Morgan retired ostensibly to tend to his four sugar plantations in Elizabeth County. In fact he returned to the life he had always led – late nights at cards and hard drinking with some of his old cronies from the days of Portobello and Panama. The only thing missing was command of an army of freebooters aboard a flotilla of ships and the promise of yet more booty.
When, in 1687, the new Governor of Jamaica arrived on her shores, he brought with him a physician who would soon be looking after the former Lieutenant Governor. Hans Sloane, a young doctor and naturalist along the order of Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin, had already successfully treated members of the Royal Family when he signed up with the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle. The Duke, a notorious Restoration rake who had shown Morgan around the seedier delights of London a few years before, was quite literally dying of sexual excess. His wife, the former Lady Cavendish, needed a physician as well. Though not necessarily insane – as yet – she was certainly a giddy shopaholic who could not help but catch her husband’s syphilis and eventually languish in the backwoods of Jamaica.
Though Sloane certainly had his work cut out for him with the Albemarles, he took Henry Morgan on as a patient as well. Not long after his arrival, the doctor began keeping notes on his new charge. He wrote of Morgan as:
… sallow-coloured, his eyes a little yellowish and belly jutting out… He had a… roaching to vomit every morning and generally a small looseness attending him and withal is much given to drinking…
Sloane noted that, though Morgan had constant diarrhea, he could not urinate and that he had enormous trouble sleeping. Purging was prescribed along with Madeira wine (rather than the almost perpetual flow of rum that went down the patient’s throat), “tops of centaury” and bleeding.
Morgan was in a bad way. He was uncomfortable all the time except, of course, when drunk. He was also a terrible patient. He refused to listen to Sloane’s advice and after a few months he abandoned the young doctor all together for a local quack. The new “doctor” called Morgan’s problem, rather colorfully, “timpani” meaning an over-abundance of “wind in the belly”. How Morgan must have delighted in returning to his friends and his rum without having to listen to that peevish puppy Sloane yapping after him all the time.
But things only got worse. Morgan’s belly distended to the point that his tailor could not make him a waistcoat or coat that would button over it. He could not walk without a cane, and then only very short distances – usually from his hammock to the rum bottle and back again. Things looked bleak but the stubborn leader of hundreds of buccaneers would not give up the very thing that we know today was killing him.
Finally, perhaps on the insistence of his cousin/wife Mary Elizabeth Morgan, Henry was examined by an African doctor who looked after many of Morgan’s own slaves. This physician prescribed clay plasters to draw out the festering waters in his master’s body. Morgan was also treated with urine enemas (the historical record doesn’t tell us what species of animal provided the contents of this treatment but it is safe to say that it wasn’t Henry’s own). In the end, these treatments failed as well. In fact, Morgan complained that the enemas gave him a bad cough.
With no other medicine to turn to, and no intention of giving up his rum, Henry Morgan finally died. The cause of his death was most probably cirrhosis of the liver. He passed away at 11:00 in the morning, August 25, 1688. He was 53 years old. Morgan lay in state in a lead lined coffin at the Governor’s house until his funeral the following day. Interestingly, Albemare issued an amnesty to any pirate who wished to attend Morgan’s funeral. Men that Morgan as Lieutenant Governor would have gleefully hanged shuffled past his coffin and paid their respects. Or muttered their lingering hatred depending on the man.
Henry Morgan’s passing marked the beginning of the end for the great days of the buccaneers. With the ports of Tortuga and Petit Goave now closed to them, men would continue to use Port Royal and its surrounding area as a pirating port for only four more years. In June of 1692, cataclysmic natural disaster would do what even the death of Morgan could not. But that is another story for another time.