Henry Morgan: The Unusually Successful Privateer

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Pirates

By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

The Welshman Henry Morgan came to Port Royal to make his fortune. He would later become a prisoner in the Tower of London, then a knight, then the lieutenant governor, and briefly, the acting governor of Jamaica. He was also a judge in the Admiralty court. Morgan was protective of his good name once he’d achieved respectability.

A sketch where Henry Morgan is sitting while a prisoner is on the floor with his hands tied around his back. There are several onlookers.
Henry Morgan was a judge and also a lieutenant. (Image: Howard Pyle/Public domain)

A Strategy to Weaken the Enemy

In Morgan’s Day, the English and French governments were essentially encouraging piracy as a strategy toward imperial domination. Anything that weakened the Spanish was good for their trade, and encouraging privateers and pirates was cheap, often profitable, and allowed for some degree of diplomatic deniability. The Spanish home government wasn’t doing very much to protect their colonies.

The seasonal Spanish treasure fleet, or Flota de India, was quite well defended, and for good reason. It brought precious metals, other valuable goods and assorted forms of loot from the New World back to Europe. The actual Spanish outposts, however, were not, nor was there a strong naval presence in American waters unless it was the season for the Flotas

A page from 'the Buccaneers of America' illustrating Henry Morgan while attacking Panama.
Henry Morgan believed that the Spanish were weak but wealthy, so they were worth attacking. (Image: Alexandre Exquemelin/Public domain)

Morgan boasted that the Spanish were “weak and wealthy”, and, as author Peter Earle argues, this assessment may have been all too accurate. Spanish targets were so tempting to the Buccaneers that by the end of the 17th century, “there were so many robbers and so many attacks that the return to effort was often disappointing.”

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Henry Morgan’s Campaigns

In 1688, after an attack of only meager profit in Cuba, the ambitious Morgan proposed sacking the apparently well protected Portobello, the French privateers he’d been partnering with backed off, wanting no part of the dangerous and illegal venture. But Morgan opted to press on regardless and, always adept at managing his men, convinced the English forces to keep following him.

Whatever the actual legality of his actions, Morgan clung to his identity as a privateer and attacked beneath the St. George’s Cross. The unexpected attack began in the dead of night and was quickly successful. When the Buccaneers were stymied by fierce defense at the final fort, Morgan ordered siege ladders and used captured nuns and priests as human shields to transport them, although the Spanish governor ordered the defenders to fire regardless. In any case, Morgan’s forces were victorious.

Morgan, the Charmer

Morgan’s behavior during the occupation of the city is disputed. According to Morgan, he was a paragon of military nobility, so much so that several high-ranked ladies declined to flee the city, “saying they were now prisoners to a person of quality who was more tender of their honors than they doubted to find in the president’s camp among his rude Panama soldiers.” The English government and populists were charmed by his success.

A painting of Henry Morgan destroying the Spanish fleet near Maracaibo
Henry Morgan led all the privateers of the Caribbean In the assault on Maracaibo. (Image: Alexandre-Olivier Exquemelin/Public domain)

Morgan’s next campaign, a daring assault on the coastal city of Maracaibo in modern-day Venezuela, followed a thrilling escape against the odds. The Maracaibo attack was extremely profitable, and required nearly every privateer in the Caribbean to follow Morgan as a course airing admiral in a fleet of nearly 30 ships.

Attack on Panama

Morgan’s final major plans, which were militarily the stuff of legend but disappointing treasure wise, involved a march through the rainforest of the Isthmus of Panama.

Here are accounts of Morgan’s 1671 attack on Panama, in which he is said to have marched 1400 men across the Isthmus, as though the devil were at his back, even though England and Spain were technically no longer at war in the Caribbean. One account of the sacking of Panama City, written by a man named William Fogg, states:

Our party entered the town and found the houses fired by the enemy and all in flame, lodging that night in the churches and monasteries, which were of stone…and lay there a week searching victuals, etc., of which was plenty, but all the goods burnt and the plate conveyed away… After this, our men marched out…and took prisoners every day, but never saw an enemy to face them. In the end, they receive “but 10-pounds-sterling-per-man, and money, and plate, besides negroes, etc.

Showing No Mercy

As for the prisoners brought back from surrounding areas, Morgan’s men “tortured them day by day in an effort to make them disclose where they had hidden their wealth.” The tortures included strappado, a painful form of hanging by the arms; woolding, which was another rope torture, burning and other atrocities and “did not spare the women either.” 

And yet, at least publicly, Morgan did not consider himself a pirate. While his actions often lacked the blessing of the home government, he was ostensibly undertaken in England’s interest, although the healthy dose of profit-minded motivation was impossible to hide. 

Morgan was arrested for his piracy but was not convicted. Morgan was knighted for enriching England through violence and enslavement. The colony on Jamaica was founded upon the enslavement and looting they perpetuated.

Dead Rich

Morgan was no abolitionist, far from it. But he hated the Spanish more than he cared about the profits of distant stakeholders in pro-slavery corporations, looked at another way, he sided with the small, private enslavers over England’s Royal African Company. It was common for buccaneering raids, particularly earlier ones, to enslave non-white people from Spanish settlements. 

Slaves were accounted as a form of booty. When Morgan died in his early fifties, apparently from liver damage, his estate included 122 enslaved black captives, seven enslaved Indian captives and 11 white indentured servants. According to the unscrupulous standards of his plantation based society, then, Morgan was an unusually successful man.

Common Questions about Henry Morgan

Q: How were the British and French governments reacting toward piracy in Morgan’s day?

During Henry Morgan‘s time, the English and French governments encouraged piracy as a strategy for imperial domination. Anything that helped weaken the Spanish was good for their business. Thus, encouraging piracy allowed governments to enjoy some degree of diplomatic denial.

Q: How did Henry Morgan attack the coastal city of Maracaibo?

Henry Morgan used all the privateers in the Caribbean with a fleet of 30 ships to attack Maracaibo, while he himself was the admiral of the attack. This attack proved to be highly lucrative.

Q: What was Morgan’s fate?

Henry Morgan was arrested for piracy but not convicted and later knighted for enriching England through violence and slavery. He eventually died of liver damage in his early fifties. At the time of his death, he was notably wealthy and successful.

Keep Reading
Sir Francis Drake: A Privateer, a Pirate, and a Great Protestant Warrior
Sir Walter Raleigh: An Incorrigible Sea Dog
The Golden Age of Piracy