Privateers & Pirates: Admiral Sir Henry Morgan

Henry Morgan
Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Henry Morgan - Early Life:

Little information exists regarding Henry Morgan's early days. It is believed that he was born around 1635, in either Llanrhymny or Abergavenny, Wales and was the son of local squire Robert Morgan. Two principal stories exist to explain Morgan's arrival in the New World. One states that he traveled to Barbados as an indentured servant and later joined the expedition of General Robert Venables and Admiral William Penn in 1655, to escape his service. The other details how Morgan was recruited by the Venables-Penn expedition at Plymouth in 1654.

In either case, Morgan appears to have taken part in the failed attempt to conquer Hispaniola and the subsequent invasion of Jamaica. Electing to remain in Jamaica, he was soon joined by his uncle, Edward Morgan, who was appointed lieutenant-governor of the island after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. After marrying his uncle's eldest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, later that year, Henry Morgan began sailing in the buccaneer fleets that were employed by the English to attack Spanish settlements. In this new role, he served a captain in the fleet of Christopher Myngs in 1662-1663.

Henry Morgan - Building Reputation:

Having taken part in Myng's successful plundering of Santiago de Cuba and Campeche, Mexico, Morgan returned to sea in late 1663. Sailing with Captain John Morris and three other ships, Morgan looted the provincial capital of Villahermosa. Returning from their raid, they found that their ships had been captured by Spanish patrols. Unperturbed, they captured two Spanish ships and continued their cruise, sacking Trujillo and Granada before returning to Port Royal, Jamaica. In 1665, Jamaican Governor Thomas Modyford Morgan appointed Morgan as vice-admiral of and expedition led by Edward Mansfield and tasked with capturing Curacao. 

Once at sea, much of the expedition's leadership decided that Curacao was not a sufficiently lucrative target and instead set course for the Spanish islands of Providence and Santa Catalina. The expedition captured the islands, but encountered problems when Mansfield was captured and killed by the Spanish. With their leader dead, the buccaneers elected Morgan their admiral. With this success, Modyford began sponsoring a number of Morgan's cruises again the Spanish. In 1667, Modyford dispatched Morgan with ten ships and 500 men to free a number of English prisoners being held in Puerto Principe, Cuba. Landing, his men sacked the city but found little wealth as its inhabitants had been warned of their approach. Freeing the prisoners, Morgan and his men re-embarked and sailing south to Panama in search of greater riches.

Targeting Puerto Bello, a key Spanish center of trade, Morgan and his men came ashore and overwhelmed the garrison before occupying the town. After defeating a Spanish counterattack, he agreed to leave the town after receiving a large ransom. Though he had exceeded his commission, Morgan returned a hero and his exploits were glossed over by Modyford and the Admiralty. Sailing again in January 1669, Morgan descended on the Spanish Main with 900 men with the goal of attacking Cartagena. Later that month, his flagship, Oxford exploded, killing 300 men. With his forces reduced, Morgan felt he lacked the men to take Cartagena and turned east.

Intending to strike Maracaibo, Venezuela, Morgan's force was compelled to capture San Carlos de la Barra Fortress in order to move through the narrow channel approaching the city. Successful, they then attacked Maracaibo but found that the population had largely fled with their valuables. After three weeks of searching for gold, he re-embarked his men before sailing south into Lake Maracaibo and occupying Gibraltar. Spending several weeks ashore, Morgan next sailed north, capturing three Spanish ships before re-entering the Caribbean. As in the past, he was chastised by Modyford upon his return, but not punished. Having established himself as the preeminent buccaneer leader in the Caribbean, Morgan was named commander-in-chief of all warships in Jamaica and given a blanket commission by Modyford to make war against the Spanish.

Henry Morgan - Attack on Panama:

Sailing south in late 1670, Morgan recaptured the island of Santa Catalina on December 15 and twelve days later occupied Chagres Castle in Panama. Advancing up the Chagres River with 1,000 men, he approached the city of Panama on January 18, 1671. Splitting his men into two groups, he ordered one to march through nearby woods to flank the Spanish as the other advanced across open ground. As the 1,500 defenders attacked Morgan's exposed lines, the forces in the woods attacked routing the Spanish. Moving into the city, Morgan captured over 400,000 pieces of eight.

During Morgan's stay, the city was burned however the source of the fire is disputed. Returning to Chagres, Morgan was stunned to learn that peace had been declared between England and Spain. Upon reaching Jamaica, he found that Modyford had been recalled and that orders had been issued for his arrest. On August 4, 1672, Morgan was taken into custody and transported to England. At his trial he was able to prove that he had no knowledge of the treaty and was acquitted. In 1674, Morgan was knighted by King Charles and sent back to Jamaica as lieutenant governor.

Henry Morgan - Later Life:

Arriving in Jamaica, Morgan took up his post under Governor Lord Vaughan. Overseeing the island's defenses, Morgan also further developed his vast sugar plantations. In 1681, Morgan was replaced by his political rival, Sir Thomas Lynch, after falling out of favor with the king. Removed from the Jamaican Council by Lynch in 1683, Morgan was reinstated five years later after his friend Christopher Monck became governor. In declining health for several years, Morgan died on August 25, 1688, renowned as one of the most successful and ruthless privateers ever to sail the Caribbean.

Selected Sources

  • Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 2006
  • Henry Morgan Biography
  • Data Wales: Henry Morgan
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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Privateers & Pirates: Admiral Sir Henry Morgan." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Privateers & Pirates: Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Privateers & Pirates: Admiral Sir Henry Morgan." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).