Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Pirate and privateer rolled into one

Brave New World (The Star)
April 2, 2009

"The English were a strange lot and swashbuckler Henry Morgan would sometimes be labelled a hero and sometimes a villaiBy the English government, depending on who held the political reins."


This is a true story. Once upon a time in the 17th century, there was a young nobleman from Wales named Henry Morgan.

Although he was from a blue-blooded family, he and his folks had seen better days and their wealth was not as it was. Henry decided to seek his fortune in the West Indies – Jamaica to be exact, or to be even more precise, the city of Port Royal.

Henry Morgan did not make his money from the sugarcane industry (although it was a very prosperous industry in those days as slave labour was free).

No, Henry Morgan became a pirate. He would of course hate that term because in his eyes, he was a loyal Englishman serving King and Country by raiding the Spanish enemy. In his eyes, he was a “privateer”.

However you may label it, when you attack ships and cities, kill civilians and soldiers alike, and then steal all their property, it’s piracy.

In any case, the English were a strange lot, so depending on who held the political reins, Morgan would sometimes be labelled a hero and sometimes a villain by the English government.

When it suited them, they would “commission” the pirates of the Caribbean as “privateers” to raid the Spanish on behalf of the Crown. This would “legitimise” them.

When diplomatic ties with Spain got a bit touchy, they would condemn them as pirates. As I said, strange.

Anyway, Henry Morgan was very successful in what he did. He was an intelligent man who was also blessed with luck; and there was also the ineptitude of the Spanish.

The Spanish were a hierarchy-bound, bureaucratic empire, whereas the pirates were fleet of foot and flexible. Armed with the most modern and state-of-the-art guns, they were often able to beat the Spanish despite the latter’s superior numbers.

Morgan’s speciality was the land raid. He would land his men many miles from the city he sought to attack and then march them through thick jungle to surprise the enemy and emerge victorious.

He was not averse to resorting to torture when it suited him or even the use of human shields. Thus, despite his well-earned glamorous reputation, he was still not the most pleasant of fellows.

One can be forgiven, though, if one were to forget his occasional acts of barbarity. Especially in the light of some truly amazing exploits that look as though only Hollywood could invent them.

There was one occasion when Morgan disguised a ship to look like his lead vessel when in fact it was basically a giant bomb, loaded to the stern with explosives and flammables. With a skeleton crew, the ship was steered into battle.

The Spanish, confident of an easy victory, met it head on. When the ships collided, only then did they realise that the “pirates” were dummies wearing hats and holding wooden cutlasses. By then, it was too late because in the collision, the Spanish ship itself was blown to blazes.

Another time, Morgan was trapped in a river mouth at which a Spanish fort bristling with cannons was ready to rip his ships to bits if they tried to escape. He put on a big show of landing his pirates to make the commander of the fort prepare for a land battle.

In fact, the pirates would reach shore and then lie flat on the canoes they had come by, so they would not be seen by the enemy in the fort, and paddle back to the ships. The process was repeated so it looked like the ships had been emptied of men.

Then when night fell, Morgan let the ships drift seemingly empty and aimless to sea. When they were out of range, they fired a few shots at the fort, not to attack it but to sound out a cheeky hasta la vista.

Really, you can’t make this kind of stuff up, but there’s more. With his fortune made, Morgan became a landowner and acquired respectability. He even climbed the ranks to become Governor of Jamaica.

And here’s the clincher – with his fortune secure, he set about to destroy the pirate vermin that sailed the waters of the Caribbean. He did this with some success using his usual combination of brutality and trickery.

One story has him regaling a bunch of suspected pirates with fine drink and food. And because he was an ex-pirate and hero to them, they confessed their true profession.

The next day, he had them arrested and, as presiding judge, had them summarily hanged.

Of course, his ex-brethren went on doing what they always had. It was all too hypocritical for a man like Morgan who had made his wealth by piracy to suddenly condemn it.

It was also ludicrous to expect pirates to stop being pirates just because one they held in high esteem told them to stop.

This story finishes quite abruptly. At the age of 53, Morgan died of dropsy, a condition where one becomes hideously bloated with excess fluid; the result of a life of excess.

And Port Royal, a city whose prosperity depended on the pirates, was wiped out by a cataclysmic earthquake. It is all fitting perhaps that such a man and such a city so steeped in corruption would end in pain and utter destruction.

Note: The story of Henry Morgan can be read in the excellent Empire of Blue Water by Stephen Talty.

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