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Henry Morgan was the most famous of all buccaneers, amassing a fortune by plundering Spain's Caribbean colonies during the late seventeenth century. Through his leadership, courage, ruthlessness, and phenomenally successful expeditions, he ensured the survival of English interests in the Caribbean and his name became legendary in the annals of piracy.

Born in 1635 in Glamorganshire, Wales, Morgan's early maritime career is quite murky. By the early 1660s, he had fought with English forces in the Caribbean and captained several privateering ships. In 1668, he was commissioned Admiral of the Buccaneers in Jamaica and successfully led a dozen ships to Puerto del Principe, Cuba, capturing the city and hoards of hidden treasure. Later that year, in an extraordinarily daring feat, his buccaneers sacked the well-fortified city of Portobello, a collection point for Spanish treasure on the Isthmus of Panama where he used Catholic priests and nuns as human shields to charge the city walls. Morgan returned victoriously to Port Royal with hundreds of thousands of pieces of eight.

The following year, the scourge of the Spanish Main arranged a rendezvous of his English fleet with French buccaneers for a joint attack on the treasure city of Cartagena. But during the final stages of preparations, Morgan's flagship, the Oxford, was destroyed in a freak magazine explosion, killing almost 300 men and scuttling Morgan's plans.

Morgan regrouped after the disaster and attacked Maracaibo and Gibraltar before organizing the greatest expedition of his infamous career in late 1670. With 36 ships and nearly 2,000 bold buccaneers, Morgan set out to capture the richest city of the Spanish-American Empire, Panama City.

Morgan succeeded where Sir Francis Drake failed a century earlier. His men fought savagely to capture Fort San Lorenzo on the Caribbean side of Panama and then set out on a grueling march through hostile jungle for over a week. When they were confronted by an army of Spanish infantry, Morgan's outnumbered but ferocious buccaneers forced the Spaniards to break ranks and run for cover. Rather than have their precious city fall into Morgan's hands, the Spanish burned it to the ground. Nevertheless, Morgan's crew managed to load 175 mules with precious booty before returning to their waiting ships.

Since the Treaty of Madrid had been signed in 1670 and England was supposedly at peace with Spain, their furious king threatened war with England if the pirates who destroyed Panama were not punished. King Charles II, hoping to preserve peace, ordered Morgan and Jamaica's Governor Modyford, who had sanctioned the expedition, transported to England in chains. But instead of prison or execution, the English public celebrated Morgan's triumph over Spain and the king eventually knighted him.

Sir Henry Morgan returned to Port Royal as the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor. He was extremely rich and powerful, with vast land holdings in Jamaica and friends on both sides of the law. He died in 1688 of natural causes precipitated by too much alcohol.

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Did you know?

  • At the height of its popularity, Port Royal, Jamaica had one drinking house for every ten residents. In July 1661 alone, 41 new licenses were granted to taverns.

  • Pirates wore an earring to ensure they died with at least one piece of treasure to buy their way into 'Fiddler's Green' (sailor's paradise in heaven).

  • The reason you've heard of most well known pirates is that they were captured and killed, or brought to trial where their exploits were recorded. But pirate captain Henry Every was made famous because he evaded capture after his piratical exploits.

  • Many pirates had eye patches, peg legs, or hooks. Ships in the 17th and 18th century were extremely dangerous places to work, so pirates would commonly lose limbs or even eyes during battle. 

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