Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (3)


After this failure, they turned their attention to Jamaica which was in an even more abandoned, less well defended, condition than Hispaniola. It was taken with ease, but a large part of the Spanish population retired with their moveable property and slaves to more remote parts of the island, expecting that the occupation would not last very long.

Following the departure of Venables and Penn, the occupation quickly fell into chaos. The army was left in the hands of Major General William Fortescue and Admiral William Goodson who formed an executive committee together with Major Robert Sedgwick from New England who happened to be in London in 1655 and was sent by Cromwell probably for his knowledge in colonial matters. He arrived in October. 

The eighteenth century Jamaican historian Bryan Edwards, describing the country, said that North of Port Caguaya (soon to become Port Royal) there was a large Savannah:

'also abundantly stored with horned cattle and horses which ran wild in great numbers; and the first employment of the English troops was hunting and slaughtering the cattle for the sale of the hides, which soon became an article of export. It was supposed by Sedgwick that the soldiers had killed 20,000 in the course of the first four months after their arrival; and as to horses, "they were in such plenty (says Goodson) that we accounted them the vermin of the country."'

Edwards continues:

'Having at first found in the country, cattle and swine in great abundance, they had destroyed them with such improvidence and wantonness of profusion, as to occasion a scarcity of fresh provisions in a place which had been represented as abounding in the highest degree. The chief commanders apprehending this event, and finding that the bread and flour which arrived from England were oftentimes spoilt by the length of the voyage and the heat of the climate, had urged the soldiers, with great earnestness, to cultivate the soil, and raise, by their own industry, Indian corn, pulse and caffavi [a root plant used in the area for making a form of bread], sufficient for their maintenance, endeavoured to make them sensible that supplies from England must necessarily be casual and uncertain ; and, persuasion failing, they would have compelled them by force to plant the ground ; but the subaltern officers concurred with the private men, absolutely refusing to contribute in the smallest degree to their own preservation by the means recommended. They were possessed of a passionate longing to return to England, and fondly imagined that the continual great expence of maintaining so large a body of troops at so great a distance, would induce the protector to relinquish his conquest. They even rooted up the provisions which had been planted and left by the Spaniards. "Our soldiers (writes Sedgewicke) have destroyed all sorts of provisions and cattle. Nothing but ruin attends them wheresoever they go. Dig or plant, they neither will nor can, but are determined rather to starve than work." A scarcity, approaching to a famine, was at length the consequence of such misconduct, and it was accompanied with its usual attendants, disease and contagion. Perhaps there are but few descriptions in history wherein a greater variety of horrors are accumulated than in the letters addressed on this occasion by Sedgewicke and the other principal officers, to the government at home, which are preserved among Thurloe's state papers, such was the want of food, that snakes, lizards and other vermin, were eagerly eaten, together with unripe fruits and noxious vegetables. This unwholesome diet concurred with other circumstances to produce an epidemic dysentery, which raged like the plague. For a considerable time one hundred and forty men died weekly, and Sedgewicke himself at length perished in the general carnage.'

Another historian of Jamaica, Thomas Southey, adds:

'Sedgewicke arrived about the end of the year, and says, "For the army I found them in as sad, as deplorable and distracted a condition, as can be thought of. As to the commanders, some have quitted the island, some have died, some are sick, and others in indifferent health. Of the soldiers many are dead, and their carcases lying unburied every where in the highways and among the bushes. Many that are alive appear like ghosts ; and as I went through the town, they lay groaning and crying out, 'Bread for the Lord's sake!' The truth is, I saw nothing but symptoms of necessity and desolation."

'He found the shore strewed with stores, "exposed to ruin" and says a small number of men might in a few days have erected a house sufficient to have secured the whole. In a subsequent letter to Thurlow [an alternative spelling of 'Thurloe'], he says, "Should I give you a character of the dispositions and qualifications  of our army in general (some few particulars excepted), I profess my heart would grieve to write, as it doth to think of them. I believe they are not to be paralleled in the whole world ; a people so lazy and idle, as it cannot enter into the heart of any Englishman that such blood should run in the veins of any born in England - so unworthy, slothful, and basely secure; and have, out of a strange kind of spirit, desired rather to die than live ...'

Cromwell was however anxious to support and strengthen the new colony. Indeed, it is not obvious why Jamaica was a very much worse capture than Hispaniola. It was smaller and, with Hispaniola at its back, perhaps more vulnerable, but it was still much larger than its nearest British rival, Barbados, and much larger than any of the French or Dutch possessions. It was also closer to the mainland and so more convenient for purposes of trade or piracy. But if Britain was to keep Jamaica it needed to be rapidly settled. Cromwell asked the governors of the longer established British possessions in the region - Barbados, St Kitts, Nevis, which were becoming overpopulated - to send planters to Jamaica. He also asked the governments in Ireland and Scotland to find, if necessary to pressgang, recruits.

There was a Spanish attempt to recover Jamaica in 1658. Thirty companies of Spanish infantry landed at Rio Nueva on the north of the island. The then governor, Edward D'Oyley, who had been with the expedition from the start, managed against the odds to repel it and also, afterwards, to defeat and expel those of the Spanish who had remained on the island. They left behind them their slaves, the 'maroons', however, who continued to harrass the English plantations into the eighteenth century. 

All this helps to explain the importance of the privateers and buccaneers in the early history of Jamaica. 'Nothing', Edwards says 'contributed so much to the settlement and opulence of this island in early times as the resort to it of those men called Bucaniers; the wealth which they acquired having been speedily transferred to a people whose industry was employed in cultivation and commerce.' He mentions in particular: 'Henry Morgan, the most celebrated of the English Bucaniers (a man indeed of an elevated mind and invincible courage.).'


Buccaneering methods were used from the start by Vice-Admiral Goodson, who had remained behind with twelve ships after the departure of the fleet. Cromwell's policy had been to gain control of the trade route between South America and Spain, and to this end he had granted Goodson full powers to seize ships belonging to the King of Spain or his subjects, as he had granted his army full power to take forts and castles and to pursue and kill all who opposed them. Goodson did not waste any time. In October 1655 he launched a raid on the town of Santa Marta de la Victoria, near Cartagena on the mainland in what is now Colombia - it was then part of the Audiencia of Santa Fe. The population fled with their possessions. Goodson pursued them for twelve miles, then plundered and burnt their houses. Some weeks later, his lieutenant, Captain Nuberry, returned and found that some of the people had begun to rebuild, so he burnt them a second time.

The policy was disapproved of by Major Sedgwick who replaced D'Oyley as governor. Sedgwick, a devout Puritan from Massachussets, argued that such activities were 'not honourable for a princely navy' and that attacking secondary towns rather than the great centres such as Cartagena or Havanna was not effective as a means of blocking the Spanish treasure route. But Sedgwick fell ill and died after a short period and the authority reverted to D'Oyley. We can see how tempting Goodson's policy must have been simply as a means of providing an outlet for a mutinous and discontented mass of soldiers condemned by government policy to spend the rest of their lives in a part of the world they hated. 

The Santa Marta attack was followed by a very similar raid in April 1656 on Rio de la Hacha. Thereafter, through 1657 and 1658, Goodson concentrated his efforts on an unsuccessful effort to seize the Spanish treasure fleet but eventually it slipped through his hands and, apparently in spite, the English then destroyed the town of Tolú, also in Santa Fe and, yet again, Santa Marta, destroying everything for miles around.

Enjoyable as all that might have been, the real triumph came in 1659, when Captain Christopher Myngs, ordered by D'Oyley to harry the South American coast, came in to Port Caguaya with what the historian Clarence Haring calls 'the richest prize that ever entered Jamaica.' They had attacked the towns of Cumana, Puerto Cabello and Coro, all on the coast of Venezuela. At Coro they followed the fleeing inhabitants into the woods where they found twenty two chests of treasure, each containing 400 lbs of silver, intended for the King of Spain. Together with plates, jewels and cocoa, the whole came to something between £20,000 and £30,000, a huge sum for the age. 


Myngs quickly became a hero but he fell out with D'Oyley over the division of the spoils - D'Oyley accused him of disregarding the interest of the state and sent him back to face trial in England. But a 'way' - later to be called 'Harry Morgan's way' - had been indicated, albeit a way - harrassing the Spaniard - that was already well established, not just among the Buccaneers but also in the policy of Holland and France as well as of England. England, indeed, after the Elizabethan period, had been comparatively reticent. The Peace Treaty with Spain in 1630 had been a continuation of a process begun with a treaty signed in 1604. The Spanish wanted to protect not just their wealth but also their culture and were deeply suspicious of the corrosive effect of contacts with other peoples. The English wanted to break into the many opportunities for trade offered by the Spanish Empire, especially with regard to slaves. The conflict in some ways parallels later conflicts with the great protectionist civilisations of the  Far East. It should be said that the English were not really committed to a principle of what we would understand as 'free trade'. The Navigation Acts passed under the Commonwealth, and confirmed and strengthened after the Restoration, required that the produce of the English colonies could only be conveyed to Europe in English vessels.

To gain access to the wealth of South America there were two ways, which could, however, be regarded as complementary - the way of negotiation and the way of force. The Dutch had pursued a policy of using privateers to harrass the Spanish until 1648 when they had signed a treaty which gave them some, albeit tightly controlled, access to certain of the Spanish ports. Thereafter those Dutch privateers who continued in business were working for themselves, for the French or the English. The English Commonwealth, identifying the culture the Spanish were so anxious to defend with the rule of Antichrist, had a religiously motivated preference for the use of force, but with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy things were much less clearcut. Charles was proclaimed in May 1660 and in September, he declared a cessation of hostilities with Spain, renewing the 1630 treaty. D'Oyley in Jamaica received a letter from the governor of Santiago in Cuba returning some thirty English prisoners, together with an order from Sir Henry Bennet, the new Keeper of the Privy Seal, declaring an end of hostilities. Bennet, soon to become Secretary of State and to be ennobled as Lord Arlington, had been Charles's representative in Spain during the exile and was the leader of a party which favoured negotiation rather than force, while always recognising that the possibility of force was a useful bargaining counter in negotiation.

There was an anxious moment in Jamaica when it seemed the new administration might return them back to Spain, which would certainly have been a logical inference of the renewal of the treaty of peace. Charles, however, quickly seems to have realised the advantages the island could  confer - one of 'the few satisfying acts of usurpation which marked the intermediate period of disorder and dismay', to quote Rev George Bridges. In the event of a trade with the mainland being established, the island was well placed to profit from it, but it was also well placed to profit from the already existing and thriving smuggling business. The population of the Spanish Americas wanted to trade if only to break free of the inflated prices of the Spanish monopoly. Indeed this, the possibility of good, albeit 'illegal', relations with the Spanish colonists, was a strong argument against the policy of the privateers. Jamaica was well placed, athwart the main Spanish trade passage, to make life difficult for the Spanish and therefore to constitute a bargaining counter in negotiations. And in this case its ability to disturb the Spanish was enormously enhanced by its position as a centre for the buccaneers. It also gave England an advantage in its conflict with its rivals, France and Holland - a rivalry that was in some respects becoming more important than the conflict with Spain itself.