Clearly Morgan saw himself as a patriot, out to defend the English Crown against the depredations of its most deadly enemy, Spain. He sailed as a privateer. But his behavior was at times indistinguishable from that of the most mercenary pirate. For example, when returning from his successful assault on the city of Panama in I67I, he left most of his faithful followers behind in Chagres, without ships or food, while he slipped off in the night with most of the booty to Jamaica.
Morgan served his apprenticeship with Sir Christopher Mings, an intrepid seaman who had commanded a ship during the invasion of Jamaica. Returning to Jamaica Morgan entered into partnership with the buccancers Jackman and Morris, successfully plundered the coast of present day Central America, and returned once more a wealthy and highly regarded man.
In 1668, when he was 33 years old, Morgan was commissioned by the Jamaican government to gather together a force of privateers. Spain and England were again at war, and Morgan was made admiral of the fleet. His first sortie was an attack on the Cuban city of Puerto Principe. Unfortunately, the Spanish got wind of his plans and managed to hide most of their treasure. The attack netted him the negligible sum of 50,000 pieces of eight.
His next move proved more rewarding. He sailed for Portobello, a collection point for Spanish treasure on the Caribbean coast of Panama. With a combination of guile and courage he and his men took the city and spent 31 days in unrestrained looting. Warned by the local Indians, who hated the Spaniards, he was able to set an ambush for an expeditionary force that was sent overland to retake the town. He returned to Jamaica with spoils valued at more than 100,000 pounds and was met with general rejoicing. Although Morgan was becoming rich, his buccaneer companions were not faring nearly so well. At their urging he put to sea again with a motley fleet of twelve vessels. His flagship was a handsome frigate called the Oxford.
One evening when Morgan was hosting a banquet for all the captains of his fleet, a sudden explosion gutted the ship. Practically the entire crew was killed. By a stroke of good luck Morgan and a few of his dinner guests survived. Apparently unruffled by his close escape from death, Morgan seized a fine ship, the Cour Volant, from a French pirate, made her his own flagship, and christened her the Satisfaction. He then set off to raid the port of Maracaibo on the Gulf of Venezuela. Unknown to him, the Spanish had recently fortified the area. Once again his ability to rethink his strategy according to conditions on the ground served him well. He attacked by land and took the fort, and over the course of the next two months succeeded in divesting the inhabitants of almost 50,000 pounds worth of silver and jewels.
By now the Spanish fleet was out to get him. Three warships lay at the mouth of the only passage out of the gulf. Decisively out-gunned, Morgan sent a ship right at the Spanish flagship, the Magdalen. The admiral confident in his superiority let it approach and prepared to board it, when all at once it exploded. The flames spread quickly to the Magdaler', and Morgan made his way into the channel and from there to a triumphant return to Jamaica. Now Morgan began preparations for what was to be the greatest coup of his career the sacking of Panama. Morgan's first action in the raid was to land a party that took the Castle of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River. Morgan left a strong garrison there to cover his retreat and on January 9, 1671 pushed on up the river with 1,400 men in a fleet of canoes.
The journey across the isthmus, through the tropical jungle, was very hard on the men, particularly as they, expecting to find provisions to supply their needs along the way, had carried no food with them. They practically starved until the sixth day, when they stumbled across a barn full of maize that the fleeing Spanish had neglected to destroy. On the evening of the ninth day a scout reported he had seen the steeple of a church in Panama. Morgan, with that touch of genius that so often brought him success, attacked the city from a direction the Spanish had not thought possible, so their guns were all placed where they were useless. They were compelled to do just what the buccaneer leader wanted them to do namely, to come out of their fortifications and fight him in the open.
The battle raged fiercely for two hours between the brave Spanish defenders and the equally brave but nearly exhausted buccaneers. When at last the Spanish turned and ran, the buccaneers were too tired to immediately follow up their success. But after a brief rest they advanced, and at the end of three hours of street fighting the city was theirs. The first thing Morgan now did was to assemble all his men and strictly forbid them to drink any wine, telling them that he had secret information that the wine had been poisoned by the Spanish before they left the city. This was, of course, a scheme of Morgan's to stop his men from becoming drunk, when they would be at the mercy of the enemy should they return to attempt to retake the city. Morgan now set about plundering the city, a large part of which was burnt to the ground, though whether this was done on his orders or by the fleeing Spanish governor has never been established.
After three weeks the buccaneers started back on their journey to San Lorenzo, with a troop of 200 pack mules laden with gold, silver, and goods of all sorts, together with a large number of prisoners. The rearguard of the march was under the command of a relative of the admiral, Colonel Bledry Morgan. On their arrival at Chagres the spoils were divided, amidst a great deal of fighting, and in March 1671, Morgan sailed off to Port Royal, Jamaica, with a few friends and the greater part of the plunder, leaving his followers behind without ships or provisions.
In 1674 he was knighted and returned to Jamaica, this time as lieutenant governor. Morgan was a man of action and a "normal" life ashore proved tiresome to him. We learn from a 1674 report sent home by the governor, Lord Vaughan, that Morgan "frequented the taverns of Port Royal, drinking and gambling in unseemly fashion." But nevertheless the Jamaica assembly voted the lieutenant governor a sum of 600 pounds as a special salary, hardly a sign of disfavor. In 1676 Vaughan brought definite charges against Morgan and another member of the government, Robert Byndloss, of giving aid to certain Jamaican pirates. Morgan made a spirited defense and, no doubt owing largely to his popularity, got off, and in 1678 was granted a commission as captain of a company of 100 men. Morgan did not live long to enjoy his honors. for he died suddenly on August 25, 1688 and he was given a hero's burial at Port Royal.
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This page was last updated Dec 2nd 2010.