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Sir Henry Morgan - The Pirate King

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Sir Henry Morgan | William Kidd | Edward Teach | 'Calico' Jack Rackham | Bartholomew Roberts | Major Stede Bonnet | Charles Vane

Pirates! Just the name alone conjures up images of action and adventure on the high seas. Robert Louis Stevenson's great adventure novel Treasure Island and the many Hollywood films from Captain Blood to the latest Pirates of the Caribbean saga have added to their mystique and their glamour. Yet they were not heroes during their golden age; most people regarded pirates as a plague on society. In fact in England the death penalty for piracy with violence was only repealed in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act1. There was, however, one pirate of the Spanish Main who not only lived up to the high adventure role but who also – unusually – died a respected member of society in his bed, rather than dancing the hempen jig. This man was Sir Henry Morgan.

Early Life

Henry Morgan was born in 1635 in the Welsh town of Llanrumney, which is now a suburb of Cardiff. It appears that he was born into a family of some note, his uncles being Major-General Sir Thomas Morgan, who fought for Cromwell during the Civil War, and Colonel Sir Edward Morgan, who was a Royalist. Much of his early life is a mystery, but with military men as relations, it is likely that young Henry followed the military life and that this is how he ended up in the Caribbean. In 1654 Cromwell planned an expedition to the New World to capture the Spanish-held island of Hispaniola2. With his influential uncle Thomas Morgan's help, young Henry became a successful soldier in the expedition's task force3. The expedition, commanded by Admiral Penn and General Venables, failed in its objective, and instead of returning empty-handed to England, the force turned to Jamaica and seized the weakly defended island in May 1655.

The Privateer

Henry Morgan was never really a pirate as such. Instead, once the action on Jamaica was finished, he, like many ex-soldiers4, was encouraged to buy land on the island. He became one of the new colony's principal members of society and took the Letter of Marque5 to supplement his income. He, together with many of the best-trained soldiers on Jamaica, formed what was effectively Jamaica's own Navy, officially sanctioned by the English crown to hunt down Spanish ships and take their treasure. By the end of 1663 there were 22 officially licensed craft using Port Royal6 as their base of operations. Henry Morgan had a half-share of a small ship and took part in a raid organised by Commodore Christopher Myngs. The raid proved hugely successful and in December, 1662, another was organised. This attack on the pretty Mexican town of Campeche was again a success7. Morgan and some fellow privateers continued their pillaging of Spanish towns and ships over the course of the next two years. During this time Morgan became the leader of a small group of ships and was responsible for many attacks. The most famous was when he landed near the Mexican town of Frontera. Morgan marched his army of buccaneers 50 miles inland to assault the town of Villahermosa. However, after looting the town, they discovered that their own ships had been captured by the Spanish. Morgan quickly captured two Spanish ships and four coastal canoes in which they managed to escape. They then proceeded to sail and paddle 500 miles against the current until they landed in the area that is now Nicaragua. Here they again struck inland against the rich town of Granada.

The Golden Age

In 1664 a new governor arrived on Jamaica. Sir Thomas Modyford was friends with the Morgan family8 and soon became firm friends with Henry after meeting the privateer on his return from his raids. In 1667 Henry married his cousin, Mary Elizabeth9, and was appointed the Colonel of the Port Royal Militia. His first job in this role was to supervise the expansion of Port Royal's harbour defences; however, by late 1667 Modyford appointed Morgan an Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of Jamaican forces. His task was to hunt down and destroy or capture all Spanish ships in the Caribbean. Morgan therefore assembled a force of some 700 men and proceeded to attack the Cuban town of Puerto Príncipe. After successfully attacking the small town, Morgan felt that the spoils were not sufficient. He decided to continue on to assault the much larger fortified town of Portobello. This was at the time the third most fortified town in the region, yet Morgan was able to capture it while losing only 18 of his own men. The haul from Portobello was huge10, so much so that the Spanish piece of eight coin actually became additional legal currency in Jamaica. The success of this raid firmly cemented Henry's reputation as a skilled buccaneer.


In 1670 Morgan assembled an expedition of 36 ships and 1846 men to attack Panama. It was through this legendary city that all the riches of the Peruvian silver mines passed, but the assault proved difficult. Panama sits on the Pacific side of the isthmus, so Morgan and his men had to cross miles of jungle and high mountains before they reached the city. After a hard fought battle the buccaneers left the city burning, with a haul estimated to be around 400,000 pieces of eight. Unfortunately, back in England the political climate had changed; many wanted peace with Spain and consequently the expedition was not good news. Modyford, who had licensed the task force, was recalled to London and imprisoned in the Tower. Meanwhile Morgan was also summoned back to answer charges. He arrived in England on 4 July, 1672 but was never arrested. Instead he was free to visit his native Wales and see the sights of London. When Modyford was released, Morgan used his contacts to make powerful friends and by November, 1673, Charles II was looking favourably upon Morgan. He received a Knighthood and was appointed Lieutenant-General of Jamaica's armed forces, while former governor Modyford became Chief Justice. Morgan returned to Jamaica on 5 March, 1674 to take up his new post.

The Final Years

Sir Henry settled into life managing his plantation on the island, but he never got the hang of politics. Although he became the Deputy-Governor in addition to the roles of a senior member of the Jamaican Council, Lieutenant-General of all armed forces and Judge-Admiral of the Admiralty Court, he constantly bounced in and out of political favour and was forced from office in 1681 by the Governor at the time, Sir Thomas Lynch. Sir Henry started a period of steady decline. He drank a lot and preferred to spend time with his old friends in the rum shops of Port Royal; he gained a lot of weight and started exhibiting rowdy behaviour. Eventually his friend Christopher Monck, the second Duke of Albemarle, was appointed Governor in 1684 and petitioned the King to have Sir Henry restored to power. The petition was ultimately successful on 10 April, 1688; however, the 53-year-old buccaneer didn't live long enough to make much of an impact. His health was failing and on 25 July, 1688 he died and was buried at Port Royal. At his burial he was given a full 22-gun salute from the ships in the harbour.


Sir Henry Morgan has developed a reputation as one of the most roguish pirates. He's probably the pirate who most fits the image of a reputable thief. He wasn't the evil scourge that Blackbeard was, nor did he have the flashiness of 'Calico' Jack. In fact a lot of his fearsome reputation was down to a book published in 1684 by one of his crew members, John Esquemeling11. He did, however, earn his reputation as the Pirate King; he successfully ran the buccaneer fleets of Port Royal for many years.

1The last actual prosecution for piracy in the UK was in 1971 against the crew of an Aberdeen fishing trawler that revolted against their captain and took control of the ship by force. They were not, however, executed as the death penalty for piracy had already been abolished in Scottish waters. The last actual hanging for piracy in the entire UK was in 1860.2The large island that now contains both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.3There was a story published that Henry actually first travelled to New World as an indentured labourer. This is probably unlikely due to his family connections and the fact that Henry successfully sued the publishers, forcing a retraction. Thus the story was probably 17th Century tabloid gossip. 4By this time Henry had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.5This was the official document licensing the holder to wage war on the seas as a legal pirate against England's enemies, namely Spain.6The old capital of Jamaica, which was swept into the sea by an earthquake on 7 June, 1692. It now lies 50ft under the waves of Kingston Harbour.7The booty allegedly amounted to 150,000 pieces of eight, which was worth about £33,750, a very considerable sum in an era when a merchant ship could be bought for about £300.8In fact Sir Edward Morgan, Henry's uncle, had served as Modyford's lieutenant-governor until he died during a Jamaican assault on nearby St Eustatius.9The daughter of Sir Edward.10Many cannon, rolls of silk, silver plate, 300 slaves and some 250,000 pieces of eight.11Sir Henry Morgan actually took steps to discredit the book and was awarded damages of £200 and a retraction in a subsequent libel suit.

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