Admiral Henry Morgan is one of the most famous sea-heroes of Wales, and is known for his privateering exploits in the 17th century. While the majority of his career was conducted in the service of the British government, his reputation as a scoundrel often landed him in hot water with the gentry. Unlike most privateers of his era, Morgan had the luxury of retiring from the sea to enjoy his wealth, although habitual alcohol use soon led to his death.
Henry Morgan was raised in Wales as the son of a local squire, before coming to the Caribbean isles around 1658. When his uncle became the lieutenant-governor of Jamaica in 1660, Henry cemented the relationship by marrying his own cousin, Mary. He is believed to have risen quickly in the navy, taking part in the sacking and capture of several Spanish ports.
The constant war between England and France allowed Morgan considerable opportunities to plunder in the name of the English government. By 1665, Henry Morgan was serving under a famous privateer, Edward Mansfield. Despite several successful captures of Spanish towns, Mansfield was kidnapped by the enemy and killed. By vote of the crew, Henry Morgan became admiral at the young age of thirty.
Known for his daring and willingness to try risky maneuvers, Henry Morgan became invaluable to the English government as a privateer. In an attempt to ascertain information on a planned Spanish attack of Jamaica, Morgan not only captured the prisoners requested by his government, but also carried out brutal sacking raids on the ports of Puerto Principe and Portobello. In addition to the government money he was paid for taking prisoners, Admiral Henry Morgan could also bleed the local leaders for a payment to leave their towns. Possibly too desperately in need of his abilities, the British government turned a blind eye on reports of the excessive cruelty and tactics of Morgan’s crew.
Soon after their successful Panama campaign, Morgan’s crew was again dispatched to conduct a pre-emptive strike against the Spanish before they could attack Jamaica. His raids continued to be successful and beneficial to the government, and they granted him a magnificent ship as thanks. Yet the viciousness of Henry Morgan would soon become too much for even the war-hungry government to stomach.
In 1671, Morgan sacked the city of Panama without clear orders to do so. Once destroying the city’s army, he proceeded to allow an enormous massacre of the inhabitants and burned the city to ashes. The sack violated a new English-Spanish peace treaty, which earned Morgan a trip to England to explain his foolish actions. Morgan managed to weasel his way out of any criminal charges, and was knighted by the government before returning to the islands to take over his uncle’s post as lieutenant-governor.
As power shifted within the British hierarchy, Morgan found himself at the mercy of political enemies who despised his tactics and his uncouth manners. He was eventually ousted from his position and fell into ill health. At the age of 53, Admiral Sir Morgan died, probably of liver failure or tuberculosis.
Today, Morgan is remembered alternately as a barbarian and a romantic pirate figure. He has appeared as a character in several films, books and video games. Most people are familiar with the Admiral from the popular brand of rum named for him. Like most figures of the Golden Age of Sail, Henry Morgan has been turned into a dashing roguish character, and portrayals often ignore his brutal habits of war and destruction.