Reputedly born in Glamorganshire or Monmouthshire of good family, Welsh privateer, landowner, slaveholder Sir Henry Morgan (c. 1635 – 1688) apparently left school young and made his way to the West Indies when he was in his early twenties. 

While there are suggestions that he was taken to the Caribbean as an indentured servant, or as a member of the army led by Robert Venables that conquered Jamaica in 1655. According to Richard Browne, a surgeon on Morgan's flagship, Morgan arrived in the West Indies as a 'private gentleman' and had 'by his valour raised himself to a position of fame and fortune'. Alternatively, he may have spent three years as an apprentice to a cutlery-maker in exchange for the cost of his passage to the West Indies or abducted in Bristol, transported to Barbados, and sold as an indentured servant.

Regardless of the back story, Morgan entered Port Royal in August 1665 as commander of a vessel on a privateering expedition in Central America that had lasted just under two years. During that time, they raided the Tabasco River, south of Campeche, sacked Santa Marta de la Victoria, fought their way out of an ambush on their way back around the Yucatan Peninsula to the Gulf of Honduras. After raiding Trujillo and other settlements on the north coast of Honduras, they continued along Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, before anchoring their vessels and proceeding up the San Juan River in canoes to attack the practically undefended town of Granada, at the northwest end of the Lake Nicaragua. According to their own accounts, the buccaneers walked into the town's plaza mayor unopposed. There is no doubt that tales of easy pickings in Central America fired the imaginations of many of their peers.

While his fellow captains, John Morris and Jacob Fackman had privateering commissions from Jamaican governor Lord Windsor's Admiralty court, Morgan did not, so it seems safe to assume that he rose from the ranks in the course of the expedition.  He was probably already an experienced hand in such ventures since he appears to have been a member of privateering enterprises led by Sir Christopher Myngs earlier in the decade. That would have seen him take part in the 1663  attack on Santiago de Cuba and the sack of Campeche.

His experiences on the expedition had left him with "a lasting disdain for Spanish defences: 'Every action gives new encouragement to attempt the Spaniard finding them in all places very weak and very wealthy' and he judged that '2000 men, some say 500, might easily conquer all this territory' (Zahedieh, Sir Henry  Morgan, citing examinations of Capt. John Morris, Capt. Fackman, and Capt. Henry Morgan, TNA: PRO, CO 1/20, fol. 38).

That opinion undoubtedly shaped Morgan's prospects, as did the recent arrival of a new governor on the island. Thomas Modyford had strict instructions to wind up privateering activity and encourage peaceful trade, but the island's prosperity relied heavily on the plunder the privateers brought in. 

As soon as Modyford Modyford arrived at Port Royal, he began sending reassuring letters-to Spanish officials at Santo Domingo and Cartagena, but the Spanish were understandably suspicious of this supposed change of heart. 

Then, when Modyford set about punishing several buccaneers at Port Royal, he quickly learned the harsh realities of Caribbean existence. While the buccaneers did not attack him directly, they merely deserted Port Royal and made for French-held Tortuga and Hispaniola. The almost immediate decline in commerce at Port Royal forced Modyford changed his mind. After an initial proclamation against privateering on 11 June 1664, the trade quietly resumed in in the background. 

At first, Modyford quietly tolerated “peacetime privateering,” or piracy, and within a few months of his arrival tolerance was changing into open support.

So Morgan and his colleagues were not rebuked for their depredations because they had left port with lawful commissions (although they had long expired and did not authorise actions on land). It was already evident that Modyford would prove an enthusiastic patron of the privateers and the home authorities continued to turn an unsurprising and reassuringly blind eye. After all, the Crown and the Admiralty were respectively entitled to one-tenth and one-fifteenth of the value of prizes taken at sea.

More importantly, changes in European politics saw England entering into conflict with the Dutch, and their temporary allies the French. This development, as far as England was concerned,  opened up new possibilities for plunder among the various Dutch and French settlements in the Caribbean. It also, predictably, meant that English colonies became targets for their former allies in the struggle against Spain, Modyford did not need the buccaneers business. Since Jamaica did not have a permanent defence force, the 1500 privateers based on the island provided security against possible attacks, which now could come from three potential sources. Indeed, "had Modyford not gone back on his early promises and courted the buccaneers, an expedition from Tortuga and St. Domingue might have been sent against Jamaica." (Lane, Pillaging, 111).

Morgan, meanwhile, seems to have taken a spell from buccaneering. He married his cousin, Mary Morgan, daughter of the island's former deputy governor in early 1666. Edward Morgan had led a 600-man expedition against the Dutch island of Sint Eustatius in the Leeward Islands when hostilities broke out between England and the Dutch Republic two years earlier Edward died in the attack and Henry was, presumably, away with Morris and Fackman.

Morgan may have sailed as second-in-command on Captain Edward Mansvelt or Mansfield's 1666 raid on Curaçao on a spell from overseeing the Port Royal militia and supervising the construction of Fort Charles at Port Royal. 

He bought his first sugar plantation around the same time. Sugar planting required substantial capital investment, so Morgan had obviously done reasonably well for himself.  

Along the way, Morgan seems to have become a close friend of Sir Thomas Modyford. When diplomatic relations between England and Spain worsened in 1667, Modyford gave Morgan the rank of admiral, along with a letter of marque to attack and seize Spanish vessels and forestall any attack on Jamaica.

To do that, Morgan assembled ten ships and five hundred men in January 1668; he was subsequently joined by two more ships and two hundred men from the French privateering stronghold on Tortuga.

While Morgan's commission permitted him to attack ships at sea with the proceeds from any prizes taken split between the government and the owners of the vessels that the privateers had used, theoretically, Morgan and company were not supposed to attack Spanish interests ashore. On the other hand, pre-emptive measures against a Spanish attack on Jamaica might allow the privateers to step outside their official remit. If they did, the booty did not have to be shared with anyone.

On that basis, it comes as no surprise to learn that Morgan initially planned to attack Havana, but, after he realised that it was too well-defended, moved against Puerto Principe (Camagüey), around eighty kilometres inland. While they took the town, they found less treasure than anticipated, though Morgan did report details of Spanish plans to attack Jamaica after forces from Vera Cruz, Campeachy, Porto Bello and Cartagena arrived at a rendezvous at Santiago in Cuba.

A quarrel between the English and French elements after an Englishman stabbed a Frenchman in the back could have provoked a riot, but Morgan nipped the commotion in the bud by promising that the Englishman would hang when they returned to Port Royal. Ill-feeling from the incident lived on after they had distributed the spoils from Puerto Principe. When Morgan announced that their next target would be Porto Bello on the Caribbean side of the Isthmus of Panama the disgruntled French privateers returned to Tortuga.

So, after a brief stopover in Port Royal Morgan anchored short of Porto Bello on 11 July 1668, transferred his men to twenty-three canoes and made for the first of three castles that protected the port from the landward side, The attack began half an hour before dawn, and when the three forts were taken, the town surrendered. The first two strongholds fell reasonably quickly, but when the third showed more resistance, Morgan allegedly approached the fortifications behind a human shield of captive nuns and friars. English losses were eighteen killed, with a further thirty-two wounded.

Over the next month, Morgan and his men plundered Porto Bello while Morgan negotiated with the acting president of Panama, demanding a ransom of 350,000 pesos for the city. According to Exquemelin, there was widespread rape and debauchery as they looted the town, but although residents "were presently put to the most exquisite tortures imaginable, to make them confess both other people's goods and their own" (Esquemeling, The Buccaneers Of America, p. 228), there were no first-hand reports to confirm sexual violence.

An attempt to recapture the city with around eight hundred troops was repelled, and the Spanish authorities came up with a smaller ransom of 100,000 pesos, enough to persuade Morgan to return to Port Royal, with money and valuables that exceeded the value of Jamaica's agricultural production, and nearly half Barbados's sugar exports. 

Predictably, everyone did well out of the proceeds. Modyford took the ten per cent stipulated in Morgan's letter of marque, Morgan took five per cent, and the £120 that went to each crewman equated to about five or six years' wages.

Since Morgan had overstepped a strict reading of his commission, Modyford reportedly "reproved" him but did not prevent him from heading off again with ten ships and eight hundred men to repeat the exercise at Cartagena, the wealthiest city on the Spanish Main. Any hint of official displeasure would have been dispelled when the home government sent the frigate Oxford "to be employed at Jamaican expense, in the defence of the colony and in ‘suppressing the insolence of the privateers upon that coast’ (Spate, Monopolists and Freebooters, 136). 

Modyford immediately redirected her to join Morgan, and she arrived at the rendezvous off Hispaniola on 1 January 1669, to become the flagship for Morgan's proposed descent upon Cartagena. 

The following day, however, a spark in the Oxford's powder magazine, while Morgan and his fellow commanders were carousing at a rowdy dinner party after a council of war in the ship's great cabin, blew the vessel apart. The blast killed two hundred men including the commanders seated on one side of the table in the great cabin. Morgan and those on the other side were blown into the water and were among the ten survivors of the explosion. 

The losses in the incident meant that Cartagena was no longer a viable target, but a French commander in the flotilla persuaded Morgan to emulate François l'Olonnais attack on Maracaibo and Gibraltar on Lake Maracaibo two years earlier. 

In the interim, the Spanish had built a stronghold to guard the approached to Maracaibo, but the undermanned fortress had only nine men to work its eleven guns, and when they sighted Morgan's landing party they set a slow match to detonate the magazine and decamped. Morgan and company snuffed out the fuse, spiked the guns and buried them for good measure, then moved on to Maracaibo, which by this time was mostly deserted. After three weeks ransacking the city, Morgan moved across the lake to Gibraltar, where the resistance seemed strong enough to make Morgan keep his distance until a landing party breached the defences from the landward side. At that point, the defenders fled, and Morgan's men had another five weeks to ransack and plunder their latest victim.

There was, however, a problem on the way out of the lake. A Spanish squadron, the Armada de Barlovento under Don Alonso del Campo y Espinosa was blockading the passage between the Caribbean and Lake Maracaibo, and Spanish forces had re-established themselves at the San Carlos de la Barra stronghold, which now had a new complement of cannon and the men to work them. 

So, rather than fight his way out, Morgan set out to negotiate. The Spanish commander's final offer was safe passage if the privateers left their plunder behind, but when Morgan put the proposal to his men, they resolved to fight their way out. While they were heavily outgunned, in the action on 1 May 1669 a fire ship took out Espinosa's flagship, a boarding party took the second-largest Spanish ship, Soledad, after it developed a problem with the rigging and a third Spanish vessel was also sunk.

However, since Morgan still needed to pass the fortress, negotiations resumed. Threats to sack and burn Maracaibo if his passage was blocked produced a ransom of 20,000 pesos and 500 head of cattle. Better still, while the parleying proceeded salvage operations on the Spanish flagship yielded another 15,000 pesos. That brought the proceeds of the expedition to some 250,000 pesos, along with valuable merchandise and many slaves.

Then, having noted that the Spanish had set the strongpoint's cannons to fend off a landward attack, Morgan feigned a landing. That drew the garrison out of the fortifications to forestall a night attack and rather adroitly drifted past the unmanned battlements with the run of the tide, and did not unfurl the sails until they were level with the fortress. By the time the Spaniards realised what was happening, Morgan's ships were out of range and on their way back to Port Royal unscathed.

In the meantime, a pro-Spanish faction had risen to power in London, and while the change in foreign policy meant Modyford had to admonish Morgan for exceeding the terms of his commission and revoke the letters of marque; no further action was taken, and Morgan ended up with a second 338-hectare sugar plantation.

Spanish attacks on English shipping in March 1670, as well as Jamaica's Montego Bay in June, however, saw Modyford issue Morgan with another privateering commission. By December Morgan had built up a fleet of thirty-eight English and French ships carrying around two thousand men and more than two hundred cannons, the largest privateering force the Caribbean had seen. 

After an attack on the port of Chagres, Morgan left a garrison at Fort San Lorenzo to cover his line retreat, and, on 9 January 1671, with his remaining men, set off for Old Panama City, on the Pacific side of the isthmus. While the overland journey took them through dense rainforests and swamps, canoes helped get them along the waterways on either side of the continental divide, and they were able to beat off ambushes by Spanish forces sent to intercept them. 

Arriving at the objective on 27 January 1671; they camped overnight and then outmanoeuvred and outfought an inexperienced Spanish force of 1,200 infantry and 400 cavalry. When the governor of Panama attempted to turn the tide of battle by releasing herds of cattle onto the battlefield, the noise of the gunfire spooked them, and they stampeded over the Spanish forces, which ended up losing between four and five hundred men compared to the privateers' losses of thirteen killed.

Barrels of gunpowder scattered through the city's predominantly timber buildings were detonated before Morgan's men could start pillaging, and much of the city's wealth had already been relocated to safer places. However, three or four "quickly re-established his reputation as the hard-drinking friend of the buccaneers he had always been" (Lane, Pillaging, p. 124)weeks in the ruins yielded somewhere between 140,000 and 400,000 pesos, but the size of the expedition meant that many of the participants were discontented with their relatively low shares (around £15 per head). There were accusations that Morgan had misappropriated a disproportionate share of the proceeds. 

The reaction when he returned to Port Royal on 12 March, however, was more positive, as was the response to his official report to Jamaica's governing council the following month. 

Back in Europe, however, the Treaty of Madrid had ended hostilities between England and Spain before the attack on Panama, and the treaty included an undertaking to revoke all letters of marque and similar commissions. In Jamaica, Modyford was replaced as governor by Sir Thomas Lynch, Sir Thomas Lynch, "a planter who had long damned buccaneering as “the sickness of Jamaica.” (Winston, No purchase, no pay, 30) arrested, and sent to England. 

Charles II and his government set out to avert a diplomatic crisis that threatened to turn back into open warfare by ordering Morgan's arrest, but by the time he was back in London in April 1672, he was a national hero and, therefore, almost untouchable. While there are suggestions that he may have spent some time in the Tower of London, Morgan seems to have remained at liberty throughout his time there, and he was never charged with an offence since he could prove he did not know about the Treaty of Madrid when he attacked Panama.

At the start of 1674, when the king and his advisers decided they were unhappy with Jamaica's new administration, they appointed John Vaughan, 3rd Earl of Carbery, to replace Lynch, with  Morgan as his deputy and Modyford as Chief Justice. Morgan received a knighthood in November 1674 and left for Jamaica two months later aboard the Jamaica Merchant. The ship foundered on the outward voyage, and Morgan and his companions were temporarily stranded on the Île-à-Vache until a passing merchant ship picked them up.

In Jamaica, the Assembly of Jamaica voted their new Lieutenant Governor an annual salary of £600, a move that angered Carbery, who complained that his deputy was unfit to have anything to do with civil government. Carbery's instructions from the king and the Lords of Trade and Plantations included stopping piracy and encouraging the planting of sugar, but from the time he arrived in the colony, he was in constant conflict with his lieutenant-governor and the Jamaican assembly, which opposed his strict measures against pirates. In piracy cases, the accused were often supported by Morgan as Vaughan prosecuted them. 

Still, despite Carbery's disapproval, Morgan served on the Assembly of Jamaica until 1683 and served as acting Governor on three occasions when the incumbent was absent from the island.

While his return to Jamaica was not followed by further privateering activity, and he had been ordered to eradicate the practice, Morgan "quickly re-established his reputation as the hard-drinking friend of the buccaneers he had always been" (Lane, Pillaging, 124), and invested in some of their ventures. Around 1,200 privateers were operating in the Caribbean, Port Royal remained their preferred destination and while Morgan was unable to issue letters of marque, his brother-in-law, Robert Bindloss, apparently directed would-be privateers to the French governor of Tortuga with Bindloss and Morgan receiving a spotters fee for each new privateering commission signed there. Carbery also alleged that Morgan had written to buccaneers operating out of Tortuga and Hispaniola encouraging them to bring their stolen wares to Port Royal for sale.

Those arrangements may have been an underlying factor behind Carbery's July 1676 accusations of collaborating with the French to attack Spanish interests in the Caribbean Morgan admitted meetings the French officials, but maintained it was diplomacy rather than conspiracy. 

The matter was still undetermined when Carberry was recalled in early 1678, leaving Morgan in charge for three months. Carberry's replacement was Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Carlisle,  appointed in July 1678.

By this stage, with France flexing its muscles in the Caribbean, Morgan took control of Port Royal's defences. Threats of imminent invasion saw him declaring martial law in 1678 and 1680 during his terms as temporary governor. He re-built Port Royal's fortifications, increased the defensive firepower, and, in his capacity as an owner of slave plantations, led three campaigns against runaway slaves (Maroons or Cimarrons), forcing them to withdraw further into the Blue Mountains.

Meanwhile, back in London the former governors Carbery and Lynch continued to criticise Morgan and his allies in the Assembly for their on-going dealings with privateers and pirates.  A payment of £50,000 from Lynch to Charles II saw Morgan's commission to official duties removed, and Lynch reappointed as governor. While Morgan retained his place in the Assembly, Lynch set about removing his supporters from the Assembly, and in October 1683 finally managed to removed Morgan and Bindloss.

Lynch died the following year, and while his  friend, the lieutenant-general Hender Molesworth was the temporary replacement, in December 1687the permanent position went to Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, a friend of Morgan's from his time in London, and the ex-privateer was back in official favour as an unofficial advisor to the new regime. Albemarle persuaded the king to bring Morgan back into the Assembly in July 1688, but by that stage, Morgan, who had been drinking heavily for years, was too ill to attend. He saw Albemarle's physician, Hans Sloane, who ordered him to abandon his long-standing dissolute lifestyle. 

Morgan ignored the advice and died on 25 August 1688. He was given a state funeral, with an amnesty declared so that his former privateering colleagues could pay their respects without fear of legal difficulties. After burial at Port Royal, he received a twenty-two-gun salute from the ships in the harbour but did not rest in peace. Less than four years later, on 7 June 1692, an earthquake struck Port Royal, and two-thirds of the town, including Palisadoes cemetery and Morgan's grave sank into Kingston harbour. His body has never been located.

Still, Morgan died a wealthy man with three sugar plantations, 129 slaves, and a personal fortune of  £5,263 which went to his "very well and entirely beloved wife Dame Mary Elizabeth Morgan"; the properties went to his godsons Charles Byndloss and Henry Archbold if they adopted their godfather's surname. 

That fortune would have included the damages of £200 awarded to Morgan after the successful libel suit Morgan brought against William Crooke and Thomas Malthus, the publishers of an English translation of Alexandre Exquemelin's 1684 memoir De Americaensche Zee-Roovers (Buccaneers of America), where Morgan's former shipmate accused him of widespread torture and other offences. "Morgan won his libel suit, but in spite of this legal victory, he could not achieve his end of restoring his public image and controlling his literary legacy. After Exquemelin, the English buccaneer embodied most fully in Morgan, evolved into a paradoxical emblem of the violence that drives empire forward." (Frohock, Buccaneers and Pirates, p. 52)

So, while Morgan won the court case, Exquemelin, effectively, won the war. While subsequent editions of the English translation were amended, original versions continued to circulate. While Morgan's life was subsequently romanticised, history's view of the Welshman and the way he is portrayed in pirate-themed works of fiction remains closer to Exquemelin's description than Morgan's preferred narrative. The pirates who followed in Morgan's wake were more indiscriminate, freelance raiders who rarely attempted to legitimise their illegal activities.

"Whether Morgan was a pirate, a corsair, or a privateer is a matter of debate. The Spanish regarded him as a corsair, and since some of his most spectacular raids were carried out when England was at peace with Spain, those actions, like those of Francis Drake, were acts of piracy. However, Morgan always carried a commission from the Governor of Jamaica so that technically he was a privateer. He no doubt simply regarded himself as a soldier fighting the enemies of his country on behalf of the King of England." (Cordingley, Under the black flag, p. 41)


K. Grudzien Baston, John Vaughan, third Earl of Carbery (bap. 1639, d. 1713)

Chambers Biographical Dictionary

David Cordingly, Under the black flag: the romance and the reality of life among the pirates

Peter Earle, The Pirate Wars,

Alexandre Esquemeling, The Buccaneers Of America

Richard Frohock, Buccaneers and Pirates: The Story of the English Sea Rover 1675-1725

Kris E. Lane, Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750, 

O.H.K. Spate The Pacific Since Magellan, Volume II: Monopolists and Freebooters


Alexander Porter Winston, No purchase, no pay: Sir Henry Morgan, Captain William Kidd, Captain Woodes Rogers in the great age of privateers and pirates, 1665-1715

Nuala Zahedieh, Sir Henry  Morgan (c. 1635–1688), 

© Ian Hughes 2017