Henry Morgan, Prince of Pirates
A COUNTRY boy, son of a Welsh farmer, was wandering about the docks of Bristol, England, staring at the odd waterfront sights, when he was kidnapped and carried aboard a ship bound for the West Indies. He was taken to Barbadoes and there sold to a planter as a slave.
The boy was Henry Morgan. He began his career as a penniless, ill-treated servant. By sheer villainy he rose to wealth and rank. Some writers say he ended his life in misery.
Central America and much of the neighboring territory were under Spanish rule. Greedy governors and heartless soldiers wrung vast treasure from the Indians and in other ways amassed untold fortunes for themselves and for Spain. Galleons would come from Europe with provisions, clothing, etc., and go home laden with precious metals and gems. Of course, these treasure ships attracted pirates as sugar attracts flies. And the Spanish Government kept powerful fortresses and warships in the New World to protect their wealth. The clash between Spain and the buccaneers was everlasting.
Image from the Smithsonian‘s Ocean Portal
The word “buccaneer” means “a drier of beef.” The buccaneers used to make a living by butchering and selling wild cattle, until the local Spaniards made life unpleasant for them. Then they took to the sea and proceded to revenge themselves upon their tormentors by looting every treasure they could lay hands on. They were not, at first, common pirates, though “pirate” and “buccaneer” came afterward to mean much the same thing.
Morgan, escaping from slavery, fled to the island of Jamaica. There he joined a crew of buccaneers. By genius and cruel cunning he quickly became their captain. Then he joined his crew to that of a powerful buccaneer who called himself “Admiral” Mansfield. Mansfield soon afterward was killed; and Morgan was at the head of all the neighboring freebooters. His real life-work had begun.
He persuaded some of his companions not to throw away every penny of their gains on drink, gambling and finery, as had been their custom, but to save it for the expenses of a great expedition. Thus he quickly found himself in charge of the largest, strongest pirate fleet ever seen in the Spanish Main. The Spaniards had grown overcautious about risking their treasure ships in such dangerous waters. So Morgan decided to attack them by land. He swooped down on one rich fortified town after another, destroying its defenders or holding them for heavy ransom and seizing their treasure. In this way he soon became very rich.
Panama was the foremost treasure city in Spain’s New World possessions. It was strongly fortified and lay far off the pirates’ track. To reach it miles of poisonous jungle and Indian-infested forests must be passed. The place was deemed safe and there many millions of dollars’ worth of gold and jewels were kept. The hope of such wondrous plunder was enough to make Morgan try to do what every one had declared impossible. He turned from ravaging Cuba and the American mainland, and on Jan. 9, 1670, set out on the terrible river-and-jungle trip to Panama.
The Spaniards had word of his coming. All food supplies were removed from the route. The forests were alive with hostile savages. The hardy buccaneers endured daily starvation, fever and battle, but pushed on fearlessly until they came before the walls of the treasure city, Panama. There they thrashed a Spanish and Indian force more than three times the size of their own and rushed into the city. The mass of treasure was seized, the town burned to the ground and hundreds of captives held for ransom. Each buccaneer received only about $200 worth of plunder. Morgan kept the bulk of the hoard for himself.
Image of Henry Morgan in Panama City – also from the Ocean Portal
As a feat of daring and of military genius, Morgan’s dash to Panama excited the wonder of the world. Morgan, however, was summoned to England to give account of his crimes. He went without fear. For, on England’s throne sat King Charles II — as great a blackguard as Morgan himself. The pirate chief arrived in London, had a private interview with the King, and, it is said, slipped a goodly share of his Panama winnings into the royal pocket. Thereupon, instead of being punished, he was made a knight and was sent back to the West Indies as Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica and commander-in-chief of the British forces there. He married and lived a life of luxurious ease, sternly condemning to death those of his old comrades who were brought before him on piracy charges, and playing the rich aristocrat to perfection. He died in 1668 at the age of fifty-three.
The Gettysburg Times (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) Jun 17, 1912