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Privateering the Oceans of History: The Lore and Allure of Henry Morgan

by Mallory Sweeney

The cascading waves of the sea have a knack for washing up legends on the eroding sands of time.  Perhaps some of the most rogue characters of all time are seafarers–rough around the edges and enriched by the cultivation of bountiful treasures.  In a culture so imbued with “Pirate” tales, it becomes difficult to judge which chronicles will actually hold true.  The most satisfying swashbuckling stories are those taken from lives of historical figures, mostly with a Caribbean flair.  One such figure who constantly reappears is the infamous Sir Henry Morgan.

Captain Morgan, as history has remembered him, consistently blurred the line between crafty business man and cutthroat privateer turned pirate.  But before time could paint the classic picture of Morgan in our minds–a curly black mustache atop an equally curling scowl, an ornate long coat and a broad hat featuring a plume–Hari Morgan was born in 1635, the son of a squire, in the southernmost part of Wales.  The young Morgan came from humble beginnings, taking to the sea at the age of 21, with his first expeditions most likely being to the Spanish colonies of Trujillo and Granada.

Before Morgan was known strictly as a pirate, however, he was predominantly known as a privateer. Privateering, most popular at the height of colonial naval warfare, was the institution of authorizing a private ship through the government, to attack other foreign shipping, exclusively during times of war.  When hired privateers attacked otherwise, one crossed into the bounds of piracy and out of the range of honorable service to one’s country, converting respectable admirals to sea-beaten scallywags.  Morgan, was no exception.

“I must make an admirable name,” the fictionalized Morgan says, in the early portions of John Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold, written in 1926.  Cup of Gold is, at its core a historical fiction, beginning when young Henry meets an ex-pirate in Wales and confesses his dreams of a life of piracy for himself.  In an entertaining coming-of-age fashion (however fictional), the reader experiences Henry being duped into slavery aboard a ship, sold to a Caribbean plantation owner who eventually makes him his head boy and sole heir.

While the real Morgan did live in Jamaica, he was commissioned in 1667 by Sir Thomas Modyford to sack Puerto Principe, which led to the eventual siege of Portobelo, Panama.  Legend again, provides us with gritty details of the Captain, claiming that he and his crew would often use Jesuits and Jesuit priests and human shields during an attack.  The real Morgan frequently did battle with Spain while sailing under Britain’s colors, using his keen intellect to control parts of Cuba, thereby cutting off resources and forcing his enemies’ abandonment of sea campaigns in favor of land battle which were suicide missions, at best.  By 1670, Morgan had convinced the colonial government to proffer him full control of all the ships of war in Jamaica.

Steinbeck, who later voiced his utter dislike of his first work, gives us an equally savvy if not ruthless Morgan, but, again, uses the genre of fiction to further color Morgan’s conquests of Panama: a love story and the Captain’s obsession with both a beautiful woman and a prized treasure.  After the defeat of Panama (an event which would, in real life, have Morgan arrested on the grounds of treaty violations), Steinbeck tells us that, “He had destroyed the city, but the woman who had drawn him to the Cup of Gold eluded him.”

The fictional Morgan returns a broken man, much like the real Captain himself.  After his acquittal, Morgan was knighted and made governor of Jamaica, but was replaced in 1681–after which he was known primarily as a violent and hot-blooded alcoholic.  Cup of Gold is perhaps a more romanticized pirate tale, but it is an entertaining book, and has often been classified as suitable for young adults.

Henry Morgan’s life may have sunk after his governorship was revoked, but the privateer remained fiery into his later years, eventually engaging in a battle of literary proportions.  In an interesting, almost liminal moment, Morgan brought a suit of libel against the Dutch author Alexandre Exquemelin, for his unfavorable portrayal of Morgan in his history of pirates, History of Bouccaneers.  Morgan won his last battle, but in a floury of ink–not the smoke of cannons and muskets he was accustomed to.  Captain Henry Morgan died in 1688 of what were most likely complications due to tuberculosis.

Yet his memory sails on and continues to be popularized, through media, culture, and of course literature. One such example of recent “Morgan literature” is a riveting new biography/history by Stephen Talty, Empire of Blue Water, released earlier this year.  Talty gives excellent insight into the “gentleman solider,” as Morgan often referred to himself, but also constructs a historically accurate and lively cast of characters; including Thomas Modyford and Morgan’s crew members, who rival any glittering Hollywood rendition.  With its realistic descriptions of Morgan’s life, Empire of Blue Water, is a fascinating and entertaining read, truly a feather in the Captain’s cap.