Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

Henry Morgan and the Buccaneers

As the seventeenth century passed on, Spain, under the influence of religious intolerance and bad government, grew weak, both at home and abroad. Its prominent place in Europe was lost. Its vast colonial provinces in America were scenes of persecution and anarchy. There the fortresses were allowed to decay, the soldiers, half clothed and unpaid, to become beggars or bandits, the treasures to be pilfered, and commerce to become a system of fraud; while the colonists were driven to detest their mother land. This weakness was followed by dire consequences. Bands of outcasts from various nations, who had settled on Spanish territory in the West Indies, at first to forage on the cattle of Hispaniola, organized into pirate crews, and, under the name of buccaneers, became frightful scourges of the commerce of Spain.

These wretches, mainly French, English, and Dutch, deserters and outlaws, the scum of their nations, made the rich merchant and treasure ships of Spain their prey, slaughtering their crews, torturing them for hidden wealth, rioting with profuse prodigality at their lurking-places on land, and turning those fair tropical islands into a pandemonium of outrage, crime, and slaughter. As they troubled little the ships of other nations, these nations rather favored than sought to suppress them, and Spain seemed powerless to bring their ravages to an end. In consequence, as the years went on, they grew bolder and more adventurous. Beginning with a few small, deckless sloops, they in time gained large and well-armed vessels, and created so deep a terror among the Spaniards by their savage attacks that the latter rarely made a strong resistance.

Lurking in forest-hidden creeks and inlets of the West India islands, they kept a keen lookout for the ships that bore to Spain the gold, silver, precious stones, and rich products of the New World, pursued them in their swift barks, boarded them, and killed all who ventured to resist. If the cargo was a rich one, and there had been little effort at defence, the prisoners might be spared their lives; if otherwise, they were flung mercilessly into the sea. Sailing then to their place of rendezvous, the captors indulged in the wildest and most luxurious orgies, their tables groaning with strong liquors and rich provisions; gaming, music, and dancing succeeding; extravagance, debauchery, and profusion of every kind soon dissipating their blood-bought wealth.

Among the pirate leaders several gained prominence for superior boldness or cruelty, among whom we may particularly name L'Olonnois, a Frenchman, of such savage ferocity that all mariners of Spanish birth shuddered with fear at his very name. This wretch suffered the fate he deserved. In an expedition to the Isthmus of Darien he was taken prisoner by a band of savage Indians, who tore him to pieces alive, flung his quivering limbs into the fire, and then scattered the ashes to the air.

Most renowned of all the buccaneers was Henry Morgan, a native of Wales, who ran away from home as a boy, was sold as a slave in Barbadoes, and afterwards joined a pirate crew, in time becoming a leader among the lawless hordes. By this time the raids of the ferocious buccaneers had almost put an end to Spanish commerce with the New World, and the daring freebooters, finding their gains at sea falling off, collected fleets and made attacks on land, plundering rich towns and laying waste thriving settlements. So greatly had Spanish courage degenerated that the pirates with ease put to flight ten times their number of that Spanish soldiery which, a century before, had been the finest in the world.

The first pirate to make such a raid was Lewis Scott, who sacked the town of Campeachy, robbing it of all its wealth, and forcing its inhabitants to pay an enormous ransom. Another named Davies marched inland to Nicaragua, took and plundered that town, and carried off a rich booty in silver and precious stones. He afterwards pillaged the city of St. Augustine, Florida. Others performed similar exploits, but we must confine our attention to the deeds of Morgan, the boldest and most successful of them all.

Morgan's first enterprise was directed against Port au Prince, Cuba, where, however, the Spaniards had received warning and concealed their treasures, so that the buccaneer gained little for his pains. His next expedition was against Porto Bello, on the Isthmus, one of the richest and best fortified of American cities. Two castles, believed to be impregnable, commanded the entrances to the harbor. When the freebooters learned that their leader proposed to attack so strong a place as this the hearts of the boldest among them shrank. But Morgan, with a few inspiring words, restored their courage.

"What boots it," he exclaimed, "how small our number, if our hearts be great! The fewer we are the closer will be our union and the larger our shares of plunder."

Boldness and secrecy carried the day. One of the castles was taken by surprise, the first knowledge of the attack coming to the people of the town from the concussion when Morgan blew it up. Before the garrison or the citizens could prepare to oppose them the freebooters were in the town. The governor and garrison fled in panic haste to the other castle, while the terrified people threw their treasures into wells and cisterns. The castle made a gallant resistance, but was soon obliged to yield to the impetuous attacks of the pirate crews.

It was no light exploit which Morgan had performed,—to take with five hundred men a fortified city with a large garrison and strengthened by natural obstacles to assault. The ablest general in ordinary war might well have claimed renown for so signal a victory. But the ability of the leader was tarnished by the cruelty of the buccaneer. The people were treated with shocking barbarity, many of them being shut up in convents and churches and burned alive, while the pirates gave themselves up to every excess of debauchery.

Panama City


The great booty gained by this raid caused numerous pirate captains to enlist under Morgan's flag, and other towns were taken, in which similar orgies of cruelty and debauchery followed. But the impunity of the buccaneers was nearing its end. Their atrocious acts had at length aroused the indignation of the civilized world, and a treaty was concluded between Great Britain and Spain whose chief purpose was to put an end to these sanguinary and ferocious deeds.

The first effect of this treaty was to spur the buccaneers to the performance of some exploit surpassing any they had yet achieved. So high was Morgan's reputation among the pirates that they flocked from all quarters to enlist under his flag, and he soon had a fleet of no fewer than thirty-seven vessels manned by two thousand men. With so large a force an expedition on a greater scale could well be undertaken, and a counsel of the chiefs debated whether they should make an assault upon Vera Cruz, Carthagena, or Panama. Their choice fell upon Panama, as the richest of the three.

The city of Panama at that time (1670) was considered one of the greatest and most opulent in America. It contained two thousand large buildings and five thousand smaller, all of which were three stories high. Many of these were built of stone, others of cedar wood, being elegantly constructed and richly furnished. The city was the emporium for the silver- and gold-mines of New Spain, and its merchants lived in great opulence, their houses rich in articles of gold and silver, adorned with beautiful paintings and other works of art, and full of the luxuries of the age. The churches were magnificent in their decorations, and richly embellished with ornaments in gold and silver. The city presented such a prize to cupidity as freebooters and bandits had rarely conceived of in their wildest dreams.

The daring enterprise began with the capture by four hundred men of the Fort of St. Laurence, at the mouth of the Chagres River. Up this serpentine stream sailed the freebooters, as far as it would bear them, and thence they marched overland, suffering the greatest hardships and overcoming difficulties which would have deterred men of less intrepid spirit. Eight days of this terrible march brought the adventurers within sight of the far-spreading Pacific, and of the spires of the coveted city on its shores.

The people of Panama had been apprised of what was in store for them, and had laid ambuscades for the buccaneers, but Morgan, by taking an indirect route to the town, avoided these. Panama was but partly fortified. In several quarters it lay open to attack. It must be fought for and won or lost on the open plain. Here the Spaniards had assembled to the number of two thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry, well equipped and possessing everything needed but spirit to meet the dreaded foe. They had adopted an expedient sure to prove a dangerous one. A herd of wild bulls, to the number of more than two thousand, was provided, with Indians and negroes to drive them on the pirate horde. The result resembled that in which the Greeks drove elephants upon the Roman legions. Many of the buccaneers were accustomed to the chase of wild cattle, and, by shouts and the waving of colored flags, turned the bulls back upon the Spanish lines, which they threw into disorder.

The buccaneers followed with an impetuous charge which broke the ranks of the defenders of the town, who, after a two hours' combat, were completely routed, the most of them being killed or taken prisoners. The assault was now directed upon the town, which was strongly defended, the pirates being twice repulsed and suffering much from the numerous Spanish guns. But after a three hours' fight they overcame all opposition and the city fell into their hands.

A scene of frightful bloodshed and inhumanity followed. The buccaneers gave no quarter, killing all they met. Lest they should be exposed to a counter assault while intoxicated, Morgan called them together and forbade them to taste the wine of the town, saying that it had been poisoned. Conflagration followed massacre. Fires broke out in several quarters of the city, and great numbers of dwellings, with churches, convents, and numerous warehouses filled with valuable goods were reduced to ashes. These fires continued to burn during most of the month in which the freebooters held the city, and in which they indulged to the full in their accustomed cruelty, rapacity, and licentiousness.

Treasure was found in great quantities in the wells and caves, where it had been thrown by the terrified people. The vessels taken in the harbor yielded valuable commodities. Detachments were sent into the country to capture and bring back those who had fled for safety, and by torturing these several rich deposits of treasure were discovered in the surrounding forests. A few of the inhabitants escaped with their wealth by sea, seeking shelter in the islands of the bay, and a galleon laden with the king's plate and jewels and other precious articles belonging to the church and the people narrowly escaped after a hot chase by the buccaneers. With these exceptions the rich city was completely looted.

After a month spent among the ruins of Panama Morgan and his villanous followers departed, one hundred and seventy-five mules carrying their more bulky spoil, while with them were six hundred prisoners, some carrying burdens, others held to ransom. Thus laden, they reached again the mouth of the Chagres, where their ships awaited them and where a division of the spoil was to be made.

Treachery followed this stupendous act of piracy, Morgan's later history being an extraordinary one for a man of his infamous record. He was possessed with the demon of cupidity, and a quarrel arose between him and his men concerning the division of the spoil. Morgan ended it by running off with the disputed plunder. On the night preceding the final division, during the hours of deepest slumber, the treacherous chief, with a few of his confidants, set sail for Jamaica, in a vessel deeply laden with spoils. On waking and learning this act of base treachery, the infuriated pirates pursued him, but in vain; he safely reached Jamaica with his ill-gotten wealth.

In this English island the pirate chief gained not only safety, but honors. In some way he won the favor of Charles II., who knighted him as Sir Henry Morgan and placed him on the admiralty court in Jamaica. He subsequently, for a time, acted as deputy governor, and in this office displayed the greatest severity towards his old associates, several of whom were tried before him and executed. One whole crew of buccaneers were sent by him to the Spaniards at Carthagena, in whose hands they were likely to find little favor. He was subsequently arrested, sent to England, and imprisoned for three years under charges from Spain; but this was the sole punishment dealt out to the most notorious of the buccaneers.

The success of Morgan's enterprise stimulated the piratical crews to similar deeds of daring, and the depredations continued, not only in the West Indies and eastern South America, but afterwards along the Pacific, the cities of Leon, in Mexico, New Granada, on the lake of Nicaragua, and Guayaquil, the port of Quito, being taken, sacked, and burned. Finally, France and England joined Spain in efforts for their suppression, the coasts were more strictly guarded, and many of the freebooters settled as planters or became mariners in honest trade. Some of them, however, continued in their old courses, dispersing over all seas as enemies of the shipping of the world; but by the year 1700 their career had fairly come to an end, and the race of buccaneers ceased to exist.