A True Contemporary

by eobermanns

The past week has been incredibly hectic while I’ve been busy working to prepare my presentations for the upcoming CAURS and LUC symposiums.  I’m very much looking forward to being able to share with others this little piece of history I’ve dedicated my studies to for the past semester.  I’ve spent a great deal of time this semester attempting to create a contextual history of the 17th century Atlantic World in order to better understand Henry Morgan’s career.  What this contextual analysis has provided me with is a unique understanding of Morgan’s personality, as there are so few existing references to his youth or personal life.  I’ve found that many of Morgan’s contemporaries, or those who came to the West Indies to try to play their hand at its newfound potential for economic success, share a strikingly similar life story to the illustrious Captain.  While it was common for wealthy and powerful British bureaucrats at this time to keep a diary (Samuel Pepys diary is one of the greatest resources for understanding 17th century Britain), archaeologists and historians have never discovered a diary that can be personally attributed to Henry Morgan.  By delving into the personal accounts of Morgan’s contemporaries and the letters he and others wrote throughout their lifetime, we can better understand the mind behind the legend of Henry Morgan.

William Beeston’s career is strikingly similar to Henry Morgan’s; interestingly, he was only a year younger than Morgan, and came to the West Indies around the same time.  Born in 1636, Beeston entered Jamaica in 1660 at the age of 24, and began a political career that would span decades.  In 1664, Beeston was elected to represent Port Royal in Jamaica’s First House of Assembly, the governing body of the day which met in St. Jago de la Vega.  Many of the references to Jamaica’s government in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America, and West Indies refer directly to St. Jago, and not to the infamous town of Port Royal.  Beeston was not a man to keep his opinions silent; rather, he served his colony as an outspoken member of government, continuously commenting upon the unstable nature of the seemingly haphazard Jamaican government and the ambitious nature of those running it.  This attitude caused Beeston to make many enemies, as is common throughout history when men step forward to speak out against conventions within government.  However, this is not to say that William Beeston was an outright promoter of social justice and welfare; he was a favorite of King Charles II (a common theme that has followed me throughout this semester).  In 1667, the King silenced Captain Beeston’s opposition by restoring his naval command on the island of Jamaica.  It was written that, “his majesty requires that said Capt. Beeston with servants, goods, and necessaries be permitted freely to embark in any of his Majesty’s ports on any vessel bound for said island or any of the Caribbees” (13 February 1667, Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America, and West Indies, Volume 5: 1661-1668).  It is interesting to note that within this compilation of correspondences in the month of February 1667, there exists another directive from the King in reference to maritime issues.  In this case, the King granted a warrant to Lord Willoughby, Governor of the Caribbean, to impress ships. The warrants states, “His Lordship may have occasion for ships of strength as well to repel enemies as to execute any sudden design upon them, his Majesty hereby grants him authority to impress any such ships in any part of his Government as he shall have need of for his Majesty’s service” (February 1667, Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America, and West Indies, Volume 5: 1661-1668).  While Captain Beeston spoke out against the ambitious nature of those within the government, he was simultaneously benefitting from the patronage of King Charles II, who took away the personal liberty of countless numbers of sailors for the supposed greater good of England. 

Image (A plan for Port Royal, Jamaica)

In 1675, William Beeston was named a commissioner of the Admiralty along with Henry Morgan; it seems as though from this point forward, the careers of these two men would be interconnected.  Leading up to this accolade, Beeston had convoyed a fleet of merchantmen to England in 1672, and served as a negotiator on behalf of Governor Modyford to deal with English privateers in Cuba and Hispaniola.  By the time he was named commissioner, privateering had become a hotly debated issue within the English government.  In 1676, a reference from Peter Beckford in St. Jago de la Vega refers to Governor Vaughan’s attempts to suppress privateers, as they had begun to seize ships carrying the cargo of the Royal Company (which had been granted a monopoly on the slave trade by the King), to which many of the King’s favorites and family members belonged.  By this time, privateering had become the greatest threat to Jamaica’s success; yet, it was proving incredibly difficult for Lord Vaughan to suppress something that had once been so legal, and which continued to be incredibly lucrative.  In a letter to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, Lord Vaughan wrote that he feared the privateers had, “grown more numerous, and under the pretence of French Commissions prey upon the Spaniards to the great dishonour of this Government” (4 April 1676, Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America, and West Indies, Volume 9: 1675-1676 and Addenda 1574-1674).  While this was not only bad for British foreign relations and attempts to maintain international peace, the privateers undermined the profits the King planned to make off of English colonies in the West Indies.

Image (William Beeston’s signature)

William Beeston eventually served as governor of Jamaica from March 1693 to January 1702, replaced by General William Selwyn. When he became governor of the island, he returned to a Jamaica that had been ravaged by the earthquake of 1692 and a fever epidemic that had swept the population; Jamaica was suffering in terms of finance and population.  To leave you all with another interesting connection within the 17th century Atlantic World, William Beeston’s daughter, Jane Beeston, eventually married Sir Thomas Modyford, 5th Baronet, a descendant of the infamous governor of Jamaica.  

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