Thursday, March 3, 2011

History: About Those Cannon

The big buzz in the piratical world on Tuesday was that archaeologists have found some of Henry Morgan’s guns. This article from, whose title shouts: The REAL pirate of the Caribbean (caps theirs), whizzed around the blogosphere like a speedboat in the Gulf of Aden, loudly proclaiming in the first paragraph that scientists have:

… revealed that six cannons that belonged to the bloodthirsty British pirate Henry Morgan have been recovered from a river in Panama.

It isn’t until five paragraphs into the article that this little morsel of information is revealed: the archaeologists don’t know whose cannon these are. They’re not even sure what century they come from yet. In old fashioned newspaper journalism that’s called “burying”; putting the facts so far back in the article that they don’t detract from the splash of the headline. It’s a time tested tactic since every good newspaper man knows readers usually don’t get past paragraph three. The Brethren, however, are a little less gullible and it seems past time to set the record straight.

Morgan led his famous campaign across the Darien Gap to Panama City in 1671. This was his last great expedition and one that brought him a tremendous amount of wealth. It also put him at odds not only with the British crown (he would eventually be called to England by the Charles II to answer for his egregious attack on an ally city) but also with his vast army of multi-national buccaneers. Some of these last actually sued Morgan after the expedition, saying that he had withheld booty that was rightfully theirs. The march across Panama was itself a heinous misery for everyone involved with men literally boiling and eating their leather munitions sacks in order to stay alive. Morgan’s “success” at Panama is forever tainted by rash decisions, over-the-top cruelty and – in the case of the cannon in question – horrible seamanship.

Stephan Talty, whose book Empire of Blue Water is surely the definitive modern biography of Morgan, describes the incident at Panama’s Chagres River quickly and colorfully:

just below the surface of the water near the river’s mouth was a notorious reef, called Laja. Morgan never saw it. Exquemelin tells us what happened next. Five of the ships, led by Morgan’s Satisfaction,
slammed into the razor-sharp coral, tearing huge holes in their hulls and throwing men into the water. A powerful north wind kept the ships impaled on the reef, raking them over the coral until they were unsalvageable. Morgan had never been much of a sailor, and now he simply moved his men and materiel off the stricken vessels and packed them into the remaining ships. As long as he had men, he could get other ships.

The shipwreck would have led to the loss of cannon, of course, and these may be the guns recently extracted from the Chagres which is south and east of the Panama Canal. The problem with any crowing about that possibility – for now at least – is two fold.

First, the Laja is a horribly dangerous area to this day. The coral reefs that chewed up Morgan’s ships have done the same without discrimination to other buccaneers, pirate and privateers as well as Navy ships, merchants, fishermen and pleasure craft. The number of artifacts in the area is staggering for that very reason and it has become a prime target for illegal treasure hunters. Archaeologists have known about the cannon since 2008 and only brought them out of the water because of the damage being done to them by these poachers.

Second is the complete lack of any evidence that the guns are Morgan’s. While, as the article notes, the “… size and shape of the cannons [sic] appear to be a close match with the characteristics of small iron cannon of the Seventeenth Century” there is no indication that carbon dating or any other reasonable evaluation has been done. The final word for me comes from Tomas Mendizibal, a local archaeologist, in a quote to the LA Times:

Every school kid learns about Morgan’s activities, but we have never seen any of his materials. If these are indeed his cannon, it would be a first.

The guns may very well be Morgan’s given that his is one of the few documented wrecks in the area. If so there is no question that they are worth as much, historically speaking, as any cache of doubloons. But let’s wait and see. The waters hold more secrets than we can ever know.

Header: AP photo from the article: one of the Chagres River cannon being brought to the surface by divers


Capt. John Swallow said...

While the find of the cannon is interesting, Henry Morgan was a second rate Pyrate...and a fourth rate sailor.
If it's Morgan's cannon, it'll be easy to tell...see if it's his ship at the bottom! He sank more of his own fleet than any ten drunken sailors ever did!

The more interesting "Capt. Morgan" story is the one about Capt. William Morgan...and the Masons...and a certain book...and how he "disappeared" and became a Pyrate.

Here's the book

Masonic site here tells the real tale - some of which even the Masons didn't know

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Captain! I can't argue with any point you've made. Thankee indeed for the links!

The entire whirlwind surrounding this is so silly, as you point out. No one will come out and say these are Morgan's cannon - except the press. Plus it's worth noting that Daily Mail is predominantly an entertainment journal and website, accounting for the ridiculous title of the article (gotta get that Disney tie-in).

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Once again, you provide us with the voice of reason when so many others are hyperventillating about this "find"...

On a semi-related subject (well, not really, other than the name) have you seen the new Captain Morgan rum ad campaign?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I'm just trying to point out the facts. And FYI Daily Mail, Morgan was a buccaneer (not a boucanier, however).

And no, I had not seen that. Where to begin...