A broken steering rig changed the fortunes of pirate Admiral Henry Morgan, who may very well have been hanged for his famous, and infamous, marauding. As the feared Morgan charged up the Chagres River with some fourteen hundred privateers, the people and government of Panama rushed their gold and silver into a treasure ship that they would hide at anchor in the Gulf of Panama, open to the Pacific instead of Morgan’s fleet on the Caribbean. Even if the Welshman managed to take the city, their treasure would be safe. So went the plan until the tiller broke under the weight of attempting to steer the heavily loaded ship out of harbor. It ran aground only hours before Morgan’s men were spotted appraoching. The Spaniards rushed out to fight him off, but were ambushed by gunfire and flanked by additional pirates from the trees around them, handing the city and the massive treasure to Morgan.
It was the crowning moment of an already illustrious career in piracy. Morgan had come to the Caribbean as a young man, settling in Jamaica, which was newly won from Spain and defended by Buccaneers at the invitation of the governor. Officially, war between Spain and England ended in 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II, but the governors of Jamaica, both Lord Windsor (who would lead plundering expeditions himself) and Sir Thomas Modyford continued to issue letters of marque to maintain a presence of English strength in the Caribbean, primarily at the expense of the Spanish.
Morgan became an expert pirate attacking ships and settlements with valor that raised him through the ranks. He served in Myngs’s fleet and joined in the expeditions capturing Granada, Providence, and many others. In 1667, Morgan was given his own command and captured Puerto Principe. Seeing that their meager plunder could not cover the pirate crews’ debts, Morgan went on to capture Porto Bello, capturing a total treasure and ransom worth nearly a quarter of a million pieces of eight (approaching $7,000,000 in 2010 currency). He continued raiding Cuba for some time as a privateer, then turned to Panama, where he would capture the wealthiest city in New Spain with its gold and silver already loaded.
Unbeknownst to Morgan, this last raid had been made after the 1670 signing of the Treaty of Madrid, which exchanged territorial recognitions and promised peace between Spain and England, meaning that his capture of Panama City had been performed as a pirate. Blissfully ignorant, Morgan and his captains loaded the treasure into their own ships and returned to Jamaica. Once in Port Royal, Morgan was arrested for piracy and sent to England along with the king’s share of the massive captured wealth. In London, Morgan could prove in court that he was unaware of the treaty, which put King Charles in a troubling position: to keep the treasure, he would have to violate his treaty with Spain. War raged with the Dutch due to a secret treaty with France, and Charles was short on money after the patriotism of the Second Anglo-Dutch War had ended badly some five years before. His goal of making his nephew William of Orange the stadtholder of the Netherlands had already progressed with Holland and Zeeland conceding, and William had refused to be made a sovereign, so only potential war with France (who had not yet paid the promised 300,000 pounds for Dunkirk) was keeping England in war. As the Quadruple Alliance formed around the Dutch against France and Sweden in 1673, Charles took it as an opportunity to gain forgiveness from Spain and volunteered to switch sides in the war. Spain’s Charles II agreed, and England suddenly turned to opposing French conquest of the Netherlands in the Quintuple Alliance.
Morgan, who had been acquitted, was knighted in 1674 and sent back to the Caribbean to “root out the French” from wherever he could. Gathering pirates from friendly ports as well as former enemies from Spanish colonies who admired his victories, Admiral Morgan captured New Orleans in 1666 and, after being rebuffed from Haiti, sailed down the Antilles overtaking islands such as St. Martin, St. Lucia, Dominica, and Grenada. War ended in 1678, and Louis XIV gave up his claims to warm-water ports in the Americas with the exceptions of Haiti and Martinique. France would refocus on building its empire closer to home and coming to dominate the Mediterranean as Spanish influence waned over the eighteenth century.
Morgan tried his hand at politics as the first governor of English Louisiana, governing fairly though drunkenly until his retirement in 1684, following a lengthy decline in his health culminating in his death in 1688 of dropsy.
In reality, the residents of Panama had successfully hidden their treasure. Morgan destroyed the town and tortured its citizens in two days of searching, but left empty-handed. He was arrested as a pirate, but since no treasure had been taken, he was acquitted and knighted by Charles II, who dispatched him as lieutenant governor of Jamaica, which Morgan would expand to acting governor. Though he would be replaced by rival Thomas Lynch, Morgan would successfully defend the stories of his life in court during libel proceedings against Alexandre Exquemelin’s history of pirates, De Americaensche Zee-Roovers.