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Thursday, 25 February 2016

Captain Henry Morgan's roast pig disaster

Captain Henry Morgan was a notorious privateer and pirate during the 17th century. He suffered an unfortunate setback when a celebratory pig roast cost him a lot more than he had bargained for.

Captain Henry Morgan was a real “Pirate of the Caribbean” during the 17th century. He was a Welshman (born around 1635) who emigrated to the West Indies and became a sea captain. At the time, England and Spain maintained a running undeclared war for domination of trade at sea, and English ships were given free rein to raid Spanish ships and possessions. Morgan was to make a handsome living by taking part in such activities.

The distinction between “pirate” and “privateer” was one that could become somewhat foggy, in that privateers were supposed to be acting on behalf of the English government, with at least some of the proceeds of any raid going back to England, but piracy involved no such consideration. It was therefore perfectly possible for an unscrupulous man like Henry Morgan to pay lip-service to his official duties but acquire a vast fortune for himself in the process.

The sacking of Porto Bello

In 1668 Henry Morgan attacked the Spanish town of Porto Bello on the coast of Panama. Under cover of darkness he and his men slipped into the harbour in canoes and took by surprise the defenders of two of the three forts that guarded the port.

However, the third fort was less easy to subdue, and Morgan used the subterfuge of capturing a number of priests and nuns and using them as human shields as his men advanced on the fort. The Spaniards surrendered and handed over a huge fortune in slaves and gold as Morgan’s price for not slaughtering the entire population of the town.

Easy come, easy go

The following year, Captain Morgan captured two French ships near Haiti (the French were just as likely to be attacked as the Spanish). This was clearly something for Morgan to celebrate, so he dropped anchor near the island of Ile à Vache (which was his base of operations) and proceeded to do precisely that. With his ship’s hold bursting with treasure, including the bulk of the pieces of eight that comprised the ransom handed over at Porto Bello, the crew proceeded to roast a pig on the deck of his ship.

However, lighting an open fire on board a wooden ship that also contains a goodly amount of gunpowder (which was being used to fire cannon rounds in celebration) is probably an unwise thing to dot, and that proved to be so in this case.

There was a huge explosion that sank not only Morgan’s ship but also the two captured French ships. Morgan himself had the relatively good fortune to be blown clean through the windows of his cabin and into the sea; he therefore survived, but more than 200 of his men did not.

As for the treasure, that went down with the ship, leaving Henry Morgan with the task of starting all over again to rebuild his fortune. Several years later he attempted to recover the gold but was prevented from doing so by a storm at sea that wrecked the ship he was commanding at the time (another wreck from which he survived). As far as Morgan was concerned the treasure was lost forever.

Where is the treasure now?

Despite the fact that the ship went down in relatively shallow waters (no more than twelve feet) nobody has ever found the treasure. In 2004 a team of divers found the wreck and recovered artefacts such as cannons and musket balls, but not a single piece of eight.

The question that arises, therefore, is what has happened to the treasure? There can be little doubt that the ship was carrying the gold when it blew up, because why else would Henry Morgan have tried to recover it?

It seems unlikely that, more than 300 years later, Captain Morgan’s treasure is still where he left it. The 2004 dive found nothing, despite the search being a relatively straightforward one, which therefore suggests that someone else has already found it at some stage since its original loss.

It might even be the case that the treasure was found during the interval of time before Morgan’s own abortive attempt to find it. Despite the huge loss of life when the ship exploded, it is unlikely that Morgan was the sole survivor, so there would have been other people who knew all about the treasure and where it was. Might they have helped themselves at some stage, after Morgan himself had sailed away from Ile à Vache? That sounds like a possible scenario to me!

As for Henry Morgan, he eventually retired from piracy and the sea and also managed to stay out of prison. He was even knighted by King Charles II and became a Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica. He died in 1688 and was buried in Port Royal, Jamaica, in a cemetery that later slid into the sea during an earthquake in 1692. Perhaps it was appropriate that both the captain and his treasure disappeared beneath the waves.


© John Welford