Sir Henry Morgan: The Pirate’s Pirate

After the Puerto Principe affair had been chalked off as something he need to think no more about, Morgan headed for Port Royal. His men had money which was burning in their pockets and were clamoring for a chance to blow it ashore.

The plan suited Morgan. He would welcome a bit of relaxation himself. However, business rather than personal indulgence was his main reason for hastening to Jamaica. While his men drank and gambled and slung their money away, he wanted a few quiet words with the august gentlemen in the pink mansion on the hill.

Governor Moodyford and Morgan understood one another perfectly. Morgan was imprudently breaking every law of both god and man in the Caribbean area. Moodyford was sanctioning behavior because he was so well paid for his tolerance. Rascals of the deepest dye, both of them, they planned and hatched their wicked campaigns and collected the blood money. Then they virtuously listed them officially in the governmental documents as patriotic crusades undertaken at great pain and personal sacrifice for the sake of god and the king of England.

Moodyford was a crown official and as such must hold himself severely aloof from any legal activities which might jeopardize his position. However, when and if word should reach him that Spaniards were plotting to attack Jamaica, the headquarters of Britain’s Caribbean holdings, there was but one course of action for a wide-awake conscientious office of the King. He must send an armed force to hit the attackers first. Official records of Morgan’s looting, burning and pillaging attacks against Spanish settlements, therefore, were ingeniously listed in pristine purity on Moodyford’s books as strictly patriotic undertakings.

They were two hard, unprincipled men with no genuine liking for, or confidence in, one another. Moodyford knew the rough captain had but one interest in life…the accumulation of hard negotiable coin, regardless of how it were come by. He would pay the governor well for a tolerant attitude toward what he considered his business activities, but there all interest in his official collaborator ended. He wouldn’t raise a finger to help if the governor were in real trouble and Moodyford knew it. He knew too, that if it were in Morgan’s financial interest to turn on him, he would do it without a moments hesitation. However, since he was more necessary to Morgan’s schemes than Morgan was to his, he accepted the arrangement as a profitable one and kept his eyes open.

Morgan likewise knew full well that the connivance he received from the governor was in no wise due to his own personal charm. He was aided and abetted by the grasping official because he paid the gentleman well. Should he fail to turn over a fat slice of his pickings from various raids, he would likely find himself swinging from the end of a yardarm…and he knew it.

The partnership of the two arch conspirators lasted for several years because it worked so well to their mutual advantage. Whenever Morgan had decided on some definite point of attack, he always went first to the governor and proffered a document stating that he had received reliable information that the people of a town were plotting to attack the British holdings. For the sake of his country’s prestige and financial welfare, he Captain Morgan, was willing to put aside all personal affairs and undertake to circumvent this nefarious Spanish plot.

Moodyford in a great dither of official trepidation would then issue a privateers license to Captain Morgan, who was a self-appointed patriotic servant to his king. Henceforward it would be the captain’s unselfish duty to strike the Spanish plot at its roots; attack and weaken the town so it would be unable to inflict any damage on his Britannic Majesty’s property.

It mattered not a whit that the town under discussion had no such intentions; that it was peaceful, undefended community of hard-working , law-abiding citizens. If it could be made to appear in official documents as offering a threat to the security of England’s new world holdings, then an attack on it would be entirely in order. The commander of such an expedition would be praised, rather than censured, by home authorities for his laudable action against such a dangerous enemy stronghold.

After Morgan had patriotically crippled Puerto Principe so it could not attack Jamaica, his ambition took a sharp upward spin. He discussed his plans with none of his band because there was no one of them whom he could trust. Before embarking on it, however, he wanted a few words with his executive friend. He had some purported information to present showing that a dire calamity was hovering over the British stronghold. He was offering to do something about it.

The governor, inured as he was to surprise of any kind, gasped at the captain’s proposal. It was clear that the easy successes he had scored had given him delusions of grandeur which would be his undoing. The governor wanted nothing of it.

Morgan argued. The governor demurred. The scheme was fantastic madness, he insisted, and could result in only a disaster. No roving band of ocean scum such as Morgan headed could hope to accomplish such an undertaking. Better to give-up and plan on something a mite less spectacular, but safer.

Morgan was proposing to attack and sack no less a town than Portobelo; which after Havana and Cartagena, was the most strongly fortified citadel in all Spanish America. Such a proposal could be nothing but the delusion of a lunatic, Moodyford insisted.

Portobelo would be a rich prize; no doubt about that. Especially at this time of the year. The plate fleet was due to arrive in a couple of months, so her warehouses would be stuffed with gold and silver, with jewels and pearls, and all manner of riches awaiting transportation to Spain. Her merchants and townspeople were well-to-do and would undoubtedly have money on hand to use in buying things the plate fleet would bring from home. It was the logical time to strike; when the pickings would be the richest.

Moodyford finally threw up his hands. All right; he would register the evidence proving a proposed Spanish assault. He would issue the permit, enter the stipulated fee for such a license on the books and affix the official seal which would make the enterprise entirely legal. Then, a certain little personal exchange of coin having been made between himself and the captain, he was through with the business; wanted nothing more to do with it. from then on it would be the captain’s sole responsibility.

When Morgan passed the word that he was heading outward shortly, he was besieged with followers. Money never lasted the buccaneers long ashore and it had been some time since the last raid; which had been an overwhelming lucrative one. They were all badly in need of cash and were getting a bit restive. Since a trip with Morgan always promised plenty of action as well as plenty of worth while booty, they flocked eagerly to his standard. They had no idea of where they were heading because he did not tell them, but they didn’t care. It was bound to be something to which appealed to them.

It was not an impressive looking fleet which sailed from Port Royal that morning in June 1668 as a signal gun boomed across the harbor. Eight disreputable vessels carrying four hundred fifty desperate characters strained from the lowest dregs of a hundred harbors, followed the admiral’s flagship as it billowed out of sight against the horizon. They were outward bound but only one man knew where.

Off the coast of Costa Rica Morgan called a halt in order to consult with his captains. When he told them their destination they were aghast. Attack Portobelo? Unthinkable! Why, just look at it’s fortifications, man! Facing each other across the narrow entrance to the harbor were the barking guns of the Iron Castle and Castle Gloria. The town was buttressed formidably by St. Jerome, one of the most heavily gunned castles in all America. Did the captain proposal to attack these great fortresses and the garrisons they contained, with less than five hundred armed with only pistols and side arms?

Morgan’s reply was that the town’s protection were arranged for an attack by sea. He proposed to spring s surprise night attack by land. His arguments did not convince his sub-leaders but they finally agreed to leave the decision to the band as a whole.

Morgan was an eloquent speaker when he chose to exert himself and upon this occasion he outdid his own best efforts to rabble rousing. He called the ships about him and harangued his listeners with a glowing picture of Portobelo’s wealth. He spoke of the gold, the silver, the jewels which would be theirs from the sack of such a city. Glowingly he envisioned for them the life of luxury they could lead once they were in possession of such riches.

He then went on to contrast that life of opulence with the one they were miserably enduring when he had assembled them for this excursion. He grimly reminded them that he had found many of them living in want and poverty, so debt-ridden that they had even sold their clothing to pay for food and shelter. Some of them, he went on sternly and the guilty ones burned with shame at the recollection, had fallen so low that they had even taken jobs and were actually working when he came along and rescued them from such piteous degradation by his proposal of another raid.

Warming to his subject he pictured the life of humiliation they would have to lead, working at jobs, if they turned back now. Would they do such a thing when the wealth of the entire Darien lay just beyond the sights of their muskets?

With a roar of enthusiasm the men clamored for the attack. Morgan, well content, steered for a point about three miles south of Portobelo and at twilight dropped anchor in a sheltered cove. He left just enough men aboard to sail the ships into Portobelo’s harbor after it was safe to do so. With the rest he started s stealthy overland march toward the sleeping city which he and his men were so confident in capturing.

The invaders were guided by an Englishman who had once been held captive in the torture chambers of St. Jerome and was burning for revenge. He knew the way and before dawn, led them to a small fort on the outskirts of the town. They sneaked upon the sentry and overpowered him before he could give the alarm. He was then forced at pistol point to call upon his fellow soldiers in the fort to surrender. If they did not, Morgan promised, every man in it would be put to death.

The reply was a volley of shots from the defenders of the fort and the battle was on…just as the morning sun arose from the peaceful waters lapping at the stone feet of St. Jerome. The sound aroused the sleeping town and pandemonium broke loose; the shouting of men, the screams of women and the terrified wailing of children. Alarm bells began shrilling through the air and the big harbor guns started belching fire.

Profanely angry at this miscarriage of his plans of slugging the town into insensibility as it slept, Morgan attacked the small fort with a frenzy. Its soldiers fought bravely but they were only a handful against a mob. A sudden rush on the part of the attackers overwhelmed them by sheer force of numbers. They were lined up and placed at the mercy of the captain.

The furious captain was not disposed to clemency. He had told them they would be shown no mercy if they resisted and he never broke his word to an enemy, said he. He was savagely angry because their resistance had prematurely aroused the town, so he vented his spleen on them as an emotional outlet.

Snapping a sudden grisly order he stood by to see it carried out. The defenders were disarmed, locked inside the fort and a fuse lighted to the powder magazine beneath. Once he had the splintered fragments of the fort and the shredded bodies of its defenders hurled into the morning sky by the explosion, Morgan emitted an oath of satisfaction and gave the order to charge the town.

The fall of Portobelo was totally inexcusable. In its population were several hundred men who alone would have been capable of defending the town had they armed themselves at once instead of running to hide their valuables and money. their numbers, added to the garrisons of the three forts, outnumbered the attackers more than two to one. This force, augmented by the womenfolk loading guns, could have beaten the invaders back had they stood to the task, because Morgan had used less than four hundred men in the actual attack.

The white-haired governor of Portobelo was a staunch, courageous man, however. When the alarm was first sounded he rushed through the town on horseback call upon its citizens to arm themselves and gather for defense. No one would listen to him. The only thought was to hide their valuables. Cellars, cisterns, hastily dug pits…treasures were feverishly crammed into every conceivable hiding place. Saving their wealth was the uppermost thought in every mind.

He implored the women and children to take shelter in the stone buildings near the fort where they could be defended by their men folks and the guns of the iron castle above. They did not hear him. They too, were frantically hiding silverware and jewelry.

Again and again the governor galloped through the streets shouting, begging, pleading, ordering them to come quickly for God’s sake and make a stand for defense. No on paid the slightest heed to him. Every man was out for himself, feverishly getting his wealth away; loading pack animals with valuables and turning them loose that they would gallop to safety somewhere and somehow.

The governor, finding it impossible to rally a defense for the town itself, and seeing the pirate horde coming at a run, retreated to the fortress to join the garrison there.

The streets were in utter confusion, with people running here and there, screaming, shouting, trampling one another under foot; the alarm bells shrilling wildly above the din. Into this inferno of total disorganization the pirates charged furiously, shooting and yelling like banshees. The people made no resistance; they ran, blind with terror. Nobody was armed and there was nothing they could do against such a mob.

The pirates shot into the crowds indiscriminately, killing and wounding a number, calling upon the rest to halt and surrender or be shot down, every last one of them. there was nothing else for them to do, so they obeyed orders.

The prisoners were herded into empty buildings and looked up with brutal guards standing over them to keep them cowed and submissive. The hundred of men who might have saved the town, had they been armed, soon found themselves impotent and helpless; locked up under armed guard lacking even a club with which to defend themselves.

The guns of St. Jerome, meanwhile, were sweeping the approaches to its outer gates with a solid sheet of fire. The pirates knew they would be able to do nothing with the town itself unless the fort were first taken, so decided to rush it. they were mowed down so devastatingly when they tried this, however, that they retreated, every man seeking whatever cover he could find. For hours the buccaneers lay hidden, firing sporadically, as the tropic sun climbed into its inferno of midday heat. Tormented by hunger, thirst, and stinging swarms of insects, the men began to grumble. They were disgusted and discouraged; ready to give up. No use trying to do something that couldn’t be done. Morgan realized clearly that his victory had to come soon if it was to come at all.

Desperate situations call for desperate solutions and Morgan was an unscrupulous man with an active imagination. He was equal to the occasion. The expedient to which he resorted was an act of callous barbarity unparalleled in civilized warfare and caused his name to be reviled throughout the entire world from that to this day.

When the bandits first attacked the town, Morgan detailed picked squads to rush the monasteries and churches so the priests and nuns could not hide the valuable treasures they contained. These servants of god had been herded together and were now huddled in one of the chapels, menaced threateningly by the guns of their pirate guards.

With a flash of diabolic inspiration Morgan decided to use these priests and nuns in storming the fort. He knew the reverence of catholic people for their clergy; they would do nothing to injure them, ever. Therefore, if these holy ones were compelled to at the head of a column attacking the fort, the defenders would hold their fire. It was a fiendishly clever scheme and was immediately put into effect.

Under his direction the carpenters made some heavy scaling ladders wide enough for four men to mount abreast. These the priests and nuns were ordered to carry at the head of the rabble as it started for the fort.

Desperately the terrified prisoners begged and pled to be spared this ghastly sentence. They were people of god, they cried, and by every civilized law known to man were exempt from participation in war. On their knees they prayed the brutal captain for mercy.

Their pleadings were answered by a snarl of angry derision. What knew they or their kind of mercy? What mercy had the Inquisition shown the thousands of innocent man and women who had perished in its torture chambers? What mercy had they themselves shown the helpless Indians here and in Peru in promoting what they called religion? Mercy? They were being shown more mercy that their church had ever shown anyone helpless in its grasp. So get under those ladders! March!

Thus, Morgan, defender of innocent victims of religious persecution.

Kicks, blows, curses. One priest clubbed insensible with a pistol butt. Jerked, shoved, prodded by gun barrels at their backs as they struggled and fought, the hapless prisoners were propelled along at the head of the mob as it started toward the fort. Halting a short distance out of gun fire, Morgan called for an immediate surrender, while the prisoners in front implored defenders to hold their fire.

The old governor was a deeply religious man but he sent back word that his first duty was to his king and his country. The fort would never be surrendered, no matter whose lives its defense should cost.

Morgan gave the order to charge. From the guns of the fort there came a burst of flame. The attackers replied with a deadly volley of musket fire. Their years of practice in hunting wild cattle had made the buccaneers the best shots in the world and they had picked off the defenders with deadly aim when they exposed themselves to fire the guns. Disregarding both clergy and comrades who were wounded or dying, the rabble raced forward until the won the bottom of the walls where the cannons could not reach them.

Swarming up the ladders and over the parapets the bandits waded into the hand-to-hand conflict. Fighting fiendishly they pushed the Spaniards back and back. Human resistance simply could not stand against such men and the defenders gradually gave way. Vainly the valiant old governor called upon them to hold their ground but terror had gripped their souls and they threw down their guns. Better to surrender than to be butchered in cold blood. They gave up.

The governor, deserted by his men and armed only with a sword, had taken his stand against a stone wall where he carried out the fight alone. Wounded in a dozen places, his breath whistling in great shuddering gasps and his grizzled beard flecked with bloody foam, he fought like a lion; inflicting such deadly havoc around him that the attackers drew back. Such courage was unusual in a Spaniard and a cheer went up from the watching bandits. They admired bravery above all things and offered to treat him like the gallant gentleman he had shown himself to be if he would surrender. He hurled the offer in their teeth.

Fired by an unusual urge of chivalry Morgan for once hesitated to press his overwhelming advantage, so sent for the valiant soldier’s wife and children from among the prisoners, to plead with him to surrender himself. He still refused. It was with a slight inner twinge of regret, surprising even to himself, that Morgan finally ordered one of his sharpshooters to put a musket ball through the head of the indomitable old warrior.

With the fall of the fort the victory of the buccaneers was complete and they plunged at once into the orgy of debauchery customary on such occasions. By nightfall many of the men were besotted with drink that fifty courageous men could have slaughtered them all. Only Morgan and a few of his more stable collaborators remained sober and on guard. The men who could have saved the city so easily were either dead, wounded, or locked up as prisoners.

For the two weeks the bandit remained in Porto Belo; raiding, burning, torturing, raping, pillaging. No crime was too vile or brutal for them to commit and when they at last loaded their ships to sail away, they left a ruined city behind them.

One lamentable angle to the tragedy of Porto Belo was the shameful attitude of the governor of Panama, Don Juan De Guzman. Morgan had but four hundred fifty men when he left Port Royal and of these, about fifty were either killed or wounded in taking the town and fort. Panama with a huge garrisons of well equipped soldiers and a plentiful supply of armaments was but a two day march from Portobelo. Nevertheless, to the frantic cry of help sent again and again by the defenders of Portobelo, De Guzman replied with messages of facetious philosophy. He made no attempt to assist them in their death struggle.

Toward the end of Morgan’s stay in Portobelo the fatuous governor sent him a letter expressing a sort of admiration for the feat of accomplished. He seemed not so much shocked at what happened as curious at how it had been managed. He asked Morgan to send him a sample of the wonderful weapons he had used, whereby he was able to capture the town with four hundred men, a town containing hundreds of citizens capable of bearing arms, many Indian and slaves, and a formidable garrisoned with three hundred soldiers.

Morgan, without trying to disguise the contempt he felt for such a man, sent back a pistol and some bullets. These were the only weapons he needed, he said. Facetious in turn, he begged the governor to keep them for him for twelve months, after which time he would come to Panama personally and pick them up.

The governor continued this little word play…while his countrymen in the same town, only fifty miles away, were being victimized in a manner scarcely human. He sent another letter to the buccaneer chief telling him to save himself the toil and hardship of a journey to Panama because he would find the city a vastly different proposition from what Portobelo had been. In fact, his reception would be such a hot one that he would be compelled to leave; and do it faster than he had come.

With a number of high-sounding complimentary phrases he concluded the message he dispatched to Morgan along with an emerald ring as a token of the respectful admiration he felt for the buccaneer chief.

Morgan spat scornfully as he ground the letter under foot and pocketed the ring. If Panama were captained by such a fool as that, he thought, it might actually be taken…although until this time such a possibility had scarcely entered his head. There is no doubt but that Morgan, in planning his attack on Panama two years later, took full cognizance of the type of man at the head of its defenses.

As for Portobelo, it was completely gutted of valuables when the pirates finally sailed away. Not so much as a teaspoon, a bolt of cloth or a keg of rum was left in the ruined city. All weapons and ammunition had been collected and taken away and the guns of the forts dismantled and spiked(this meant that a piece of steel was jammed in the barrel rendering it useless). Many people had been killed, wounded or maimed for life by torture. Half the town had been burned or wrecked.

As in every place visited by buccaneers, widespread ruin and desolation were left in their wake when they lifted anchor and propelled their heavily laden ships slowly out of the harbor to the tune of martial music and the booming of cannons. They had made the richest haul in history; and what the matter if the world later condemned the sacking of the town as an unjustifiable act of barbarism.

On a lonely isle off the coast of Cuba Morgan had the great booty carried ashore for partition. There, piled on great squares of canvas beneath sheltering palm trees, the wealth of an empire lay glistening beneath the tropic sun. Two-hundred fifty thousand dollars in yellow pieces of eight, piles of un coined bullion, boxes of jewels, bolts of silks, laces, linens…all valuable plunder which they could convert into good hard cash in Port Royal.

In front, a pistol in each hand, stood the doughty captain, watching once more while the wealth of the great city was divided among the bearded, battle-scared ruffians circled about him. Carefully it was parceled out; one portion for each man, five for the captain. Hour by hour the piles grew as plate was weighed and its value estimated; jewels and merchandise apportioned as best they could be; disputed claims settled by the roll of the dice.

The settlement was good-natured because there was so much. Every man was wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. They were not disposed to argue over trinkets worth but a few dollars; they were anxious to get back to Port Royal and squander off their after the manner popular among men of their ilk…on wine women, and song.

In Morgan’s official report of the affair he blandly stated that he left the town in as good condition as he had found it and that the people had been well treated. Carried away by his own enthusiasm as he warmed to his subject he concluded his story with a flourish by saying:

"Several ladies of great quality and other persons who were offered their liberty to go to the governor’s headquarters in Panama, refused; saying they were being held by a person of quality who was more tender of their honors than they doubted to find in the governor’s domain itself; and so voluntarily continued with them."

Governor Moodyford stamped and filed this statement of Morgan’s as the accepted official version of the affair. His almost lily-white account of the incident was the only information the king of England ever had of it.


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