Friday, May 9, 2014

Captain Henry Morgan

Fig.1: You know he's heroically propping 
his left foot on a barrel just off-sketch.
You know you've hit the pinnacle of historical fame when you have an intoxicating libation named after you. Great figures like like Samuel Adams, (Bloody) Mary I of England, and Vyacheslav Molotov have been so honored (although I wouldn't recommend ordering that last one at a bar), but among the most revered is the Captain himself. Before all that, Sir Henry Morgan (fig.1) was one of the most successful and most feared pirates at sea in the 17th century. The mere mention of his name caused nightmares for Spanish colonists throughout the Caribbean, especially ones where their house was being plundered while doing a public speaking presentation in their underwear. While Forbes ranks him as just the 9th wealthiest pirate of all time, his spiced rum generated over a billion dollars in sales in 2013 alone, and I think his reputation (and documented alcoholism) has something to do with that.

Like many pirates, details of Morgan's early life are scarce. We know he was born in Wales around 1635 to an influential family (as least as influential as the Welsh could be), which became deeply split during the English Civil War; one uncle was a major-general on the Parliamentarian side and another uncle a colonel for the Royalists. But instead of staying at home and dealing with the constant bickering over the dinner table, Henry did what any of us should do and ran away to the sandy beaches of the Caribbean! Sources are unclear as to how he got there: some say he was indentured (temporarily enslaved in return for free passage), others say he enlisted as a sailor in the navy, and a select few believe he correctly solved a "Prize Puzzle" on Wheel of Fortune (the puzzle had a lot of "arrrs" in Either way, Morgan ended up on Jamaica where he befriended Governor Thomas Modyford, joined the fleets of notable pirates in the area who plundered Spanish colonial towns, and married his own cousin (he obviously lived in the "Alabama" part of Jamaica). When privateer Edward Mansvelt was captured and executed by the Spanish while he served in his crew, Morgan used his charisma and already patented pose to become the new admiral.

Fig.2: No pirate-themed birthday party 
is complete without a blow-by-blow 
reenactment of one of Henry Morgan's 
bloody raids.
Morgan's friendship with Governor Modyford paid off (literally), as he was given a commission to raid Spanish forts in nearby Cuba in 1667. For the sake of legality, Modyford claimed this was necessary in lieu of a possible Spanish invasion of Jamaica, but really he planned that any riches plundered from Cuba would make it to his capital of Port Royal, and then eventually the pockets of his breeches. However, Morgan and his crew of 500 buccaneers did not make much of a profit in Cuba (them being communists and all), and so he took it upon himself to attack a more prestigious city. Porto Bello in modern-day Panama was the center of Spanish trade in the Americas, a place where merchants dropped off all their goods, gold, and gorgeous daughters for safekeeping. Morgan was more drawn to the town than flies to some sort of magical fly magnet, and attacked under the cover of darkness in 1668. In two months of looting, they gained over 200,000 pieces of eight, as well as tons of other shiny things that tend to fetch a high price in this materialistic world we live in. Legend has it that the Spanish governor in Panama City sent Morgan an emerald ring as a bribe not to attack his capital. Morgan responded by sending the governor his favorite pistol with a note saying that he and men will come to pick it up later. Somebody paid attention in Writers' Workshop during the "foreshadowing" lesson!

This raid stimulated Port Royal's economy, as the returning pirates used their booty to score some clothes, weapons, drinks, and...well...other kinds of booty. As thanks, Modyford awarded Morgan the HMS Oxford, a warship originally given by King Charles II to protect Jamaica, as well as a new commission to attack Cartagena in present-day Colombia. Unfortunately, the Oxford's new ship smell (as well as the rest of it) was destroyed during an pre-trip celebration where a drunken sailor accidentally lit a fuse right next to a supply of gunpowder (which is why I keep my highly-flammable explosives locked in the coat-closet during my raucous parties). With his flagship gone even before his got to do the test drive, Morgan changed plans to attack Cartagena's lamer sister city of Maracaibo (in present-day Venezuela), which didn't even have a ferris wheel to overlook the whole town like most cool places do! Nonetheless, his crew had a great payday sacking Maracaibo and the nearby coastal town of Gibraltar in 1669, filling the vessels with those comically large sacks of money.

But trouble was afoot! The Spanish navy caught wind of the attack, and proceeded to block Morgan's escape with three warships strategically placed in the narrow channel separating the mainland from the Caribbean (fig.3). It looked like this was the end for Captain Henry Morgan, but the memory of his beloved Oxford brought some inspiration to him. He loaded up one of his ships with tons of gunpowder, and had a small crew sail it straight into the blockade. When it got close enough, the crew lit the fuse and jumped overboard, destroying the warships, and giving the Spanish painful memories of their failed armada. Morgan returned home once more with loads more money to pump into Jamaica's economy, and before you knew it his reputation spread like the infectious diseases that a good majority of his crew probably had.

Fig.3: E4! You sunk my fireship!
Morgan spent the next couple of years doing his thing and ravaging Spanish forts throughout the Caribbean, but he felt incomplete without that lucky pistol he sent to the governor of Panama, and in 1670 thought the time was right to go retrieve it. Unfortunately for him, the Spanish were tipped off to the attack (some of the lice riding aboard in his crew's unkempt beards were double agents), and Panama City's residents piled all of their valuables onto a treasure galleon and sailed it to a secure hidden location. So when Morgan and his plunder-happy privateers arrived, there was barely any treasure to loot, people to torture, or old magazines to read while sitting on the john. Sure, they had the pleasure of burning down one of Spain's vital ports on the Pacific coast (it was so utterly destroyed that the present-day location of Panama City was rebuilt five miles away from the original), but there just isn't replacing that insatiable feeling of rape and pillage. This is why every workplace should institute a looting day to improve morale!

Fig.4: "Dude, you totes rekt
that boat I gave you!"
The buzzkill continued for Morgan when he returned to Jamaica: both he and Modyford were arrested and brought to England on charges of piracy, violating their recent peace treaty with Spain, and just all-around jerkishness. Luckily Morgan got out of it by being all buddy-buddy with King Charles II (fig.4) and sharing his crazy stories with him, and was even knighted and made deputy governor of Jamaica in 1674! He lived out the rest of his days as a politician (which shares much of the same job description as a pirate) until his death in 1688 of a combination of heavy drinking, tuberculosis, and separation anxiety with that pistol (his favorite cuddle buddy). His contributions and exploits would have allowed Port Royal to become one of the most influential cities in the Caribbean...if it wasn't for a devastating earthquake that annihilated the town in 1692. Looks like someone upstairs wasn't cool with the whole booty thing...

Even if Henry Morgan's home base didn't survive his absence, his legacy as a buccaneer echoed down the generations. Later, more famous pirates, such as Edward Teach ("Blackbeard"), John Rackham ("Calico Jack"), and Samuel Bellamy ("Sam Bellamy") took after Morgan's example to great success, initiating the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 18th century. But I would dare to argue that Morgan beat out these wannabes not through the amount of plunder or notoriety he gained during his swashbuckling days, but by actually being able to retire and enjoy his loot in luxury instead of dying in battle, being hanged by the authorities, or going down with the ship in some nasty weather like those other guys, respectively. Granted he had the de facto support of the English government, but it's hard to keep successful while keeping your head in such a thieving line of work nonetheless (just ask any stockbroker). It's no wonder why all of us strive to have a little bit of "Captain" in us! (Although some of us are too cheap and have to settle for some "Admiral" instead.)

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