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Sir Henry Morgan, in a popular 18th century woodcut.

Images of swashbuckling pirates sailing the high seas continue to capture the imagination today, hundreds of years removed from the height of the ‘pirate’ age. Granted, there have always been and always will be ‘pirates’ in some form, but the pirates I’m talking about sailed in wooden ships laden with cannons. They were ruthless in their pursuit of plunder and gold; and one of the most feared among them was none other than Captain Henry Morgan.

Henry Morgan, the Man

Henry Morgan was the eldest son of a Welsh farmer. Very little is known about his early life other than the fact that by the time he was 20, Morgan was more at home in Jamaica and the Caribbean than he was in Wales. Some historians claim that Morgan so desperately wanted to escape his childhood home that he sold himself into indentured slavery for three years in order to gain passage to the new world. Once there, he was quick to establish his name and reputation. By 1661 Morgan had been given command of a privateer ship in the force of Edward Mansfield. The governor of Jamaica had commissioned their expedition to harass Spanish towns in the new world, and when Mansfield was captured and killed, Morgan was elected  admiral by the privateers.

Henry Morgan, the Legend

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An illustration of Henry Morgan and his pirate crew at the capture of a Spanish town.

England’s relationship with Spain had always been tenuous when it came to issues of trade and control in the new world. As a way to frustrate the early Spanish supremacy, England began to officially sanction privateering missions where privateers (legally sanctioned pirates) would raid Spanish ships and towns. The government avoided having to finance an extensive navy, Spanish holdings were weakened, and the privateers got to divide the loot among themselves and their investors.

Under this system, Morgan thrived.  Attacks on Port-au-Prince and the Spanish stronghold at Portobello helped his reputation grow, both as an effective privateer, but also as a ruthless pirate. The English authorities must have appreciated the detriment that Morgan’s raids worked on Spain, but his attacks were accompanied by countless acts of atrocity against civilians and innocent townsfolk. Morgan’s reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate served to strain his relationship with the English authorities who had sanctioned his privateering.

Morgan’s destruction of the Spanish fleet at Maracaibo in 1669 cemented him as a household name in both the new world and the old. It also stoked the Spanish desire for revenge. The English had revoked privateering permissions in the Caribbean because of a treaty, but Spain had finally begun to offer privateering commissions of its own. While Morgan stayed at his Jamaican plantation and enjoyed the spoils of victory, Spanish privateers began to harm English interests in the Caribbean. In short order, England called on the services of its most feared privateer. Morgan was commissioned with the defense of Jamaica. For Morgan, however, the best defense was in attack.

The Fortress of San Lorenzo

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A map showing the entrance to the Chagres River and the placement of the fortress of San Lorenzo.

In a decision demonstrative of Morgan’s boldness, he and his crew decided to attack the Spanish holding at Panama. Panama City lay on the Pacific side of the isthmus, thus, the privateers would have to traverse the dense jungle in order to get there.  The Chagres River would allow the force to make at least part of the journey to Panama City on water, but the imposing Spanish fortress of San Lorenzo sat at the river’s mouth. On 6 January 1671, Morgan’s forces made quick work of the fortress, killing 300 of the fort’s garrison and leaving only 23 alive. Morgan opted to leave 300 of his own men behind to hold control of the fortress as their base of operations, and on 19 January, a force 1,400-strong began up the Chagres River ,destined for Panama City.

The Sack of Panama City

As Morgan’s force reached the gates of Panama City on 28 January 1671, Panama’s president, Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán, organized a defense. He had wished to confront Morgan’s men at the river but as his own soldiers refused, Don Juan was forced to organize a defense on the plain directly outside the city. What looked to be an even match–Don Juan’s 1,200 infantry and 400 cavalry to Morgan’s 1,400 men–turned into a rout. Morgan secured the high ground early, and by battle’s end, over 500 Spaniards had fallen compared to only 15 privateers.

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The remaining ruins of Panama City, now known as Panama Viejo. It was never rebuilt after Morgan’s sack of Panama City.

With victory secured, Morgan’s men entered the city. The Spaniards that had survived the initial battle set about burning the city in a bid to keep it from being occupied, an attempt in which they were largely successful. Morgan’s men were further dismayed to see the city’s wealth had been removed. Several ships sailed into the distance as Morgan’s men debated whether to give chase. In the end, they decided to celebrate their capture of the city rather than attempt to catch the fleeing ships. The loot gained from the sack of Panama City was small compared to what they had expected, but it still required 175 mules to carry the treasure back to San Lorenzo.

Political Fallout from the Sack of Panama City

Morgan and his men returned to Jamaica as heroes. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, Spain protested that the treaty had been violated. Yes, England had authorized Morgan to defend Jamaica, but Spain demanded that his attack on Panama City be punished. Both Morgan and the governor of Jamaica were recalled to England to ‘answer’ for their actions, but neither was ever seriously punished. Morgan spent two years in England under a so-called ‘house arrest,’ but he was free to do as he pleased. Morgan, true-to-form, used his reputation to gain access to the wealthy circles of society. Most of his time was spent as a celebrity and social guest of wealthy politicians. He was never punished for his actions as a privateer, and in the end he returned to Jamaica, never to sail as a privateer again. The sack of Panama City had been his last, and greatest raid against the Spanish Main.