From Obscurity to Fame: The Rise of Captain Henry Morgan, Buccaneer or Politician?

by eobermanns

Hello! My name is Eda Obermanns, and I am currently a Junior double majoring in History and International Studies at Loyola University Chicago. Throughout the course of this semester, I will be interning as a research assistant for Dr. John Donoghue in Loyola’s History Department, keeping this blog to update the academic world on my scholarly pursuits.  Focusing on the fascinating early modern world of maritime history and the expansion of the British Empire, I will be assisting Dr. Donoghue as he works on his new book concerning the famous Captain Henry Morgan.  Morgan was a ruthless privateer who survived on his wit and cunning in the Atlantic world, transitioning from a notorious, piratical enemy of the crown to a knighted bureaucrat of the British Empire.  My goal this semester is to find a bridge between the Atlantic world, London, and the English Monarchy as it pertains to the life of Henry Morgan.  To kick off this pursuit, I hope to give readers a little background information regarding the illustrious Captain Morgan (the man, not the rum).  Henry Morgan is believed to have been born in England around the year 1635, emerging in Port Royal, Jamaica as a buccaneer nearly thirty years later.  In 1667, English Jamaica was rife with Spanish hostilities, as the London government desired peace, while animosity existed amongst the colonists regarding their lack of trade possibilities due to Spanish monopolies.  Morgan’s career as a buccaneer instilled his reputation as a leader to be feared and respected throughout the Atlantic world.  His attacks on Porto Belo, Ile-à-Vache in Panama, Santa Marta, Campeche, and countless other settlements throughout the 1660′s and 1670′s fueled his obsessive desire for wealth, ignoring growing resentment of the English government regarding piracy as a potential threat to colonies in the Carribean.  Piratical raids and actions had long been used by European governments under the guise of privateering, or so-called government-sponsored piracy for the greater good of their respective nation. Yet, Morgan found a way to spin his actions as a privateer to benefit him politically and monetarily, embracing the saying “every man for himself”.  The British Empire was dependent upon and simultaneously threatened by piracy, beneficial when privateering was used to attack the Spanish but ultimately unreliable to keep interests of privateers solely English.  Initially trying to appease both London officials and Caribbean buccaneers after he was installed as Deputy Governor of Jamaica, Morgan turned his back on his former comrades to align himself with the government.  The Jamaica Act of 1683 passed by the Parliament of England was staunchly anti-pirate, prohibiting trade with pirates and continuing the allowed of the death sentence for piracy.  As the sugar plantations of Jamaica blossomed economically, men like Henry Morgan realized turning their backs on pirates in favor of the English government was a far more beneficial avenue to advance themselves economically.