Captain Henry Morgan & The Atlantic World

Detailing the research into the illustrious career of one of the most notorious figures of the Early Modern world

The Makings of a Buccaneer

With the premiere of the new Starz television series, “Black Sails,” I’ve been very intrigued in reading reviews of this series that aims to present a true and honest depiction of piracy in its Golden Age.  My annoyance at slight historical inaccuracies aside, I find the series gives a realistic depiction of the grit and absolute toughness pirates of the early 18th century sought to exude.  This toughness stems from the legacy of hundreds of men who predated the Golden Age of piracy, Henry Morgan included at the forefront.  After a great meeting with Dr. Donoghue last week, I feel as though I might be getting the hang of this research endeavor.  The primary sources I looked into last week gave me an insight into the life of Henry Morgan late in his career. Yet, it also got me thinking more about the complex socio-economic circumstances and political scheme that surrounded Morgan in the mid-to-late 17th century.  Dr. Donoghue and I discussed how in Morgan’s time, the ruthless attitude and demeanor of a pirate almost certainly prepared a man like Henry Morgan for a political career in the West Indies.  Pirates and politicians were cunning, ruthless, and always searching for another way to gain power, wealth, and influence.  

With this idea in mind, I began this week by reading half of Dudley Pope’s work, Harry Morgan’s Way: the Biography of Sir Henry Morgan, 1635-1684.  This book is an absolutely fascinating read, not only because of Pope’s writing style, but because of his method of weaving in details of the entire early modern world as relating to Henry Morgan.  Inspired by this method, I spent a great deal of my research time this week looking into other sources that may not directly mention Morgan, but give a detailed look into the world that he lived and raided in.  Morgan was raised during the English Civil War, meaning his most formative years were spent in a time of military and political turmoil.  Like many other English families of the mid-17th century, Morgan’s uncles fought on opposing sides of the war (Royalists vs. Parliamentarians or Cavaliers vs. Roundheads).  Pope does little digging into the very unsure origins of Morgan, instead beginning his study in the mid-1650’s when Henry served under the joint command of General Robert Venables and Sir William Penn to attack Spanish holdings in the West Indies and carry out Oliver Cromwell’s plan of the Western Design.  It was through their mistakes in this ill-fated raid, although perhaps the seizure of Jamaica shouldn’t be considered a complete failure, that Morgan would learn what to avoid when he became a captain. Later in his career, Morgan was able to achieve more on his attacks on Portobelo and Panama with his cosmopolitan crews of men than Cromwell’s army did in executing the Western Design.

 Image Sir William Penn 

I also spent time this week looking into The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell with Elucidations edited by Thomas Carlyle.  The most interesting speech I have read as yet comes from September 17th, 1656, in which Cromwellian religious and political propaganda is strikingly clear in his attack on Spain as the Catholic Antichrist, and therefore immortal enemy of the English. With all this propaganda surrounding Henry Morgan in his early twenties, I wonder how these ideas influenced him as a soldier and later as a privateer. 

 Image The English Protectorate Oliver Cromwell, the mind behind the Western Design.




And so the Research Begins…

Finding primary sources concerning a 17th century pirate is not as easy as one would think, considering how illustrious Captain Morgan proved to be in his lifetime.  I learned the hard way this past week that the UK National Archives has only digitized 5% of its resources, which seems surprising until you consider that they maintain thousands upon thousands of documents.  After hours of arduous searching on every database I could manage to find, I finally stumbled upon British History Online.  I was incredibly lucky to find hundreds of digitized references to Admiral Sir Henry Morgan in  multiple volumes of both the “Calendars of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies”, and the “Calendar of Treasury Books”.  Spanning from 1671 to 1688, I seem to have only just cracked the surface of tracking the career of Henry Morgan.  A reference to Morgan from May 31st, 1671 recounts his infamous raid on Panama under the knowledge of Sir Thomas Modyford, Governor of Jamaica.  Unbeknownst to Morgan, England had signed the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, in which Spain and England agreed to a delicate peace in the West Indies.  Morgan’s raid on Panama, therefore, violated the treaty; yet, Governor Modyford was recorded to have, “knowledge of the design to attack Panama by a ship sent on purpose, and in the letter 10 days after the arrival of said ship he gave no countermand, so they marched for the city” (Sainsbury, W. Noel, ed. “Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 7: 1699-1674. British History Online. (Institute of Historical Research, 1889). Web.).  This action of Morgan would set into motion years of trials and tribulations that would eventually, and surprisingly, lead to the knighting of Henry Morgan, considering he had  violated a treaty with one of the most powerful nations in the early modern world.

My next step in researching  is to begin reading selected works from a preliminary bibliography I have compiled on Henry Morgan.  Dr. Donoghue has given me a great deal of responsibility in finding sources for his book; my goal is to find sources that bring to light the mysterious origins of Henry Morgan and his life of vice that later led to his emergence as a political power in the West Indies.  I have just begun to read Harry Morgan’s Way: the Biography of Sir Henry Morgan, 1635-1684 by Dudley Pope and Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe the Ended the Outlaws Bloody Reign by Stephan Talty.  Both are proving to be interesting reads, with each giving a different perspective into the life of a man who is proving to be incredibly mysterious.

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

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.


Port Royal

Port Royal, Jamaica, the now-underwater headquarters of pirates and other “unsavory” members of the early English settlements in the Americas.

Sir Henry Morgan, the Man, the Myth, the Legend

A far cry from the traditional view of “Captain Morgan,” Sir Henry was a ruthless member of Early Modern Atlantic society, rather than the smiling figure on a bottle of rum.