Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (2)


The earliest Spanish activities had been in the Caribbean Islands - Cuba, Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and a host of smaller ones - but with the discovery of the possibilities of the mainland, the islands had been neglected. Other nations, including the English, began to take an interest in them. Nor could the Spanish police the area and they were quickly full of 'privateers', or 'buccaneers' - individuals looking for opportunities of plunder with or without the backing of their governments. The word 'buccaneer' may derive from a Carib word referring to a frame used to smoke meat. It was taken to refer to men who for one reason or another, perhaps because they were runaway servants or slaves, were living wild in the less inhabited parts of Hispaniola. They lived off the animals who roamed these areas in abundance, eating their meat and selling their hides, but they also attacked passing ships and were increasingly involved in maritime piracy, interacting with the more 'respectable' privateers.

An English settlement was established on the small island of St Christopher's ('St Kitt's') under Thomas Warner in 1623. In 1625 they were joined by the crew of a French privateer, Pierre Bélain, Sieur d'Esnambuc, seeking refuge after coming off worse from an encounter with a Spanish warship. The French were welcomed by the English and together they routed the native Caribbeans, who had initially welcomed the English. They killed some two thousand and Warner was knighted for the exploit. D'Esnambuc went on in 1635 to found the French colony at Martinique. The native population there was expelled in 1660. In 1629 a Spanish fleet arrived at St Kitt's to remove what they saw as the English and French interlopers. Most of the English and French fled but those that were caught were sent to the mines and the island was reduced to a desert. It was restored again after the 1630 treaty between England and Spain but in 1638, as the confrontation between King and Parliament was developing in England, the Spanish attacked a settlement established by the Providence Island Company on the small island of Tortuga, off the coast of Hispaniola. In 1641, they wiped out the colony the Company had established on Providence Island itself. In 1635, English and Dutch settlers had taken the uninhabited island of Santa Cruz. They had quarrelled among themselves and the English took whole possession. But the fledgeling colony, women and children included, was wiped out by the Spanish in 1650. They did the same to a group of Dutch settlers who tried to take over a little later.

But the most important of the early English settlements was Barbados, originally settled by a colony of around thirty people in late 1624. Under the patronage of James Hay, Earl of Carlisle, it grew rapidly, with a particular influx of people escaping the English civil war in the 1640s. By 1653, there were 20,000 slaves, 8,000 indentured servants, 5,000 English freeholders and 5,000 freed servants. In 1655 7,787 tons of sugar were exported to Britain. The island had been staunchly Royalist, making a declaration of loyalty to the King in 1647, and expelling the few supporters of Parliament after the King's execution. As a result, Parliament sent an expedition of 1,000 troops under Sir George Ayscue in 1651. The Royalist governor, Lord Willoughby, fortified the island and raised an army against them but, unable to withstand a naval blockade, he surrendered in 1652.


It may have been about this time that Henry Morgan appeared on the scene. His origins are uncertain. He acquired a very lurid reputation through the publication of The Buccaneers of America by A.O. (Alexander Oliver, though early English translations call him John) Exquemelin, a Dutch sailor who joined the privateers and was with Morgan at the rape of Panamá. Exquemelin's book was first published in Dutch in 1678 and went through many editions in Spanish and French before appearing in English in 1684. Morgan was upset by it and eventually was awarded damages, apparently the first case of money being awarded for a literary libel. But it seems that what upset him most was not the accounts of torture and pillage, distressing as these are, but the account Exquemelin gives of his origins. Exquemelin claimed that he had run way from home and joined a ship going to Barbados as an indentured servant. Other versions said he had been kidnapped in Bristol, or that he had been sold by his parents.

As a result of Morgan's challenge, one of the English publishers of Exquemelin's book added in explanation:

'John Exquemelin hath mistaken the origin of Sir Henry Morgan, for he was a Gentleman's Son of good Quality, in the County of Monmouth, and was never a Servant unto anybody in his life, unless unto his Majesty, the late King of England.'

Terry Breverton, interested in Morgan's Welsh origins, tells us that there were several Morgan estates of varying sizes in the region of Monmouth - Llanrhymney near modern Cardiff, another Llanrhymney near Tredegar in Gwent, Pencarn near Newport, and the great Morgan family home of Tredegar House, also near Newport. Later, when Morgan came into possession of plantations of his own in Jamaica, one of them was called Llanrhymney and another Penkarne. He may have been the eldest son of the Robert Morgan of the Llanrhymney that is now near Cardiff, a yeoman farmer related to the Morgans of Tredegar, in which case he would have been quite well connected. One of his uncles would have been the Parliamentarian Captain Thomas Morgan and another, Edward, a colonel with the cavaliers. Edward was to become Deputy Governor of Jamaica, and Henry married his daughter, Mary Elizabeth.


The circumstances of Morgan's arrival in Jamaica are also debated. The idea most commonly accepted is that he arrived with the army sent by Cromwell in pursuit of what was called the 'Western Design'. Notionally, the treaty of peace between England and Spain signed in 1630 still held after the Commonwealth, and the Spanish were anxious to maintain it despite their obvious reasons for disapproving of the new English government. Spain and France were at war, and both sides were competing to secure English support. Eventually Cromwell decided not to intervene in Europe but to take the opportunity to strengthen the English position in the West Indies, indeed perhaps to prepare the way for a full English takeover of Spanish possessions in the area.

He was urged to this by the Providence Island Company and others, including a leading planter on Barbados, Thomas Modyford who was to play an important role in the story of Henry Morgan. The theory of the adventure was developed by Thomas Gage, member of an English Roman Catholic family who had lived in Spain and New Spain (South America) as a Jesuit, then as a Dominican and subsequently made a name for himself by becoming a Protestant minister, writing an account of his experiences, exposing his former co-religionists and testifying against them at their trials. Gage  argued that Cromwell need have no scruples about breaking the terms of the 1630 treaty:

'None in conscience may better attempt such an expulsion of the Spaniards from those parts, than the English, who have been often expelled by them from our plantations ; as from St. Christopher's, St. Martin's, from Providence and from Tortagas, where the English were inhumanly and most barbarously treated by the Spaniards, who to this day watch for their best advantage to cast us out of all our plantations, and say that all the islands as well as the main belong to them. And in conscience it is lawful to cast that enemy or troublesome neighbour out of his dominions, that would, and hath attempted to cast us out of ours."

He also argued that the English should begin with Hispaniola, saying that it was poorly defended. 

The army sent by Cromwell was led by Robert Venables, who had had a distinguished career during the civil war, and the fleet by William Penn, father of William Penn the Quaker who was to found Pennsylvania. The footsoldiers, however, though numerous, were of poor quality, basically those whom their officers at home wanted rid of, men pressed from the streets, or poorly trained volunteers from the West Indian colonies. They were undersupplied and denied the incentive of taking plunder, since resources were to be kept intact for future English colonisation. This latter is worth mentioning since these same men probably provided much of the material from which Morgan's armies would later be drawn.

The attempt on Hispaniola in April 1655 was, in the event, a disaster. The plan was to attack the Spanish at their strongest point, Santo Domingo, but the army was forced to land some twenty five miles west of the fort. Venables - defending himself after his return to England where, like Penn, he was imprisoned for his failure - wrote a pitiable account of the march over an unfamiliar and forbidding terrain and of the condition they were in when they finally arrived and had to start fighting. The invasion turned into  a humiliating rout, with perhaps six hundred soldiers killed at the hands of a couple of hundred Spanish, many of them black slaves. In fact, as we have seen, a large part of the island had been abandoned by the Spanish and given over to the genuine buccaneers. That part of the island could have been taken with relative ease, as the French did ten years later.