Kings Pirate: Henry Morgan’s Attack on Panama part 1

Recommended as Further Reading in Sir Henry Morgan by Don Nardo. 

Come on lets face it. We’re all suckers for a good Swashbuckler, corny or not, accurate or completely bonkers there is a huge soft spot for the daring do of the past. Give us a couple of big ships with allot of cannons, give us a jolly roger and a yo ho ho, give us cutlasses, rapiers and baggy shirts and you’re set for a good time.

I’m no different, as I have found that the real life adventures of these people were no less exciting or colourful. Indeed though in some parts those old fashioned pirate movies that people laugh at all the time, are sometimes closer to the truth than they are given credit for, I have never seen the reality to be a let down. So mateys, sign aboard my good ship and lets set sail with the greatest Buccaneer ever to lift a bottle of rum (a thing he did so frequently there’s even a brand named after him), a man who would have sent all the varying Hollywood pirates scurrying for their mamma’s – the notorious Welsh admiral of the brethren of the coast, Sir Henry Morgan. Following him to the fabled city of Panama in what was to prove the last of the Great Buccaneer raids, and what would prove one of the inspirations for the Golden Age of Piracy, Arrrrrr (Or whatever).

The beginnings of the great pirate menace in the Caribbean is a very long list of dangerous precedents created by governments who needed quick fixes to immediate problems. The pirates were only too glad to take advantage of them. Now I could never really stand books that were weighed down with politics, “For heavens sake get to the exciting part” I would inwardly scream, and I still tend towards an innate dislike of overly dry histories, even though I can now tolerate them more. So in sympathy for those feelings I will make this brief for the story of the Golden Age, in fact, does not start with pirates and buccaneers but with Popes and Kings.

Pope Alexander VI
Pope Alexander VI

In 1493, a Papal Bull bearing the signature of Pope Alexander VI prevented a war between Spain and Portugal. For centuries the Popes of Rome had acted as peacemakers and power brokers between the kingdoms of Europe, so this latest success was all in a days work for Gods point man on earth.

Its consequences were far reaching. Today from Mexico to Argentina the people speak Spanish but in Brazil they speak Portuguese. It is all down to the Inter Caetera Bull of 25 September 1493, and the Treaty of Tordesillas, the year before when a line was drawn across the world.

It was drawn because of two men. One was an Italian serving Spain, called Christopher Columbus, the other; a Portuguese man named Bartolomeo Diaz who was serving his own King, and the new world that they had found.

Discovering The New World
Discovering the New Word

It didn’t take a genius to see that if safeguards were not put in place Spain and Portugal would soon be at each others throats over their new conquests. And so at the advice of his Chancery the Pope decided on a very succinct and logical solution.
The judgement of Solomon was to be reversed, the baby, in this case the new world, would indeed be cut in half. A preliminary line was drawn to the west of the Cape Verde Islands in 1492 and a year later, on the 7th of June 1493, the Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up between King Ferdinand II of Spain and John II of Portugal. After a judicious amendment in which it was agreed to re-draw the line some 200 leagues further west (so as to give the Portuguese Carrack’s sea room) the treaty was signed and sealed. The newly discovered lands to the west would be split between the two great exploring powers and God help all trespassers.

The significance of Pope Alexander’s Bull of 1493 assured the descendants of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella full rights to the new land west of the Atlantic, and forbid anyone from other nations to cross the line for trade, or any other reason whatsoever regardless of rank birth or estate.
The Spanish took it so seriously that an embargo was put on all the nations of Europe banning non Catholics from America. The Line had been drawn by the Pope and the Spanish had added the full stop.

The Spanish grip on the trade of the new world proved tight, but loopholes began to appear when the Indians that were hitherto mining the fabulous wealth of the Peruvian silver mountain at Potosi, proved unforgivably susceptible to European diseases. In the year 1576 almost 50% died and replacements had to be found. Spanish Comquistadores couldn’t do it or they would fall foul to El deshonor de trabajo, the dishonour of work. The answer came from the Portuguese who’s West African colonies gave up large amounts of strong black slaves (usually captured in inter tribal fighting and sold to the Europeans). Antonio de Herrera, an expert on the subject, reported that these fine specimens would work as hard as four Indians and only died when they were hanged. Apostle to the Indians, Fra Las Casas who was a pioneer of human rights for Indians misguidedly, appealed to the Emperor, Charles V, for the import of twelve African slaves for every colonist and thus reduce the burden on his Indian flock. The Emperor agreed and entrusted a friend the task of importing 5,000 slaves a year to fill the gaps. But the he sub contracted a Genoese Syndicate, which set the dangerous precedent of non Spaniards (though they were still catholic) trading in the new world.

In 1551 the French and Spanish gathered their allies and went to war. The goal was Italy and domination of European affairs. After the Spanish victory at St Quentin in 1557, the tide turned in favour of the King of Spain, Phillip the II, and in 1559 ambassadors from the warring sides met at Cateau Cabresis to make peace which left Spain in control of Italy. In addition to this, they also settled the matter of war in the west Indies. French settlers in Florida had been wiped out by the Spanish and there had been reprisals. In a verbal agreement the two sides decided on an extraordinary measure. Once past the meridian of the Canaries, and south of the Tropic of Cancer, ships could not claim the protection of their sovereigns if attacked, and would sail at their peril, essentially they put up a car park sign saying that valuables are left at their own risk. No hostile action by any power to the west of the line of demarcation could cause a war in Europe, and vice versa, there would be in contemporary parlance “No peace beyond the line.”

What happened next was that a man named John Hawkins, an English sailor and adventurer, decided to take advantage of the slave trade loophole created by the mortality rate of the Indians. He put together a syndicate to finance a slave trading mission to the West Indies. England (and France and most other countries) envied Spain’s wealth and were resentful of her monopoly of Caribbean trade. Hawkins jumped on the chance to get in on the action, not seriously considering that the Spanish merchants might resist the lure of his merchandise, and impose the ban on foreigners trading across the line. It is also kind of interesting that the Spanish were so naïve that they thought that Protestant traders would abide by a Papal law. In the end Hawkins made two successful trips (The first 1555-1563, the second 1564-1565) before embarking on the disastrous third in 1567. The Spanish were on to him by now and this time his small fleet barely escaped destruction and capture in battle. They only just survuved starvation on the harrowing return journey which saw them return to England almost two years later in 1569.

John Hawkins
John Hawkins

This lesson was not taken in the best of spirits, especially by Hawkins’ young cousin, who at that time was a young officer serving in the expedition, named Francis Drake. Drake let his experiences fuel a hatred for the Spanish that would last his entire life. In the course of his career he became so feared by the Spanish that from Porto Bello to Cadiz, mothers would chide their children to be good and go to bed on time or “El Draque will come and get you”.

Francis Drake
Francis Drake

I am going on about this stuff because, as you will see as we continue, it formed an important part of Henry Morgan’s mindset and influenced his actions in a dramatic way.

In the days of Queen Elizabeth piracy was not yet a profession to be looked upon as dishonourable, rather it was a way to further the interests of the Queen and help England gain a footing upon the world stage. Elizabeth ruled a burgeoning nation, eager to expand through maritime trade; her pirates weren’t low scurvy dregs of humanity but heroes worthy of praise and esteem. In essence the Spanish Conquistadores were little different, and since Spain wouldn’t share their good fortune, the English felt they had no other resort but to force them to, and they did this in fine style. In the end it was a strategy that worked. Not only did it bring in wealth but it also trained sailors to a high degree of professionalism and toughness. and brought things to a head with England’s great rival, Spain, and by the time war was officially declared Elizabeth could call on a very experienced crew of captains with which to establish her authority as a ruler.

The exploits of men like Drake and Hawkins and the other English sea dogs of the Elizabethan era were passed down into maritime legend. Just as today the pirates of the 18th century were glossed with the brush of glamour so to where Elizabeth’s pirates by the generations that followed them, and it was a stigma that stuck. It also left the dangerous precedent of showing how a small but determined parcel of men could grapple a giant like Spain, win, and get rich in the process.

I’ll get down to Henry Morgan soon. Promise!


See part 2 here.
See part 3 here.

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