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  • Writer's pictureSarah Taylor

Who doesn't love a great pirate story?

Sir Henry Morgan: Indentured Servant, Solider, Prisoner, Governor

Most people associate Henry Morgan with the Jamaican rum but Captain Morgans story did not begin in Jamaica. He is but one of many Pirates/Buccaneers whose story includes Barbados in their journey. If you are interested in learning a bit about the Buccaneer King's story I invite you to read on.

Henry Morgan born in 1635 and died in 1688 was a Welsh Admiral and privateer who made a name for his activities in the Caribbean. He was one of the most notorious and successful privateers from Wales, and one of the most dangerous pirates who worked in the Spanish Main.

As young boy he was sent from Bristol, England to the island of Barbados as an indentured servant. This was a form of white slavery which was widely used at that time. Supposedly indentured servants were to work for approximately seven years and then be granted their freedom to pursue their own careers. Many holders of these servants tried to circumvent the English law by various means so that the servant would spend a longer time working for little or wages.

Morgan's freedom came when in 1654 Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, then ruler of England, sent a large invasion force to the West Indies with the intention of capturing Hispaniola (Known as the Pearl of the Antilles) from the Spanish. Many indentured servants took up the offer to receive their freedom by becoming soldiers to serve in the attack on Hispaniola. These soldiers were called "Cabbage Stalk Soldiers and given very little training.

This fleet sailed for Santo Domingo on March 31st 1655. The invasion was not a successful one. Many of the cabbage stalk soldiers deserted the sip in Hispaniola, fleeing when the Spanish attacked. It is said many of the deserters went on to be Buccaneers in Hispaniola stealing cattle from the hillsides and barbecuing them in pits on the beaches. The commanders did not want to return to England without some success, so they invaded the smaller Spanish colony of Jamaica and took it over. A bit of trivia for you, the word buccaneer and barbecue are derived from a Amerindian word buccan, the name for a wooden framework or hurdle on which meat was slow-roasted or smoked over a fire

Due to illness among the soldiers left guarding this new English colony, Cromwell recruited persons to settle there by offering them 30 free acres of land. Later King Charles II offered letters of marque to privateers using Jamaica (Port Royal) as a base. These privateers became the English "naval protection" force for the Island.

The British government sort of closed their eyes to the privateers' exploits as it needed the privateers in the area to protect its land holdings. In fact, the Governor of Jamaica was usually given a cut of the booty the privateers gained. Henry Morgan did not go to sea until sometime between his twentieth and thirtieth birthdays. His early sea exploits have not been chronicled so little is known about this phase of his life. He did have command of his own ship by 1666. He led raids against Puerto Principe and Porto Bello. Port Bello was very brutal and involved rape, torture, and murder.

Attacking Panama

In late 1670 Morgan sailed for Panama with a fleet of thirty-five small ships and over two thousand English and French privateers. It was the largest force of privateers brought together for one venture, and it was big -- the sack of Panama, then considered the wealthiest city in the New World.

The attack was difficult because of the city's location -- on the far side of a mountainous, jungle-covered isthmus. The opening move involved reducing a Spanish fortress at the mouth of the Chagres River. In a few days the buccaneers had carried the fort, but at the expense of one hundred dead and many wounded. They then began a grueling march through the thick jungle to the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama. Morgan had planned to feed his small army with stores of food captured from the Spanish or foraged from the jungle. However, the retreating Spaniards set fire to all provisions before they retreated. After a few days Morgan's men were reduced eating leather, leaves, and tree bark. Malaria and yellow fever delibeted many of the men. Snakes, mosquitos, ticks, alligators, and insects tormented them. Men sank chest deep into foul swamps, hacked through thick undergrowth with cutlasses, and suffered occassional musket fire from Spanish snipers. A few men died from poison arrows fired from natives.

After eight days, Morgan's drained force camped within sight of Panama City. The next day Spanish army marched out to meet them on the plain. The Spanish governor, Don Guzman, had 2000 infantry and 500 calvary; however, most of the infantry were slaves or ill-trained militia. The governor's secret weapon, by which he set much store, was a herd of several hundred head of cattle, which he planned to have driven through English lines during the battle. Then, his forces would then swoop down to mop up the trampled buccaneers.

The battle proved short. The governor first ordered the calvary to make an ill-advised frontal attack on the buccaneeers. A couple salvos from the English and French muskets decimated the charge and the attack collapsed. The infantry put up half-hearted resistance until a detachment of Morgan's men appeared over a small hill and attacked their flank. The famed cattle scattered in all directions and soon every Spaniard was running for his life. I can just picture this taking place, every time I think of this story it plays like a movie in my brain and I long for the day someone smart enough comes long to make a movie about it. Come on aren't these things just begging for it to be a movie; slave, soldier, battles, pirates, natives with blow guns in a jungle, treasure and being chased by cattle.... all that's missing is a love story and I am sure there must have been one.

Morgan entered Panama with his half-starved men waving banners and blowing horns. The city was set ablaze by the Spaniards (or by the privateers themselves accidently) and burned down around them. Warehouses full of silk, spices and other riches brought from Spain's colonies in the Pacific were destroyed in the blaze. Morgan's force camped in the smoldering ashes for weeks, torturing captives to find the whereabouts of treasure they may have hidden away, and sending expeditions out into the surrounding countryside in search of fleeing citizens and their loot.

The Spanish had plenty warning of Morgan's approach and the takings from the attack were far less than anticipated. Most of the wealthier citizens had long since collected their valuables and disappeared. On the long march back to their ships the men grew mutinous as word spread that each sailor's share would amount to less than 200 pieces of eight. Rather than try to allay them, Morgan wisely took his cut of the loot aboard his ship and sailed for Port Royal, leaving a bloodthirsty mob of buccaneers behind.

Later Life

Spain's reaction to the sack of Panama was to threaten war, and England's King Charles II made a show of having both Morgan and Jamaica's governor arrested and brought back to England. They lived comfortably in the Tower of London until the furor had died down. Charles II then knighted Henry for his deeds and sent him back to Jamaica as lieutenant-governor.

Morgan never sailed again. He spent the rest of his life in Port Royal. He died there in 1688.

Centuries later he became the figurehead for The Captain Morgan Rum Company in Jamacia

Ho! Henry Morgan sails today

To harry the Spanish Main,

With a pretty bill for the Dons to pay

Ere he comes back again.

Him cheat him friend of his last guinea,

Him kill both friar and priest - O dear!

Him cut de t'roat of piccaninny,

Bloody, bloody buccaneer.

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