Captain MorganYo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum!

Published on

By, Pam Teel

Did you know that the man on the famous bottle of Rum was a real Captain? In fact, he was a 17th century knight and conqueror of many foreign lands. The only connection Sir Henry Morgan had to the bottle that bears his name is the rum company, owned by Seagram’s Corporation, started up a distillery in Jamaica in 1944, and Morgan, after invading Jamaica, later served as its lieutenant governor. Apparently, Seagram’s needed a savory character to help sell their liquor, and once again Captain Morgan dominated the world.

Do you remember the Captain Morgan rum slogan? “Got a little Captain in you?”  Well, who exactly was Captain Morgan?  Henry Morgan is often thought of as a pirate. The rum bottles depict him wearing a pirate hat and a pirate coat, giving the image of a full-fledged pirate. Plus, the real-life Morgan commanded a band of Caribbean pirates, called the Brethren, off the coast. However, he wasn’t quite a pirate, at least not most of the time.  

He was what one would call a privateer, which was like a pirate, “only legal.” He was a maritime mercenary for the British monarchy. His endeavors included raiding Spanish territories and protecting British trade routes in the Caribbean. He was knighted for his efforts. In exchange for his services to the British monarchy, he was allowed to keep whatever treasures he looted.

Between 1650 and 1750 the difference between pirates and privateers became more pronounced as war grew more organized. (Morgan was primarily active during the 1660s and 1670s.) Privateers were increasingly incorporated into naval strategies, and Britain in particular viewed privateering as a state-sanctioned business practice. Meanwhile, “piracy became ever less tolerated” because of its damaging impact on trade.

It’s believed that Henry Morgan was born around 1635 in Wales, and he died in 1688 in Jamaica. But the specifics of his lineage and how he ended up in the Caribbean are unclear. Surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin, who joined Morgan on his journeys, wrote that Morgan’s father was “a well-to-do farmer.” However, other attempts to find Morgans lineage thought that he was biologically related to the Morgans who resided at the Tredegar House mansion. It’s also possible that he married a woman whose father was related to the Morgans of Tredegar.

Exquemelin alleged that Morgan took to the sea to escape the agrarian lifestyle but was abducted and sold into indentured servitude. After completing his service, he supposedly joined the voyages of buccaneers and made his way to Jamaica. Morgan outright denied ever being kidnapped and sold, and later characterized many of Exquemelin’s claims about him as libelous. However, a record of indentured servants from that period lists a Henry Morgan from Wales. Some scholars also say that he went to the Caribbean voluntarily to help Oliver Cromwell conquer Spanish colonies.

In 1655, Morgan and his fierce buccaneers aided England’s effort to seize Jamaica, which had been in Spain’s possession since Christopher Columbus claimed it in 1494. But for as tough as the buccaneers were, they faced certain peril. According to The English Conquest of Jamaica, England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, was overconfident and underprepared when he set out to occupy the island. There was little consideration of how dangerous it would be. Morgan and his men went through hell. As detailed in the book, Henry Morgan, they were ravaged by an army of tropical diseases, including smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever. Things got even more complicated when they ran out of cattle to eat. Spanish snipers prevented Morgan and his men from venturing inland for food, forcing them to eat snakes and dogs. Morgan survived having seized Jamaica from the Spanish and converted it into an English colony.  He would later be named Jamaica’s lieutenant governor.

Captain Morgan’s various exploits led to legendary showdowns at sea. One of the most dramatic was a fiery confrontation with Spanish Admiral Don Alonso del Campo y Espinosa in 1669. Espinosa cornered Morgan in Maracaibo, Venezuela, then a Spanish territory. As recounted in Chronological History of the West Indies, Morgan had entered the city unimpeded and rooted out 250 frightened, hiding residents, whereupon he tortured them into divulging where their loot was. Before Morgan could depart, Espinosa arrived with three heavily armed warships and ordered Morgan to release his prisoners and relinquish his loot or prepare to get wrecked.

Though utterly outgunned, Morgan put up his nautical dukes. Luckily, he was cunning. His crew converted a vessel into a fireship, meaning they equipped it with combustibles or explosives. To conceal the ploy, they fitted the ship with objects meant to resemble guns and disguised pieces of wood as people. Their boat bomb annihilated a Spanish vessel, and another warship was run aground and set ablaze to keep Morgan from capturing it. However, the privateer wasn’t out of the woods yet. In order to escape with his riches and life intact, he feigned preparations for a land-based attack so Espinosa would aim his weapons in the wrong direction. Then, when the Spanish weren’t looking, Morgan’s ships drifted to safety under the cover of darkness.

In 1668, he pulled off what perhaps the most successful and audacious amphibious operation of the seventeenth century. Faced with the threats of disease and violent resistance, Morgan launched an assault on Portobello. Portobello was a treasure port in the Spanish Main where Panama City stored its riches during the dry season. Unwilling to risk a frontal assault on his ships, Morgan commandeered 23 canoes, sneaked along the coast, and ambushed the town by land. Morgan wasted no time bringing the place to its knees. He held all of Portobello for ransom, demanding 340,000 pesos from Panama City’s governor in exchange for Morgan not setting the entire town on fire. And just to rub it in, he referred to Portobello as an “English town.” The governor begrudgingly complied, and Morgan made a tremendous amount of money. The exchanges between the two men got pretty ugly. The governor didn’t think Morgan was fit to lick his boots and wasn’t afraid to say it. In a letter he would live to regret a thousand times, the governor called Morgan an “inferior person” and a pirate.  Morgan took his status seriously and considered himself a privateer. He vowed to would make him pay for calling him a pirate.  He vowed a brutal revenge, which he inflicted three short years later. 

Panama City was one of the richest ports in the New World, and just getting there would require surviving 70 miles of disease-infested jungle. But not only did Morgan attack Panama City, he did it with “the largest fleet ever seen in the Caribbean. In 1671, that fleet, consisting of 38 ships and more than 2,000 men, laid waste to the Spanish Main as they murdered their way to Panama City. When they finally reached the city, they spent a month torching houses and torturing residents. The governor had already escaped with literal boatloads of treasure, so the heist wasn’t as lucrative as expected, but Morgan got his revenge.

Afterward, if surgeon Alexandre Exquemelin is to be believed, after the sacking of Panama City, Captain Morgan left his men in a lurch and made off with the greatest and best part of the spoil, which had been concealed from them in the dividend.

People who kill and pillage for a living are bound to do some gruesome things, and Morgan was reportedly no exception. In fact, his surgeon, Alexandre Exquemelin, portrayed him as exceptionally cruel. In his 1678 work Buccaneers of America, Exquemelin described the kind of violence that would make your nightmares have nightmares. In one such account, Morgan held an elderly Portuguese man prisoner, believing him to be wealthy. When the prisoner insisted that  he wasn’t rich, Morgan’s men supposedly stretched the old man’s limb with cords, “breaking both his arms behind his shoulders.” There were many other tales of torture by Morgan but he had wealthy backers behind him who seemed to turn the other eye.

Morgan eventually sued his surgeon’s publishers for libel. He didn’t take kindly to the writings of Alexandre Exquemelin, who had essentially portrayed him as an abductee forced into indentured servitude who became the most ruthless and rabid of sea dogs under the tutelage of pirates.

His main gripe was being described as an indentured servant. However, there were a few alleged acts of violence he wanted to have scrubbed from the record. According to the Marin Independent Journal, Morgan took issue with the claim that he used nuns and priests as human shields while raiding a Spanish colony. After being knighted by England and appointed Jamaica’s lieutenant governor, Morgan filed and won a lawsuit that forced Exquemelin’s publishers to make a series of awkward retractions.

It’s likely that Exquemelin took at some creativity when describing Morgan’s exploits, but that doesn’t mean he lied outright, and the claim Morgan denied most vehemently, that he was an indentured servant, was supported by concrete evidence. Contemporary records indicate that someone with Morgan’s name who came from his native Wales was absolutely sold into servitude.

Today the U.S. is known for its world-class whiskey and craft beers, among other beverages, but in colonial America, rum was king. By the 1630s, distilleries in the West Indies began transforming molasses into rum, a liquor perfectly suited for colonial society. Rum kept better than beer and cider, and with easily available raw materials (due to the grossly exploitative Atlantic slave trade) and a higher alcohol by volume than its competition, the liquor quickly became popular with colonists as both a libation and a medicine. The first colonial rum distillery opened on Staten Island in 1664, and another opened in Boston three years later. By one account, colonists drank 3.7 gallons of the stuff annually per person by the time of the American Revolution, and the sweet liquor was so valuable that it was sometimes even traded as currency. As the colonies’ relationship with Britain soured — most directly in the forms of the Molasses Act (1733), the Sugar Act (1764), and eventually a wartime blockade — distillers moved away from increasingly costly rum. Instead, they began producing more of a corn-based alcohol known as whiskey, a liquor that soon became synonymous with American patriotism. With that, the reign of rum was more or less over.

Whether a pirate, or a privateer, a torturer of men or a more subdued gentlemen, or whether you would ever really want to have a little of the Captain in you, Captain Morgan seems to live on in infamy on the cover of a rum bottle.