Henry Morgan and the British presence in the Caribbean (8)


In October 1668, Morgan was off again to the Isla Vaca, off the coast of Hispaniola, to gather a new band of privateers for a further adventure which, if it was to be more spectacular than Portobello, had to be either Panamá or Cartagena, capital of the Audiencia of Santa Fe. These were the towns that the audience back in England would have heard of. His possibilities were enhanced enormously when, shortly afterwards, he was joined by a thirty-four gun frigate, the Oxford, a gift from the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of York, to Modyford. Modyford had said he would need a frigate if he was to be expected to control the buccaneering activity in the region, and it came with instructions to put down piracy. Modyford promptly put it into the hands of a well known privateer, Edward Collier, who had been at Portobello, and sent it to Morgan.

With such means at their disposal, Morgan and his cronies fixed on Cartagena as their target but as they were celebrating the coming adventure, an accidental spark, apparently, in the powder room, blew the ship up. Richard Browne, who had accompanied the Oxford as surgeon-general and now becomes one of the most important sources of information on Morgan, says two hundred men were killed. Morgan himself had been feasting on the deck. All those on the opposite side of the table from him were killed. His side of the table were thrown into the sea and had to be fished out. This naturally rather dampened the spirits of the assembly Morgan had brought together and the group broke up. Morgan was left with a small flotilla of undecked ships reduced to eight, with five hundred men, about half the original number.

Under these circumstances, the best he could do was to repeat the exploit performed two years earlier by the French privateer, Jean-David Nau, 'L'Ollonais', and attack Maracaibo in the Gulf of Venezuela. Maracaibo was situated in a huge salt water lake which was connected to the Gulf by a narrow pass. Morgan found that since the visit of L'Ollonais, a fort had been built at the pass. By good fortune, however, it was seriously undermanned, with only eight men and a castellan who, after a brief spirited defence, lost their nerve and crept away. Exquemelin tells us they left a long slow fuse running to the powder magazine but Morgan spotted it and stamped it out in the nick of time.

Maracaibo was now an easy prey, except that the people had fled with as many of their goods as possible so a lot of torturing had to be done before the spoil could be recovered. After a week during which everything within thirty miles was either stolen or destroyed, Morgan decided, as he puts it: 'to sayle further to discover ye lake for ye service of our King and Country.' He went on to the next town on the lake, Gibraltar. He was still following what L'Ollonais had done before him. Exquemelin gives an account of particularly appalling tortures practised at Gibraltar though, as we have seen in the case of Portobello, he has to be read with suspicion.

Morgan had made a good haul of slaves, jewels, silk, pieces of eight and prisoners to be ransomed but it was still just an ordinary pirate raid without the element of glory that seems to have been so important to him. That, however, was about to change.

By the mid-1660s privateering attacks on the Spanish colonies were so widespread that the authorities in Spain had finally sent a small fleet of five well-armed, rapid ships to deal with it. It sailed in July 1667 and was actually in Havana at the very moment when Morgan was raiding Puerto de Principe and sailing to Portobello. In July 1668, after the raid on Portobello, orders were received recalling two of the ships. The Vice-Admiral of the three ships that were left, Don Alonzo de Campas, had learned of the intended raid on Cartagena and finally discovered that Morgan's ships were bottled up in what was more or less the perfect trap of Lake Maracaibo. All he had to do was to invest the bottle neck leading to the Gulf and wait for them to come out.

It was here that Morgan, or at least Morgan's team, revealed something resembling genius. Their position was, in any ordinary estimation, hopeless. What they did was to prepare a 'fire ship' - a ship primed to explode. But it was decked out as a flagship. De Campos's spies told him that the privateers had seized a Cuban ship they found in the port and decked it out as a flagship, also that they were preparing a fire ship, but they do not seem to have told him that the two were one and the same ship. It was equipped with logs disguised as canons and as men. It came on ahead looking as if it was Morgan's own ship, daringly headed straight for De Campos's main ship, the Magdelena. Once the two ships were in contact the small team piloting the fire ship escaped away and it blew up, taking the Magdalena with it. The second of the Spanish ships, the San Luis, seeing that the situation of the Magdalena  was hopeless, was beached in an effort to gain the fort, while the third, the smallest, the Nuestra Senora de Soledad, got its sails in a muddle and was seized as a prize by the pirates. The victory over the 'Armada de Barlovento' was complete.

That still left the port, which still commanded the bottleneck and now had a garrison to man its guns. Morgan attempted to storm it but was repeatedly repulsed, losing many of his men. He told his prisoners that if they persuaded De Campos, who had now reached the fort, to let the pirates through, they would be released without having to pay a ransom. If they failed he would hang them. But De Campos was deaf to their entreaties. Morgan did not, in the event, hang them. Eventually he got out through an old but spectacularly successful ruse. In sight of the fort, he landed successive boatloads of buccaneers in a nearby mangrove swamp. He was obviously preparing a land assault. As a result, De Campos moved his guns so that they were facing landward. But in fact the buccaneers landed in the swamp had returned to their ships concealed in the apparently empty canoes that had brought them out. In the night, the ships slipped their anchor and drifted past the fort. They were seen but by the time the guns had been brought back again, they were through and safe. The prisoners were released and the privateers sailed back in triumph, arriving in Port Royal, on the 27th May, 1669, headed by Morgan's new flagship, Nuestra Senora de Soledad. An expedition which had started in disaster and continued with a rather sordid piece of bullying, had ended in glory with the destruction of the only defensive sea force the Spanish had in the area, a force, moreover, which had been sheduled to participate in defending the Spanish treasure fleet on its imminent departure from Portobello to Havana.

Jamaicans were convinced, and Morgan of course produced 'evidence', that the fleet he had destroyed had been intended for an invasion of Jamaica. Modyford wrote to London to that effect but Arlington had written strictly that this sort of officially sanctioned privateering had to end. Modyford announced in May that he was calling in commissions and in June publicly declared in the presence of Morgan that 'Inasmuch as the forces under the command of Admiral Morgan, with the blessing of God, have happily destroyed the fleet which the Spaniards intended against this island', Jamaica was now at peace.


But as we have seen, in reaction to the humiliation at Portobello, the Queen Regent had sent instructions that the Spanish authorities could do to the English what the English authorities had been doing to the Spanish. Private individuals could 'proceed against the English in the Indies with every sort of hostility ...' On the receipt of this letter, the governor of Cartagena, in October 1699, publicly announced war with Jamaica and a number of incidents occurred which indicated to the Jamaicans that the Spanish were adopting a more aggressive approach. These climaxed in the activities of the Portuguese corsair, Manoel Rivero Pardal. In April 1670, he seized an old privateer, Captain Barnard, who had actually, according to Earle, been delivering letters from Modyford to Cuba announcing the peace, and brought him and his crew back to a hero's welcome in Cartagena. Soon afterwards, Modyford obtained a copy of the Queen Regent's instruction. In July, Pardal made a couple of landings in the sparsely populated parts of Jamaica and burned some houses. Compared to the actions of the English and French, these were flea bites and they were obviously done in response to Morgan's policy of deliberate provocation, but the Jamaicans, so used to operating with impunity, did not know what they might mean for the future. 

Modyford wrote a series of letters to London but got no reply. His protector, Albemarle, was dead and Arlington was silent. Eventually he felt he had no option but to call the council and seek advice. As a result, Morgan was given a commission 'as commander-in-chief of all ships of war belonging to Jamaica' to gather together in defence of the island, attack all Spanish shipping and if necessary attack any place inland that he suspected was being used for war. And he was 'to advise his fleet and soldiers that they were on the old pleasing account of no purchase, no pay, and therefore all which is got shall be divided amongst them according to the accustomed rules.'

Morgan sailed on the 14th August 1670 to the Isla Vaca, with eleven vessels and six hundred men. On the 13th August, Modyford received a letter from Arlington ordering him, in the light of new negotiations with Spain that this time would include the West Indies, to forbear all hostilities on land. Modyford called on Morgan to observe this. Morgan replied that he would have to land to get supplies but that he would not touch any towns unless he was assured that they were making preparations for an attack on Jamaica.

From Isla Vaca, Morgan sent out his deputy, Edward Collier, to seek information on the Spanish Main, then waited while word got round the privateers that something big was in preparation. Among those who joined him was John Morris, fresh from the triumph of having killed Pardal and seized his ship. Collier meanwhile raided the town of Rio de la Hacha, South of Cartagena, and occupied it for a month before sailing back with another ship that had worked with Pardal, La Gallardina. The Spanish captain of La Gallardina was hanged by Morgan for declining to give evidence that an invasion was being prepared at Cartagena and Panamá, but two of the crew duly agreed. As Morgan's surgeon, Richard Browne, put it: 'Some through torments, confesse what wee please. Other more ingenious and stoute will not be drawne to speake or subscribe what they know not, who are then cutt in pieces, shott or hanged.'