The Greatest Of The Buccaneers: Sir Henry Morgan

WORLD HISTORY | July 30, 2019

Henry Morgan in action. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Of all of history’s pirates, none have gained more fame or infamy than Sir Henry Morgan. He is best known today for having a popular brand of spiced-rum named after him, but from a historical point of view, he is arguably the most successful of the pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy.

Sir Henry Morgan. Source: (gettyimages.com)


Morgan, along with almost every pirate from this time, would never call himself a pirate. Rather, they used the term buccaneer or more frequently privateer. Let’s get the terminology straight before we delve into Morgan’s story.

Buccaneers were hunters from the islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga who caught wild cattle and boar. They used boucanes, little huts where they prepared their game. Eventually, this became applied to the seafaring corsairs since so many buccaneers took up that trade. The term, “brethren of the coast” was another way that they described themselves.

A privateer is a person who sails a private ship and is formally empowered by a country with a letter of marque to make war on its enemies. Naturally, one country’s privateer is another’s pirate. But the essence is that privateers are working outside the official navy of a given country for profit.

Buccaneer, privateer, or pirate mattered to a person like Morgan who very much cared for his status.  

Port Royal would become synonymous with piracy and sin. It was destroyed in an earthquake in 1692. Source: (Wikimedia)

Early Life

Accounts of Henry Morgan’s life are often full of bias and exaggeration. Of his early life, little is known. He was born in 1635 in Llanrhymney, Wales. Some sources state his father was a farmer, but the full truth of the matter is unknown. What is known is that he arrived in Barbados in the 1650s either as a “private gentleman” or as an indentured servant.

Morgan worked through his indenture and after achieving freedom joined a group of privateers who set up their base at Port Royal in Jamaica, which had been taken by the British from the Spanish in 1655. He then took part in raiding expeditions against the Spanish and Dutch. He amassed a good deal of wealth, invested it in plantations, and in 1666 married his cousin, the daughter of Jamaica’s Deputy Governor.   

Morgan at Porto Bello: this was originally published in Pyle, Howard (December 1888). "Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main". Harper's Magazine. Source: (Wikimedia)

Puerto Principe and Porto Bello

It was through his connections and his wealth that Morgan was given a letter of marque by Sir Thomas Modyford, the Governor of Jamaica to attack the Spanish. In January of 1668, he assembled a large fleet of ten ships and 500 men. He then proceeded to sack Puerto Principe on the island of Cuba in April. After returning to Port Royal, he organized an expedition against the large Spanish city of Porto Bello on the Isthmus of Panama, which he captured in July. From Porto Bello, his men carried away a staggering 250,000 pieces of eight of which a great deal may have been earned by torturing prisoners and blackmailing the Spanish governor that they would burn the city to the ground if he did not pay up.

The next year, Morgan was hungry for more plunder and even though Spain and Britain were not at war, governor Modyford condoned Morgan’s plundering. For Morgan’s part, he had gained a reputation of taking calculating risks that paid off handsomely. 

Another portrait of Sir Henry Morgan. Source: (gettyimages.com)

A New Adventure

In October 1668, Morgan sailed out of Port Royal to Isla Vaca where he amassed 900 men. He and his lieutenants selected the rich city of Cartagena as the next target. Cartagena was a critical city where the Spanish stored gold from Peru before shipping it off to Havana. During the early stages of the new adventure, a magazine of gunpowder was accidentally ignited on Morgan’s flagship, Oxford, destroying it.

Despite the bad omen, the buccaneers sailed toward Cartagena. But it was not to be. Contrary winds made sailing difficult. Slowly Morgan’s fleet of buccaneers peeled away. By the time they reached the Spanish Main, Morgan had lost much of his strength. Instead, they selected a new target: Maracaibo and Gibraltar. It seemed a vulnerable target as demonstrated by the French pirate L'Ollonais’s daring raid just a few years earlier. In fact, Morgan had a man who claimed to have been with the pirate and could lead their ships through the channels into Lake Maracaibo.

Captain Morgan breaking out of Maracaibo. A print from Cassell's History of the United States, by Edmund Ollier, Volume I, Cassell Petter and Galpin, London, c1880. Source: (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)


Morgan managed to take Maracaibo, but there was little wealth to be found there. He then turned to Gibraltar which he took with a landward attack. The residents fled into the jungle while Morgan and his company may have used torture to try to squeeze gold out of the remaining Spaniards. He remained in Gibraltar for five weeks.

When Morgan decided to return to Port Royal, he found that the Spanish had laid a trap at the narrow outlet of Lake Maracaibo to the sea. There were many warships that easily outclassed and outgunned Morgan’s squadron. The Spanish sent word to Morgan that they would let him go if he returned all his booty to them and swear an oath not to attack the Spanish again.

Morgan and his men decided that even though he had a letter of marque, the Spanish would surely hang him as a pirate. They decided to fight. In a desperate action, Morgan fought his way out by using a fire ship that burned the Spanish flagship.

An example of a letter of marque from 1809. Source: (Wikimedia)

A New Commission

When Morgan returned to Port Royal, he found the British government more sympathetic to the Spanish. Modyford was forced to revoke Morgan’s letter of marque and chastise him. Still, Morgan made a pretty penny and invested in plantations on Jamaica, displaying more of his business acumen.

In 1669, relations between Spain and Britain grew hot again with the Spanish sending privateers to harass British ships. In retaliation, Modyford commissioned Morgan to again attack the Spanish.

Henry Morgan Recruiting for the Attack: this was originally published in Pyle, Howard (August–September 1887). "Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main". Harper's Magazine. Source: (Wikimedia)

The Sack of Panama

Morgan’s plan was his most audacious yet. He was going to attack Panama. This was not an easy prospect since the city lay on the Pacific coast. It required an overland march through the jungle.

It is because of Morgan’s incredible reputation of success that he was able to rally about 1,500 men to his cause. This was possibly the largest buccaneer assembly in history. He reached Panama vis a vis the Chagres River then forced his way through the jungle where before the city he met a slightly stronger Spanish force. Morgan, who had more experienced men, used cunning tactics to make short work of the Spanish. The Spanish lost up to 500. Morgan lost 15.

Circa 1666, A portrait of Henry Morgan (1635 - 1688) standing before Panama while his men sacked the city, a crime for which he was tried for in 1672. Source: (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)


The Spanish, however, were forewarned of the attack and when Morgan took Panama he found much of the city in flames and much of the populace gone. Still, he managed to gather may be up to 400,000 pieces of eight in about four weeks. This included slaves and prisoners to be ransomed. But when divided among such a large force, the proceeds were paltry.

There are accusations that Morgan cheated his men of some of the plunder, which may be why the primary biographer of Morgan who was on the Panama expedition, chose to paint such a black picture of him -- accusing him of torturing Spaniards. In fact, Morgan later sued for libel and won. But this did allow an unkind historical picture of him to develop.

Charles II of England. Source: (Wikimedia)

Pirate or Hero?

Upon Morgan’s return to Jamaica, he found that the political situation had changed once again. His actions were seriously hurting the Spanish government which had now mended relations with the British. As a result, Morgan was arrested and returned to England on the orders of Charles II who wanted to placate the Spanish.

But on Morgan’s return to the British Isles, he received a hero’s welcome. He was feted and Charles II knighted him.  

Sir Henry Morgan probably indulged a bit too much in the stuff named after him. Source: (Wikimedia)

Retirement in the Caribean

Morgan would never return to privateering or whatever you may call it. Instead, he returned to Jamaica, now a wealthy landholder and served at times as the Lieutenant Governor. In this position, he authorized the capture of pirates who he urged to step away from the dangerous life that he himself led.

Morgan died on August 25, 1688, probably related to alcohol.  

Tags: Sir Henry Morgan | The Buccaneers

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.