Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (6)


Morgan may have joined up with the buccaneers in the late 1650s either as a soldier who had come over with Venables and Penn or as an individual who had come one way or another - indentured servant, kidnap victim or whatever - to Barbados. He may have participated in Myngs's exploits, or he may have been operating separately and bought a ship with the  proceeds as Exquemelin suggests. He may have participated with Mansfield in the seizure of Providence. Exquemelin gives him a leading role in this but he also states, inaccurately, that Modyford did not support the venture. Exquemelin only arrived in the region in 1666 and only met up with Morgan a couple of years later so his account is based on hearsay. There is even a question mark over whether or not the Captain Morgan who participated in the Villahermosa and Granada raids really was Henry. It is a small question mark but sufficient to indicate that he was not yet seen as a particularly important figure in the privateering world.

The salient characteristic, then, of Morgan's career up to 1668, is its obscurity - an obscurity that persists through the latter part of 1666, from the time of Mansfield's return in June, assuming Morgan had been part of his operation, through the whole of 1667, to early in 1668. It was not a period in which nothing was happening. Early in 1666, the French entered into alliance with the Dutch and there was intense fighting between French and English, with some Dutch involvement, through the Antilles. The new English governor of St Eustatia, Col Thomas Morgan, leading a group of 260 buccaneers, died trying to oppose a French takeover of St Christopher's. The English lost successively St Christopher's, Antigua, Dominica and, in November, the Dutch recovered St Eustatia. Southey, commenting that 1666 was the year of the Great Fire of London, says: 'It was truly a dismal year for the English in the West Indies also.' In January 1667 they lost Montserrat. But in April things began to turn when an English fleet arrived at Barbados under Admiral Sir John Harman and eventually, in July, the Peace of Breda between the English, French and Dutch required that everything be restored to the condition in which it had been prior to the war.

During this period, when the English interest in the West Indies really was under attack from formidable enemies in a war in which people who may have been his own relatives were killed, Henry Morgan seems to have been inactive. It may have been then that he married Edward Morgan's daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who had just lost the protection of her father, and began his alternative career as a planter.


In February 1667, the Secretary of State Lord Arlington had written to Modyford calling on him to restrain the privateers. Modyford had replied that 'the Spaniards look on us as intruders and trespassers, wheresoever they find us in the Indies, and use us accordingly; and were it in their power, as it is fixed in their wills, would soon turn us out of all our plantations, and is it reasonable that we should quietly let them grow upon us until they are able to do it? It must be force alone that can cut in sunder that unneighbourly maxim of their government to deny all access to strangers.'

Modyford was now clearly committed to the view that the wellbeing of Jamaica required a permanent state of war, but he can hardly have believed that this was necessary for reasons of pure defense. The Spanish had no navy worthy of the name in South America to defend their interests. Spanish ships did not dare travel along their own coasts, never mind venture further afield. The privateers were the major power in the area and their attentions were largely fixed on the Spanish, leaving trade in the hands of the English, French and Dutch. For the Spaniards on the mainland it was usually easier and cheaper to obtain smuggled goods from the other nations than from Spain. The Dutch indeed had certain rights to trade with the Spanish colonies guaranteed by the treaty of 1648, hence the peculiar status of Curaçao, so close to the coast of Venezuela. Since there were now so few Spanish ships (apart from the great prize - the well-defended Spanish treasure fleet) the pirates were turning their attentions to the mainland and finding that it was virtually undefended.

From Modyford's point of view it was in Britain's interest - and certainly in Jamaica's interest - that Spain should be weakened. The buccaneers were doing this very effectively and free of charge and so long as Jamaica was a useful resource to them and they could feel reasonably immune from prosecution under British law, they would not attack British interests. The long term interest of Jamaica was to have a large, settled population and the easy money which could be made out of the Spanish booty was a great attraction, with the money making its way slowly into strengthening the agricultural and trading interest where certainly, Modyford would have agreed, the longer term future lay.


From this perspective the peace with Spain that was concluded in Madrid in May 1667 was bad news. It was publicly announced in Jamaica and at about the same time Modyford gave a commission to Henry Morgan - an obscure figure who may have been related to one or both of the two Morgans who had fallen in the Antilles fighting the Dutch and French the previous year - 'to draw together the English privateers and  take prisoners of the Spanish nation, whereby he might inform of [sic] the intention of that enemy to invade Jamaica.' To quote Peter Earle's account:

'Morgan's commission gave him powers to capture Spanish ships at sea to collect information but, unlike the blank commissions captured [by the Spanish] on Santa Catalina it did not give him permission to take action against the Spaniards on land. But if the information he collected at sea should establish that the Spaniards were arming against Jamaica, then he knew that a landing to confirm such information and perhaps to nip an invasion in the bud would never be punished by the authorities' (p.48).

Another argument in favour of countenancing the privateers had been that they were a useful source of information about Spanish intentions. But of course, like Modyford himself, they had a strong interest in maintaining a state of war and therefore in magnifying a Spanish threat which they knew from long experience to be in reality very slight.

Morgan sailed off  early in 1668 and his campaign began with the same ploy that had been used two years previously by Mansfield. He sailed to Cuba, demanded provisions and used the predictable refusal as an excuse to go inland, wasting and pillaging everywhere he went. Mansfield had gone to Santo Spirito, Morgan went to Puerto de Principe. There was, however, an innovation. Morgan's men tortured the citizens of Puerto de Principe in order to find where they had their wealth. This was hardly an innovation in the practise of the buccaneers but one rather hopes it was an innovation in the practise of an officer claiming to be acting on behalf of the King of England. I have not seen it reported of Myngs or even of Mansfield when he was supposedly operating on the basis of a precise mandate from Modyford.

Morgan naturally learned in Puerto de Principe that the Spanish were indeed planning an invasion of Jamaica and of course that musters were being summoned at towns on the mainland. Which naturally meant he would have to go there.  So far so banal. It was his choice of target that distinguished him from the ordinary run of buccaneers. He chose to go to Portobello.