Buccaneers > Henry Morgan

Henry Morgan

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration


Henry Morgan was a Welsh sailor and one of the preeminent buccaneers of the buccaneering era. Henry Morgan's buccaneering career lasted about a decade and yet in that short span of time he was able to launch remarkable assaults on the colonies of the Spanish Main and was one of the few who actually lived long enough to spend his vast fortune. He is well known for being a leader of the Brethren of the Coast. He plundered the coastal towns of the Spanish Empire and was essential in disrupting the hegemony of the Spanish Empire and allowing the other empires of the world to establish more successful colonies in the New World.

Early Life

Very little is known about his early life and there are many conflicting accounts regarding it. His commonly told story is that he was born into a Welsh farming family around 1635. Some of his family were officers in Oliver Cromwell's army which allowed him to get quickly promoted as well. When he was about twenty years old in 1655, Morgan was a junior officer ordered to help attack the Spanish in the Caribbean. This however, is in direct contrast to what was originally written in Alexander Exquemelin's primary source book.

Henry Morgan - Henry Morgan (1888 Pirates of the Spanish Main Trading Card)

Henry Morgan - Pirates of the Spanish Main (1888)

A lot of information is known about Henry Morgan through his French or Dutch physician and writer, Alexander Exquemelin. Exquemelin accompanied Morgan on two of his privateering/pirating expeditions and saw first hand the raids he conducted. In 1684, Exquemelin published the book De Americaensche Zee Roovers which documented the exploits of buccaneers in the mid and late 17th century.

Exquemelin instead wrote that Morgan was originally an indentured servant like Francois L’Ollonais that was brought to the island of Tortuga in 1666 where he served a brutal and cruel master. He ran away from him and became a buccaneer which would explain his many affiliations with French buccaneers and the island itself. However, Henry Morgan later in his life, now a knight and governor of Jamaica was less than pleased with an introduction that portrayed him as an indentured servant coming to the West Indies as a slave and under less than fortunate circumstances.

Infamous Pirates - Henry Morgan (On the Spanish Main 1902)

Henry Morgan - On the Spanish Main (1902)

Henry Morgan sued Exquemelin for libel and and this forced Exquemelin to change the preface of the book and add an apology saying Morgan was "a gentleman’s son of good quality in the county Monmouth, and never was a servant to anybody in his life, save unto his Majestie.". While there is some debate over weather Morgan was a privateer or a pirate, the distinction is very much a gray area. Some say his actions were carried out in the capacity of his Letter of Marque, however this does not take into account some of the major exploits such as the burning on Panama Viejo that almost landed him and his Governor sponsor in chains.

Buccanering Era

Henry Morgan arrived in the West Indies as the Buccaneering Era was in its final decades and was about to bring it to new heights. In 1667, Morgan was commissioned by the governor of British Jamaica named Thomas Modyford to capture Spanish prisoners in Cuba in order to outline the details of an upcoming invasion of the island to recapture it by the Spanish.

Henry Morgan - Porto Principe

Porto Principe -

Despite a treaty in place that would ensure no such thing would happen, Modyford was still paranoid about the assault. Commissioning Morgan with 10 ships and more than 500 men, Morgan landed on Cuba and sacked the town of Puerto del Principe. It was originally discussed that Morgan would try and take Havana, however a lack of men and ships proved this to be a foolish effort.

Henry Morgan - Puerto Del Principe

Henry Morgan Raids Puerto Principe - On the Spanish Main (1902)

While on their quest to capture Spanish ships and prisoners, Morgans fleet sailed through heavy storms that changed the course of their expedition. Instead of landing on the north shore of Cuba, the fleet ended up on the south side. At this point there was very little food or water left, so the privateers / pirates were forced to scavenge the country side for supplies. Once they landed, Morgans crew met up with another French buccaneering crew from Tortuga and decided to join forces.

Henry Morgan - Henry Morgan Sailing

Henry Morgan Sailing - Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer (1903)

However, before they could even begin the assault a Spanish hostage escaped and managed to warn the entire city of Puerto Principe of the impending attack. The Spanish colonists quickly dispersed, taking all of their valuables with them. After tirelessly searching the town, the buccaneers only found 50,000 pieces of eight, nothing compared to their debts back in Port Royal. This forced Morgans crew to seek out more treasure elsewhere, however not before raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants left in Puerto Principe.

According to Exquemelin, the Spanish were locked in a church and tortured to give up all of their remaining wealth. After only receiving a small some of pieces of eight and some cattle, the restless crew decided to attack Portobello which was thought to house the Spanish Treasure Fleet for a short while and was much less impregnable than Havana.

Sack of Portobello (1668)

Henry Morgan - Fort Triana at Porto Bello

Fort Triana at Porto Bello - Life of Sir Henry Morgan (1935)

Portobello was founded in 1597 by Francisco Velarde y Mercado, a Spanish explorer. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the city was a major silver exporting port in the Viceroyalty of New Granada and was one of the main stops for the Spanish treasure fleet. The city was guarded by three major castles, however they were under garrisoned and prone to attack.

Henry Morgan - Portobello Map (1739)

Porto Bello Map (1739)

After Morgans failed attack on Puerto Principe yielded very little, his buccaneer crew was eager for more. In 1668 he led his fleet of privateers, pirates and buccaneers against Portobello which despite its forts, fell very quickly. During this time Edward Collier joined Morgan's crew as in command of one of the ships leading the raid on the city. Anchoring the fleet of nine ships in a bay a few miles from Portobello, many of the 450 buccaneers silently paddled via canoes to the city under the cover of night. They eventually converged back into one group and attack using the ships bombardment as cover.

Henry Morgan - Fort Triana Entrence

Fort Triana Entrance - Life of Sir Henry Morgan (1935)

The buccaneers first took the castle of Triana and blew it up with all of the defenders inside. Next, they moved into the city and in a series of decisive battles, the buccaneers and pirates captured the city on 11 July 1668. Morgan and his crew raided the city for nearly two weeks, stripping the entire city of its wealth and often raping, torturing and killing the inhabitants. One horrifying story shows that women, nuns and old men were forced to carry scaling ladders and stand between the Spanish troops in order to act as a human shield. These brutal tactics combined with the destructive nature of the assault led many to believe this was an act of piracy rather than legitimate war or privateering.

Henry Morgan - Morgan at Puerto Bello

Morgan at Porto Bello - Buccaneers of America (1678)

Initially after the destruction and looting of Puerto Bello, the Panama governor sent between 1,500 and 3,000 militia to recapture the port after Morgan demanded nearly 35,000 pieces of eight in ransom for the city. The Spanish baulked at giving the pirates any more money and opened fire. After a short battle, the pirates proved victorious and walked away with 100,000 in pieces of eight in addition to large quantities of silk, linen and other cargo. Morgan returned to Port Royal with nearly 250,000 pieces of eight in mid-August amidst celebration and congratulations.

Henry Morgan - Treasure Was Divided, Book of Pirates (1921)

Treasure Was Divided - Book of Pirates (1921)

While his actions were debated by the English government due to violating a treaty with Spain, eventually in 1669 the Admiralty court declared the Portobello raid legal and Morgan and Modyford avoided punishment. Even if there was repercussions, the treasure was already spent by 1669 in a non-stop drunken spree in 1668, with Morgan the only one to invest in plantation land with his earnings.

Cartagena & Maracaibo

In October of 1668, Morgan set out on yet another raid of the Spanish Main as he joined forces with buccaneers from Tortuga for a dual attack on Cartagena de Indias. Sailing with 900 men and eleven ships, Morgan wanted to attack Cartagena due to the massive wealth of riches within the city. Cartagena was one of Spain's most important cities as it held all the gold in transit from Viceroyalty of Peru going back to Europe. Modyford lent Morgan's fleet a massive English Man-o-War named the HMS Oxford to assist in the attack, which became his flagship.

The night that the raid was going to commence, there was a huge celebration aboard the ships. A few drunk soldiers during this accidentally destroyed the HMS Oxford due to lighting a fuse which caused a gunpowder explosion that killed nearly 200 men, a third of his total force. Some deserted as well, fearing the explosion was a bad omen for the buccaneers. This greatly reduced his chances of taking the impregnable Cartagena, however Morgan had other plans in mind.

Henry Morgan - Exploding Ships

Exploding Ship - The Sea, Its Stirring Story of Adventure (1877)

In March of 1669, Morgan continued his expedition by adding another French warship named Le Cerf Volant which had 36 cannons. Morgan had already planned to acquire this ship, however with the destruction of the HMS Oxford this only increased his necessity.

Using an underhanded technique, Morgan reported the French aboard Le Cerf Volant for committing acts of piracy against English merchants and seized their ship. Morgan invited the French aboard his ship the same night the Oxford exploded under the intentions of having dinner, however he planned to have his crew take them prisoner. However, now that his other warship was blown up, Morgan used this as even more evidence of the French plotting against him and blamed the explosion on the French retaliating due to their imprisonment.

Henry Morgan - Captain Henry Morgan

Captain Henry Morgan - A General History of Highwaymen (1734)

After Morgan accused the French of piracy, his crew searched their ship and came up with a Letter of Marque given by the Governor of Baracoa, the evidence they needed to cement their claims. The Letter of Marque stated the French were permitted to trade in Spanish ports, however they were also allowed to engage English pirates.

Morgan twisted the words and spun the story and eventually the French found themselves without a ship and headed to Jamaica to be detained in prison and threatened with hanging. The French were unable to clear themselves of all this and lost their ship and cargo in the process.

After the setbacks he initially incurred, Morgan now set sail for Cartagena. The voyage however turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated as they were forced to sail into the wind for most of it. This caused immense stress on both the sailors and the boats themselves and the original crew of over nine hundred had been reduced to five hundred just along the trip.

Henry Morgan - Maracaibo and Gibraltar (1678)

Maracaibo & Gibraltar - Buccaneers of America (1678)

This number was too little to siege the well guarded city of Cartagena, however a French captain named Pierre Le Picard came up with an idea to sack the city of Maracaibo. Le Picard knew all about the nature of the town as he had been there three years ago in 1666 to sack the city under Francois L’Ollonais.

Henry Morgan - Pierre Picard (1888 Pirates of the Spanish Main Trading Card)

Pierre Picard - Pirates of the Spanish Main (1888)

Getting to Maracaibo was not going to be easy however. The town itself was located on Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, however there was narrow and shallow channel that was the only way into the lake. This small channel was treacherous for ships as it contained many sandbars and islands that could force a ship aground.

The Spanish had also built another fortress called San Carlos de La Barra at the most narrow point on the channel as an upgrade since Francois L’Ollonais had last raided the settlements. Morgan and his crew found this out the hard way as they tried to navigate a 12 foot shallow channel coupled with cannon and musket fire.

Henry Morgan - Morgan's Attack on Maracaibo

Morgan's Attack on Maracaibo - The Sea, Its Stirring Story of Adventure (1877)

Morgan decided to land his buccaneer army on the beach in order to try and take the Spanish fort. Once night fell the buccaneers began their assault and tried to breach the fortress. However once they got there they did not find a single Spanish soldiers. However the Spanish did leave something, a slow burning explosive trap that Morgan himself discovered within fifteen minutes of entering the fort. Morgan himself snatched the match from the powder, saving himself and his entire crew. After succeeding in taking San Carlos de La Barra, Morgan took all of the supplies from the fort and ordered his buccaneers to bury all of the cannons so the Spanish could not use them upon their exit.

Henry Morgan - Morgan's Attack on Gibraltar

Morgan's Attack on Maracaibo - The Sea, Its Stirring Story of Adventure (1877)

At this point Morgan knew that the Spanish knew he was going to attack Maracaibo so instead of trying to traverse the lake with his larger vessels the buccaneers simply resorted to their tried and true technique of using canoes and smaller ships to stealthy approach the Spanish. However the residents of Maracaibo still managed to flee with most of their valuables into the jungle before the buccaneers even arrived.

Henry Morgan - Extorting Citizens

Pirates Plundering - Book of Pirates (1921)

After capturing Maracaibo with relative ease, Morgan and his crew spent three weeks torturing residents to give up their valuables. After they realized they had plundered all there was to plunder the buccaneers packed up the ships with their loot and prisoners and set sail for Gibraltar on the southeastern shore of Lake Maracaibo.

After raiding Gibraltar just like L'Ollonais had done a few years previous, Morgan collected all of the wealth of the town and ransomed its citizens back to the Spanish crown. With the raids successful Morgan loaded his crew and valuables onto the large ships and set sail for home.

Henry Morgan - Morgan and Crew

Morgan & Crew - Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coasts (1898)

However, at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo the Spanish had set a trap. While Morgan and his crews were plundering the towns of Maracaibo and Gibraltar, the Spanish had begun rebuilding and reinforcing the San Carlos fortress and augmented it with a naval defense. Using three ships, the Magdalena, the San Luis, and the La Marquesa the Spanish tried to halt Morgans advance and reclaim their treasures. The Spanish gave Morgan and his buccaneers the option to either surrender and be arrested, or fight and die. Being a buccaneer they chose the latter.

Being outnumbered and outgunned by the Spanish they decided to quickly act. Morgan ordered that his flagship the Satisfaction be converted into a fireship, a technique that Charles Vane would use once again during the 1718 blockade of Nassau by Woodes Rogers.

Henry Morgan - Henry Morgan Destroys Spanish Fleet at Maracaibo

Henry Morgan Destroys Spanish Fleet at Maracaibo - Buccaneers of America (1678)

Morgan and his crew loaded the Satisfaction with hollowed out logs filled with explosives designed to have the appearance of a fully armed crew. The twelve men that decided to sail with the fireship towards the Magdalena throw grabbling hooks into the rigging of the ship in order to ensure it could not escape.

Henry Morgan - Fireship Destroying the Spanish

Fireship Destroying the Spanish - On the Spanish Main (1902)

The fireship plan worked and the Magdalena was utterly destroyed. The second largest ship the San Luis was run aground by Morgans fleet and the final sheep the La Marquesa was overtaken by the buccaneers shortly after when the rigging and ropes got tangled. However despite having a small victory over the fleet, Morgan still had to tangle with the rebuilt fortress that could easily bombard his ships as he left Lake Maracaibo.

Next Henry Morgan faked another land assault on the fortress which convinced the soldiers to shift their focus, allowing Morgan and his fleet to slip away using only the movement of the current and the tide. Morgan used canoes to "drop" soldiers off, who would simply duck down on the return journey in order to give the appearance that Morgan was landing considerable numbers of troops. In reality not a single one really landed on the beach.

Henry Morgan - Henry Morgan Escaping Maracaibo

Henry Morgan Escapes Maracaibo - The Sea, Its Stirring Story of Adventure (1877)

After escaping successfully to Port Royal in Jamaica, the Spanish retaliated by threatened assaults against the island of Jamaica. Morgan for his success was given commander-in-chief status of all the ships of war in Jamaica. This was in an effort to destroy the Spanish and their ships, with Morgan getting paid more or less as a privateer out of the goods plundered.

Shortly after his successes at Maracaibo, Morgan and crew began raiding the coasts and mainland of Cuba before long Morgan set his eyes on the rich settlement of Panama Viejo on the mainland of Panama. This was to be one of the most defining moments of his privateering and pirating career.

Panamá Viejo

In December of 1670, Morgan and nearly 200 buccaneers set sail in 33 ships for the isthmus of Panama in order to sack and loot Spanish settlements there. On December 15th he recaptured the island of Santa Catalina and on December 27th, 1670 Morgan and his crew captured the fortress of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama. Of the 300 Spanish soldiers stationed there only 23 were left alive. Morgan used the fortress of San Lorenzo as a staging ground for his next assault.

Henry Morgan - San Lorenzo at Chagres River

San Lorenzo at Chagres River - Life of Sir Henry Morgan (1935)

Next the buccaneers targeted Panama Viejo, a city long known for its importance in the Spanish Main. This would come to be known as one of Morgans greatest accomplishments and struck a devastating blow to the Spanish image in the New World.

Panama Viejo was a city founded on August 15th, 1519 by Pedro Arias Dávila and nearly 100 other Spanish settlers. It was the first settlement of its kind and within two years it was given official status of city by royal decree of Charles V in 1521 along with a coat of arms. Panama Viejo was an important point along the Spanish treasure fleet for storing gold and silver to be transported back to Spain.

By 1610 the population of the city had reached over 5000 people that occupied more than 50 homes. There was also a few religious buildings such as convents, chapels and cathedrals along with a hospital that made this a center of human habitation at the time.

Henry Morgan - Panama Viejo Harbor

Panama Viejo Harbor - The Sea, Its Stirring Story of Adventure (1877)

During the early 1600's the city was attacked many times by pirates and natives from nearby Darien alike. These were the same cannibal natives that ripped Francois L’Ollonais limb from limb and ate him in 1667. Throughout the 17th century the city suffered devastation such as a fire and earthquake, however nothing prepared them for what Henry Morgan was to do.

Henry Morgan arrived near Panama Viejo in early 1671 and divided his forces to provide a dual assault against the Spanish. Giving his second in command Joseph Bradley nearly 500 men, he sent them to take the fort of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River. This was necessary for reaching the settlement of Panama Viejo itself, but also provided a decent diversion for the troops and disguising the real size of the buccaneer army.

Henry Morgan - Fort San Lorenzo Map

Fort San Lorenzo Map - On the Spanish Main (1902)

Henry Morgan was to take his half of the buccaneer army and engage the Spanish governor and his army in battle. The Spanish must have known the buccaneers were coming because they had abandoned and stripped the villages along the way of any food or wealth. This forced the buccaneers to march miles and miles through the jungle with only the thought of great riches keeping them going.

Along with stripping the villages of any provisions such as food or supplies the Spanish also tried to ambush the buccaneers to no avail. The advancing pirate army defeated any Spanish they encountered and continued their march towards Panama Viejo.

Panama Viejo at the time was guarded by no less than 1200 militia infantry and over 400 cavalry. However the buccaneers themselves were a force to be reckoned with. The Spanish militia troops rushed Morgans troops called 'Morgans Line' and were cut down by musket balls.

Henry Morgan - Morgans Line Panama

Morgan's Line in Panama - On the Spanish Main (1902)

As Morgan and his buccaneers moved in a line fighting the Spanish head on, Bradley and his buccaneer troops moved in and flanked the rest of the soldiers providing an easy victory and sent the defenders fleeing back towards the city. Overall the Spanish lost around 500 troops in the initial defense.

As the buccaneers entered the city it is debated what happened next. Some say that Henry Morgan and his buccaneers started the fires, while others suggest that Captain General Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán ordered his militia to explode gunpowder magazines and burn the city before the buccaneers could loot it.

Regardless of how it happened, the city of Panama Viejo was burned to the ground and the Spanish fled with all their valuables into the jungle. The buccaneers spent the next month picking through the ruins, however were disappointed with the results. Much of the Spanish treasure had was being taken south to Ecuador by the galleon La Santisima Trinidad. The treasure laden galleon sat anchored in Panama Harbor just out of reach of the buccaneers.

Henry Morgan - The Battle of Panama

The Battle of Panama - On the Spanish Main (1902)

While the buccaneers knew well of the ship, they had no idea all of the riches of the city were aboard it. Had they known they would have easily captured the ship before it sailed out of the bay. However the buccaneers bet that the city itself would be a better prize and therefore set their sights upon that instead. If only they had taken their assault and their superior naval skills a little further the buccaneers would have received all the treasure and more that they were expecting.

Henry Morgan - Sack of Panama

Sack of Panama - Buccaneers of America (1678)

Once again frustrated by their meager treasure the buccaneers tortured, raped and interrogated any Spanish citizen left in the city in their quest for more riches.

Henry Morgan - Burned Panama Viejo Cathedral

Burned Panama City Cathedral - Life of Sir Henry Morgan (1935)

After spending a little more than a month looting Panama Viejo, the buccaneers returned to the fortress of San Lorenzo at the mouth of Lake Maracaibo to split their treasure. The haul was meager at best and many accused Morgan of cheating them. Morgan decided to leave the buccaneers at San Lorenzo and took his ship and crew to raid more of the coast of Central America.

Henry Morgan - New Panama

New Panama -

After the destruction of Panama Viejo the Spanish abandoned the settlement much like they had with Gibraltar after Francois L’Ollonais burnt the city to the ground and killed all of the inhabitants. The Spanish would rebuild the settlement at the current Panama City only 6 miles away in a more defendable position.

Henry Morgan - Morgan Burning Panama

Burning of Panama - The Sea, Its Stirring Story of Adventure (1877)

The sacking and burning of Panama Viejo would cement Morgan's position as a successful buccaneer, despite his overhaul loot being considerably less than the pirates of the 18th century. This was mostly because Morgan had a much larger crew with which to split his treasure and also the Spanish often fled into the jungle with most of their valuables before the buccaneers approached. This turned them more from pirates into conquerers as they took over entire Spanish settlements and would often try and ransom them back for more pieces of eight.

Later Life

Unknown to Morgan at the time, England and Spain signed the Treaty of Madrid in July of 1670, by which Spain recognized English colonies in the Caribbean, and prohibited piracy. While he had set out on the raid of Panama Viejo a privateer, he destroyed it a as pirate. The same bad luck befell Governor Modyford who supported Morgans raid and made him admiral of his buccaneer army. In August of 1671 Modyford was arrested and replaced by a new governor Sir Thomas Lynch, where he would spend two years in prison in the Tower of London.


Morgan was also arrested and returned to England in April of 1762, but never imprisoned due to well placed political allies along with his massive personal wealth. He simply proved he had no knowledge of the treaty at the time as he was already out raiding and plundering before it was administered. Since documents took months to cross to and from between this sea this was seen as a valid excuse and was released.

Weather or not Morgan had knowledge of the treaty is up for debate by historians, with some believing that he knew full well that a treaty was coming and this would be one last chance to cement in history the fact that that it was he, Henry Morgan who was the most daring and ruthless of all the buccaneers in the Caribbean.

Return to Jamaica

However, by 1674 the whole thing blew over and Thomas Lynch released from prison and removed from office while Henry Morgan was knighted by King Charles II of England and made lieutenant governor of British Jamaica. Morgan returned to his plantations and was soon joined by Modyford who acted as chief justice.

By 1675 Morgan was 40 years old and very rich due to owning several plantations on the island. Morgans reign in office would last until 1682 when he was replaced by Thomas Lynch yet again. It was also during this time that Alexander Exquemelin's work, A History of Buccaneers was released, which Morgan took steps to discredit as it painted him a bloodthirsty pirate and conquerer rather than privateer.

Morgan was known to be a hard drinker and regular face in the town up until his death.


Morgan lived out the rest of his days on his plantation named Lawrencefield, dying on August 25th, 1688 the most successful buccaneer of the 17th century. It is rumored Morgan contracted tuberculosis while visiting London in the 1680's and was diagnosed with "dropsie" at the time. Fortunately Morgan would never see the destruction that overtook Port Royal in the devastating earthquake. He was buried at the Palisadoes cemetery, which was destroyed in the 1692 Port Royal Earthquake along with the rest of the city.

Henry Morgan - Lawrencefield 1923

Lawrencefield Estate - Life of Sir Henry Morgan (1935)

It can be said that Henry Morgan was one of the lucky pirates. He was able to plunder the Spanish Main like no other buccaneer before him and end up dying peacefully due to natural causes, rich on a plantation in the Caribbean.

While not the wealthiest pirate in terms of total haul, it was his stories that would influence and entire following generation of pirates to pick up the cutlass and take the fight to the corrupt imperial system. Henry Morgan is one of the great pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy, right up with the likes of Francis Drake and Henry Every.

Henry Morgan Timeline

1635Henry Morgan born in Wales
Arrived in West Indies as an indentured servant
Worked on a Barbados plantation
1654Second Anglo-Spanish War
1655British seize island of Jamaica
Henry Morgan becomes a privateer
1664Led privateer attack of Puerto Principe
1665Led privateer attack of Portobello
1669Led privateer attack of Maracaibo
1670Captured island of Santa Catalina
1671Led privateer attack and sacking of Panama Viejo
1672Arrested by British government
1674Cleared of charges and knighted by the British
Becomes governor of Jamaica
1678Buccaneers of America is published
1681Replaced as governor of Jamaica
1688Death at Lawrencefield




Primary Sources

History Archive: De Americaensche Zee-Roovers

Secondary Sources

Pyle, H. (1921). Book of Pirates. New York, Harper & Brothers.