Henry Morgan: A Self-Made Legend?

by eobermanns

This week was one where I truly feel like I made some significant gains in this research project, and I feel as though I may have peeled back another layer of the mystery of Captain Morgan.  Aside from applying to the Chicago Area Undergraduate Research Symposium this week, with the very distinct potential of presenting my research to a room full of people, I also received the incredible surprise that I will be traveling to London for Spring Break! Time has already been set aside for trips to both the British Library and the UK National Archives, where I may finally get my hands on some of these incredible manuscripts I have only read about.


(I distinctly hope that I might find manuscripts with similarly colorful bindings like An Essay of Barbadoes fond at the Newberry Library.)

I found some incredible references in the Calendars of State Papers Colonial, America, and West Indies that span much of Morgan’s career from 1663 to 1681.  In March of 1666, Henry Morgan gave a testimony before Governor of Jamaica, Thomas Modyford, regarding his expedition to the Bay of Mexico in January of that year. This account also references two other men involved in the leadership on the expedition, Captain John Morris and Captain Jackman.  Captain John Morris was the son of a famed buccaneer in the West Indies during the 1660’s and 1670’s, operating in the same expeditions as Henry Morgan.  Even more revealing, John Morris, Sr. served under Admiral Christopher Myngs in his campaigns against the Spanish in the West Indies.


Admiral Christopher Myngs Painted by Sir Peter Lely in the Flagmen of Lowestoft Collection at the National Maritime Museum in London (another stop on the trip to London!)

Henry Morgan enlisted the aid of a group of Mosquito Indians in the Bay of Mexico; they inhabited Porto Bello, along with other groups of inhabitants that were seen as enemies of Spain, as their cruelty against minorities led groups like the Indians to rebel against the Spanish.  In later years of the Golden Age of Piracy, Captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy of the ship Whydah would enlist a man named John Julian, part Mosquito Indian, to be the pilot of his crew.  This example emphasizes the importance of the cosmopolitan crews of Golden Age pirates, an idea that began even in the mid-17th century, with two seemingly opposing groups uniting against a common enemy in the Spanish.

In July of 1670, Governor Thomas Modyford gave Admiral Henry Morgan an official grant as commander-in-chief for the protection of Jamaica in charge of ships, soldiers, and seaman.  He was also granted the duty of creating a fleet to be, “well manned, armed, and victualled, and by the first opportunity to put to sea for defence of this island, and to use his best endeavour to surprise, take, sink, disperse or destroy the enemy’s vessels “(CSPWI Volume 7: 1669-1674). Henry Morgan was to be the last and superior authority to his men, second only to King Charles II.  In his instructions to Morgan, Governor Modyford also gave Morgan power to make any discretionary decisions not expressly outlined in his letters.  With such an incredible wealth of power and responsibility, it seems only likely that Morgan used this to his advantage, like so many other men close to ordained power had done before him.  The most interesting instruction of Modyford was to inquire as to how English prisoners had been treated by Spanish, emphasizing that the English must endeavor to do better in their treatment of the Spanish if Morgan happened upon any prisoners;  Henry Morgan was to be the example of a gentleman of the British Empire, exceeding the Spanish “in civility and humanity, endeavouring to make all people sensible of his moderation and good nature and his inaptitude and loathness to spill the blood of man” (CSPWI Volume 7: 1669-1674).  This instruction relates to the goal of Philip Ayres in his work The Adventures of Capt. Barth. Sharp and Others in the South Sea, in which he sought to reduce the slander against Henry Morgan and express the true gentle and trustworthy nature of Henry Morgan.  Yet, it seems unlikely to me, and hopefully any other reader interested in piracy, that any pirate, sanctioned or not, would be kind and generous to those that approached him with a sword.

A later account from April 1681 leads us to a Henry Morgan that had fallen out of favor with King Charles II and the government in London.  Henry Morgan’s loyalties had been ambiguous throughout his career, and as the monarchy began to see piracy as a threat rather than an asset, Morgan fell on the losing side of that battle.  Those in power viewed him as bipartisan, helping either the Empire or pirates when it benefitted him.  Yet, in his plea to Sir Leoline Jenkins, Secretary of State for the Southern Department, Morgan claims that he had always sought to discourage piracy in the West Indies, as the King viewed it as a threat.  The Southern Department, in which Sir Jenkins was an essential member, was responsible for Southern England, Wales, Ireland, and the American colonies.  It is in this letter of Henry Morgan’s that we see the true man come forth; Morgan was a self-made man, spinning whatever story he could to make himself seem favorable, and therefore personally benefit, to the ideas and people in power.  Morgan writes that the slanderous claims made against him by men like Francis Mingham and the Earl of Carlisle, Charles Howard, were done merely to make themselves seem more favorable to King Charles II as Morgan fell from grace.  Morgan writes that he had always obliged the king in his dislike of privateers, even receiving “thanks from several Spanish Governors in the Main for exerting so much care and vigilance in the suppression of privateers” (CSPWI Volume 11).

Henry Morgan is like so many other men of his period who sought an opportunity to gain power and influence in society.  That opportunity came in the form of the expansion to the West Indies that came at great cost to the Spanish Empire.  It seems understandable that those men like Morgan, who experienced the Spanish daily in the West Indies, would find the transition to a delicate peace with Spain confusing and difficult to understand. It also seems understandable that Henry Morgan would continue to do whatever was beneficial for his ultimate concerns of wealth and power.