The Enigma of the Captain

by eobermanns

Henry Morgan, as I expected, is proving to be quite the mysterious figure.  I headed to the Newberry Library this past week to obtain a reader’s card, and I found quite a few incredible manuscripts along the way, one of which told an entirely different tale of Morgan than those I had heard before.  


I was pleasantly surprised to be able to find an original copy of a book at the Newberry I had only seen on the internet archives; The Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp and Others in the South Sea by Philip Ayres, published in 1684. Philip Ayres was a successful author of many books and pamphlets in the late 17th century, eventually writing his own history of English privateers in response to Alexandre Exquemelin’s The History of the Buccaneers of America.  Ayres claims much of the story had been falsified by the Dutch author for his own benefit.  This is truly where the task of extracting truth from fiction becomes especially difficult, as there are two completely opposing contemporary views of the same story of Henry Morgan.  Alexandre Exquemelin accounts Morgan as being the son of a wealthy Welsh yeoman, who sought passage to Barbados when he was a boy by selling himself into indentured servitude, as he was completely uninterested in continuing the family’s business in Wales; “Morgan, when young, had no inclination to the calling of his father, and therefore left his country, and came towards the sea-coasts to seek some other employment more suitable to his aspiring humor” (Exquemelin, A.O. The History of the Buccaneers of America. (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey & Co., 1853). p. 99).  

Ayres, however, has quite a different view of how Morgan’s passage to the West Indies transpired, writing instead that, “It is sufficiently known he was descended of an honourable Family in Monmouthshire, and went at first out of England with the Army commanded by General Venables for Hispaniola and Jamaica” (Ayres, Philip. The Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp and Others in the South Sea. (London: Printed by B.W. for R.H. and S.T. and are to be sold by Walter Davis, 1684). Preface).  Perhaps this is where Dudley Pope’s Harry Morgan’s Way sought its foundation for the recounting of Morgan’s naval career.  Ayres’ history of privateers in the West Indies is a response to the supposedly falsified claims of Exquemelin, who  stereotyped Henry Morgan and his crew to be thieves and murders in the eyes of readers.  Ayres writes his account in an attempt to counteract the defamatory claims of Exquemelin, “All those cruelties, contrary to the nature and temper of an Englishman, I have heard absolutely contradicted by persons of infallible credit; and any may be convinced of the foulness of the Scandal thrown on this Excellent Man” (Ayres, Preface). He claims that since Morgan was under the commission of Sir Thomas Modyford, he shouldn’t even be considered a pirate or a buccaneer, even if he violated the peace with Spain.  Instead, Ayres believes that Exquemelin dramatically depicted Morgan as a ruthless murderer to make himself remembered in history as the foremost historian on buccaneers in the West Indies.   Philip Ayres has an incredible amount of respect for Henry Morgan, writing that “Perchance never Man behaved himself with more true valour and resolution of mind to accomplish what he had undertaken” than the Captain (Ayres, Preface).  

By making men like Morgan resemble barbarians, Exquemelin portrays all the English in the West Indies as villains, leaving that stained reputation in the respected histories of the early modern period. What’s important to remember of this time period, however, is the wars England was involved in.  At the time Exquemelin’s account was written, the Dutch authors native homeland was the enemy of England both at home and abroad.  At the time of Morgan’s raid on Panama in 1671, the second Anglo-Dutch War had recently ended, and the third was about to begin.  Whether or not Exquemelin’s claims were true, Ayres expresses a distinct distaste for the man and his opinions.  Exquemelin’s history created much discord between himself and Henry Morgan, who had reportedly been close confidantes; records show that Exquemelin served as Morgan’s barber-surgeon in the early 1670’s.  

A significantly interesting aspect of Ayres’ history shows Henry Morgan’s connection to English merchants in the West Indies; this connects to last week’s blog post concerning the power merchants like Martin Noell and Thomas Povey gained in their time.  These merchants seem to support the good-natured character of Henry Morgan that Philip Ayres so dutifully attempts to portray; “The English Merchants of Cadiz… affirm that those very persons confessed, Sir Henry Morgan was so far from doing any such base Actions, That they highly applauded his Generosity, and the Care he took, That none of those severe things should be practised by his Men” (Ayres, Preface).  Morgan’s historic capture of the City of Panama was incredibly important for the English merchants to maintain control of the port, and therefore continue to undermine the Spanish and profit at their downfall.  The City of Panama was “the greatest Mart for Silver and Gold in the whole World: for it receives all the goods and Merchandise coming from Old Spain, in the Kings great Fleet” (Ayres, 142).  It seems, therefore, that it was well in the merchant populations interest to maintain a good relationship with Henry Morgan, the man who would secure one of the wealthiest ports in the West Indies. 


While the truth to either of these tales continues to be ambiguous, the challenge continues seeing as one cannot simply ask the author what is true and what is false.  That is where the job of the historian reveals itself, and perhaps digging further into the archives of the Newberry will reveal some further truths.