King’s Pirate: Henry Morgan’s Attack on Panama part 2

Recommended as Further Reading in Sir Henry Morgan by Don Nardo

Admiral Sir Henry Morgan was a man of his times. He was also the greatest Buccaneer to ever live and probably one of history’s great forgotten commanders. Always jealous of his hard earned reputation he became obsessed with the status he had won at the point of his sword, the unfortunate victims of his lust for position and wealth were the Spanish who thought him a low down pirate, and who were tenuously clinging on to the power they themselves had gained through steel and gold. Morgan fought the Spanish at first because that was what good protestant soldiers did, but their (not unreasonable) view of Buccaneers like him would make him turn his energies more and more to punish them for demeaning and disrespecting the life he had made for himself. It was a career that would get him everything he ever wanted and would lead him from rural Wales to the fabled city of Panama. So what do ye say mates, mayhaps we should learn a bit more about him?

Henry Morgan was born in 1635 in the town of Penkarne or Llanrhymney, but I have no idea how to pronounce that, so if you want to tell you friends about the 17th century’s most famous pirate, just say he was born in in Monmouthshire Wales. His family was a proud one and was related to the Morgan’s of Tredgar, and from an early age Morgan was fed on tales of soldiering and adventure. His two uncles had been soldiers and mercenaries, before and during the great civil wars of the mid 17th Century. One was named Edward and the other Thomas. The former sided with the King and became Captain General (Field Marshal though the rank did not truly exist yet) of Wales, and the latter was General Monk’s right hand man in Parliament. Edward would be killed by the Spanish while leading a raid on Curacao, as Governor of Jamaica no less.

Henry grew up with the Civil War raging around him, a time of turmoil and violence for all of Britain. The Civil War was even more harrowing for people in the 17th century than we often think, because it struck at the heart of core values of belief and loyalty that pervaded everyday life. It should be remembered that back then your loyalty was often separated between the church, which was your link to God, family, the honour of which you were bound to uphold and advance if possible, and the King, who you would give what we know call patriotism, for he represented your country. During the war the King was overturned and families divided between the factions, religion was thought to be threatened because on the one hand the King was anointed of God, and head of the Church, but the Monarch’s decidedly Catholic tendencies were another tug on the loyalties of honest minded people.

Born into all that it is little wonder that Morgan once said that he had left school too young to be anything else but a soldier, and that he was: “More used to the pike than the book”. As a result, young Henry was hot tempered, fiercely proud of his family’s honour and was determined to enhance it and his own personal station to boot. He was quick to fight if provoked and strong enough to back up his words, its almost as if a character out of the Three Musketeer’s had jumped out of Dumas’ book and into Wales, he had the makings of a Welsh D’Artagnan.

Just like Dumas’ creation in 1654 he was still a young nobody, but with a few good contacts to get him started. Morgan’s head was full of thoughts of glory, riches, fighting and betterment, so when word came that Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables were taking a 7,000 man army to seize the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, in the Name of Cromwell and God, Henry leapt at the chance to volunteer.

Oliver Cromwell, 1649 by Robert Walker.
Oliver Cromwell, 1649 by Robert Walker.

On 31 March 1655 after interminable weeks at sea the English fleet landed on the island. The bewildered recruits of the new model army, sweating in the appalling heat, splashed ashore to an alien world that both terrified and beguiled them. No time was wasted and Venables pushed his army into the jungle as soon as possible, the Spanish however were waiting for them.

William Penn by Lely.
William Penn by Lely.

The English were unnerved by the sounds of the almost primeval forest, and suffering under the thumb of terrible tropical diseases. Nevertheless they approached the city of Santo Domingo in conventional formation, hoping for an easy victory. But as Venables’ wife said, it was a “Wicked” army, hastily gathered and badly equipped. Rows of bleached red wool, and gleaming steel, officers to the front and flags flying in the centre but no artillery had been landed and little heart for the fight. Feeling sure the town could not withstand a determined assault Venables hurled his men against the walls on the 17th of April.

Spanish Infantry and militia “As harsh and hard as the country that bore them” as Perez Reverte might have written, knelt behind the walls. Blowing on slow matches clutched between fingers that where damp from the heat, they awaited the order to fire as Catholic priests stalked the catwalks, leading their fighting men in prayer.

Having had Indulgences placed around their necks, those descendants of the veterans of the conquistadores, knew that if they died fighting the heretic English, they would go straight to Heaven. The battle was predictably one sided as highly motivated Spanish Infantry, behind strong positions, and used to the climate, crossed themselves and piously and calmly shot the attacking waves of starving, demoralised, redcoats to pieces crying out patriotic slogans like “Por Santiago y Espana! Todo por Espana! Viva el Rey!”. The story was the same on the 25th and General Venables, ill since arriving on the island blamed the cowardice of his men. The young Henry Morgan was one of these unfortunate’s who, having been routed at Santo Domingo, then had to suffer through during the twenty days of the Hispaniola campaign, and the subsequent retreat to the safety of the ships. It had been his first taste of fighting and it was not an impressive start to his military career, as he watched the shore diminish he knew that 2,000 of the 7,000 men who had landed would not be coming back.

English Infantry, mid 1600s
English Infantry, mid 1600s

Little is known of Morgan during this time but these hardships would slowly shape him into a hardy and robust campaigner. Now back aboard the ships, Venables no doubt rued that he had not followed Penn’s wise advice not to take the Spanish bull by the horns, and the two tried to hash out some sort of plan of action. They decided they could not return to England empty handed and face Cromwell’s wrath, so they instead sailed down from Hispaniola, through the Windward Passage, until the lookouts on the mastheads spotted the blue mountains of Jamaica in the distance.

Penn and Gage had decided to take the island and put a spin on their failure. The name Jamaica, comes from an Arawak word xaymaca (land of wood and water), and at one point had been the home of man eating Carib indian’s, who inhabited the jungles of the island; having decimated the original inhabitants years before. The island is roughly 146 miles long by 51 miles wide at its widest point and was covered in thick palm forest. The famed Blue mountains, sometimes wreathed in a silver blue haze, rise 7,400 feet above the sea. Christopher Columbus (reeling from seeing the graves of massacred settlers that he had left behind on Hispaniola) called it “The fairest Island eyes have beheld” and when the English came the Spanish maintained a small garrison there. Penn landed troops on the 10th May and the next day the small capitol was taken.

1670 map of Jamaica
1670 map of Jamaica

Morgan would have found what they called Cagway a dirty whitewashed misery of a town. Dirty and Popish the place was sacked, but apart from being aesthetically undesirable it was also a desolate and dangerous frontier town. The jungle of Jamaica was no more welcoming to the English than that of Hispaniola and it was just as unhealthy. Added to this where the Spaniards who fled to the woods, the Carib Indians, and Maroons, the latter where bloodthirsty escaped slaves who lived in clans in the mountains and descended to kill white men, in unusual and disturbing ways.

In the following years Morgan is known to have contributed his sword in raids on the Spanish main, or the coast of South America, and was present on the last two of the raids carried out by Christopher Myngs. In 1662 he was made a captain of a ship, with a commission from the Governor of Jamaica, suggesting that the fiery Welshman was not wrong in his assumption that the Pike was a better in his hand than the book.

Christopher Myngs by Lely.
Christopher Myngs by Lely.

This point is reinforced by the fact that he led his first raid the following year. Facing enormous opposition through faulty intelligence and bad luck he nevertheless, through sheer force of will and personality, led his Buccaneers and ner-do-well soldiers to victory during an overland march to sack and plunder Villahermosa.

It was a raid that would last almost a year, deep in the cradle of the Gulf of Mexico, and it taught him the art of command and that he was capable of doing what seemed impossible. It also made his name quite famous. Now men who had served under him would tell of how he had led from the front, and shared their hardships, while bringing them to victory, and to loot, and there was nothing dearer to a 17th century soldier’s heart than loot.

Sacking a Treasure Port by Howard Pyle
Sacking a Treasure Port by Howard Pyle

From then on led a steadily growing following (for Buccaneers were always drawn to lucky captains), to plunder Gran Granada in 1665, and continued in his humbling of Spain until he returned to Port Royal, (The new name for Cagway since 1660 and the restoration of the Stuarts). He was now a soldier of promise, with a reputation that would guarantee a good turnout of men for any venture he might choose to embark upon. It was only a matter of time before he decided to push his seemingly infinite luck further, and by know most knew that luck, plus Morgan generally equalled allot of money. Therefore it was no surprise when at the age of thirty two he was made Admiral of the Brethren of the Coast.

Just settled in his new post, in 1668 Morgan proposed to assemble a force to attack Portobello, the reasons for this were simple enough, it was the port from which the Spanish treasure flota loaded up with silver and gold for its annual voyage to Seville. For most of the year the place was a barren shanty town, situated on low swampy ground that looked onto a natural anchorage, that at low tide revealed an unhealthy flat of glistening mud that exuded noisome vapours and made the place rife with disease. But when the treasure convoys of long suffering mules arrived from Peru with their burdens of Silver mined from the mountain of Potosi, it became a boomtown.

Merchants, thieves, traders and all the dross that a old west gold rush would have attracted, descended on the place, this was a tradition that went back to the days of Sir Francis Drake, who had tried no less than three times to take the convoy before he finally succeeded. For this reason this purgatory on earth was guarded by two giant forts, with another being built to pound any admiral that dared try its hand and imitate El Draque, to matchsticks.

To Morgan nothing could have been dearer to his patriotically warped heart, than to seize this vital artery of the King of Spain. In July twelve small ships dropped anchor at the bay of Boca del Torro to the West of Portobello. Their heavily armed crews quickly slipped into canoes and made for the shore and then marched into the jungle heading down a circuitous route that would lead them to Portobello. A swift march over the mountains was enough to catch the Spaniards on the hop and bundle the surprised garrisons back into their castles. By the end of the 11th of July the town was in Morgan’s hands.

Henry Morgan
Henry Morgan

On the 12th the castles of San Geronimo and Santiago fell to daring escalades and on the 13th he took the half completed Fort san Philippe. Far away, the Governor of Panama heard of the disaster and quickly sent 800 men to retake the town but his men were dogged by disease and the unforgiving Central American Jungle. They arrived at the town to feel the sting of the Buccaneers long Muskets, and on the 3rd of August a ransom for Portobello was sent out, Morgan, rightly pleased with himself, sailed away from the treasure port with the richest haul the Spanish Main had ever seen. His reputation as the most feared and deadly Buccaneer in the West Indies was now dramatically confirmed.

The most important thing about Morgan was his need to be recognised as a gentleman soldier, despite being to all intents and purposes a pirate. People of the 17th century, especially military men where always keen to give the impression that they deserved respect, especially if they weren’t very well off, or from the gentry as Morgan was.

His career of pillage and violence can be traced back to his desire to affirm his position in the eyes of others. Henry Morgan was a man to respect and to take notice of, he was a loyal soldier of the Commonwealth and then later on, of the King and as a loyal soldier he was therefore a gentleman, and woe betide whomsoever told him otherwise, or gave cause for others to doubt it. So when the Spanish, who had no cause to see him other than as a murdering pirate, told him so, he took it very badly indeed.

See ye later for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.

See part 1 here.
See part 2 here.

0 Replies to “King’s Pirate: Henry Morgan’s Attack on Panama part 2”

  1. as ever an excellent article from adventures in historyland, keep them coming.

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