The Man, the Myth, and the Rum?

by eobermanns

The name “Captain Morgan” has become synonymous with the spiced rum company since the 1940’s, but the ties between pirates and rum stem from the very beginnings of maritime history.  The consumption of rum as a daily tradition made the tumultuous life at sea more bearable for sailors, yet it also served as a form of indulgence in the constant cycle of enjoyment Port Royal became known for.  The image of the rugged, redcoat pirate that has become so iconic distorts the person of the true man behind the rum, the Welsh privateer Sir Henry Morgan.  This week, I viewed a documentary the Captain Morgan Spiced Rum company produced in 2013 in their attempt to dispel this stereotype of Henry Morgan.  The documentary entitled The Unsinkable Henry Morgan follows the search for Morgan’s ship, The Satisfaction, which, according to legend, ran aground in the shallow reef of Panama in the 1671 attack on the island.  While the search for Morgan’s ship is ultimately unsuccessful, the most remarkable aspect of this documentary was the extent to which Henry Morgan remains an incredibly relevant subject of conversation for natives of Panama.  Each individual interviewed had a different anecdote of Morgan’s raid in Panama passed down through generations; some remembered the Captain as a ruthless warrior and others remarked upon his infamy with the women of Panama.  The trick of this research project continues to be the search to dispel truth from rumor; Sir Henry Morgan is proving to be an enigma.

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Reproduction of Morgan’s long-lost flagship The Satisfaction as recreated by the archaeologists behind The Unsinkable Henry Morgan. 

Morgan’s raids throughout the West Indies made him an incredibly wealthy man and landowner, dying in 1688 with an estimated worth of £5,263 (Jamaica Archives Inventory); in a modern economy, Morgan would be worth millions of pounds. The extent of Morgan’s wealth was not uncommon in the West Indies in the 17th century, as merchants took advantage of the opportunity to buy and sell rare commodities found in places like Jamaica to the wealthy populace in London.  I spent time this week reading Nuala Zahedieh’s article The Merchants of Port Royal, Jamaica, and the Spanish Contraband Trade, 1655-1692,” which outlines the growth and development of illicit trade in the West Indies. Morgan, like so many other early privateers of his time, benefitted greatly from the unlawful and rugged environment of places like Port Royal.  Privateers comprised almost a third of Port Royal’s population, as the location gave them an incredible locational advantage for exploiting the Spanish and taking their valuable cargo.  Politicians and privateers of the mid-17th century were in the same business of profit, which was profit at the expense of Spain.  Privateering was essential to maintaining the rowdy and indulgent standard of living people in Port Royal had grown so accustomed to in the age of Henry Morgan.

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Port Royal in the days of Henry Morgan.

My next step in this project is to dig into the manuscripts and archives of the Newberry Library. My goal is to find letters and documents pertaining to the relationship between Jamaica and London, specifically on the behalf of merchants.  Hopefully, this will give me some insight into the complex  economic and political relationship between the Old and New Worlds.

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