On January 28, 1671, Captain Henry Morgan led a daring raid on Panama City, which at that time was the richest city in the Americas. In the process, he escaped with one of the greatest hauls in history. What happened to the lost treasure of the Incas? And what does a recently-discovered shipwreck have to do with it?
Captain Morgan: Pirate…or Privateer?
Today is the 324-year anniversary of Captain Morgan’s death. But while much is known of his later life, the early years of Henry Morgan are shrouded in mystery. He was born in Wales, probably in 1635. No records of his life exist before 1655. However, we do know he took his first command in late 1665, under the guidance of privateer Edward Mansvelt. After Mansvelt was captured and executed by Spanish forces, the remaining crew elected Captain Henry Morgan to take his place.
In this role, Captain Morgan was a privateer, or a government-sanctioned pirate, similar to the infamous Captain Kidd. Outfitted with letters of marque from Britain, he began a series of daring raids that rocked Spain’s tenuous grip on the New World.
Captain Henry Morgan sets his sights on Panama
By 1670, Spanish forces were starting to threaten Jamaica, which was under English control. The legendary Captain Morgan was given extensive authority to wage war on Spain. Since the commission was unpaid, Captain Henry Morgan had extra incentive to attack high-value targets. He assembled a mighty fleet of thirty-six ships and some 2,000 men. Then he set out to pick a target. He considered several cities before finally settling on the infamous Panama City.
At that time, Panama City was the richest place in the Americas, thanks to endless loads of Inca gold taken by the Spanish conquistadors. It was also considered invincible. It sat on the Pacific Ocean, which was defended with heavy fortifications. On the other side was the Chagres River and miles of nearly impenetrable jungle. In addition, the entrance to the Chagres River was guarded by the Spanish fortress, Castillo de San Lorenzo. To make matters worse, the Spanish government had become aware of his large fleet. So, Captain Morgan was forced to act quickly.
Captain Morgan decided on a land attack. While he waited for the rest of his fleet, he sent Colonel Bradley along the Chagres River with orders to seize Castillo de San Lorenzo. Colonel Bradley took 3 ships and 470 men. They landed in secret and on January 6, 1671, launched an attack on the fortress. They set it on fire using firebombs and grenades and then killed the survivors. However, the cost was steep. Colonel Bradley, along with about 100 other men, died in the battle.
The Lost Fleet of Captain Henry Morgan?
Five days later, Captain Morgan and his fleet arrived at Castillo de San Lorenzo. However, their excitement was short-lived as four to five ships, including Captain Morgan’s flagship Satisfaction, met an untimely end.
“The cheers from those on the cliff and those on board the ships soon turned to horror as Satisfaction ran head on into Lajas Reef, which lay in the path of the river covered by a mere few feet of water. Three to four more ships followed the Morgan onto the reef. The ships were shattered and none was recovered.” ~ Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project Press Release
Amazingly enough, a team of archaeologists led by Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and funded by Captain Morgan Rum may have recently discovered one of these lost ships.
In September 2010, the team discovered six iron cannons at the mouth of the Chagres River. In 2011, they located a 17th century wooden shipwreck. This year, they discovered other artifacts, including a sword, several chests, wooden barrels, and cargo seals. The team’s next step is to confirm the identity of these artifacts and hopefully, determine whether or not they came from Captain Morgan’s lost fleet.
Captain Morgan reaches Panama
After arriving with reinforcements five days later, Captain Morgan and his men repaired Castillo de San Lorenzo. He left 300 men behind to guard it. Then he paddled up the Chagres River with the rest of his fleet and about 1,400 men. On the way, they passed four small forts, which were guarded by a total of 400 men. The Spanish hoped to use these forts to drain Captain Morgan’s forces. However, the Spanish soldiers fled instead and Captain Henry Morgan passed through without a single shot fired. On January 28, 1671 Captain Morgan reached Panama. He caught the Spanish defenders by surprise, outflanked their counterattack, and seized the city.
The Lost Treasure of the Incas?
Captain Henry Morgan spent several weeks in Panama and eventually left with 175 mules loaded with gold, silver, and jewelry. The haul was relatively light due to the fact that a few treasure-laden Spanish vessels managed to flee the harbor. Still, many of the privateers were suspicious that Captain Morgan had cheated them.
“However, since Henry Morgan paid his men just ten pounds apiece for their help in the raid, many researchers speculate that he took the rest of the treasure for himself and hid it before returning to Jamaica.” ~ David Meyer, The Lost Fleet of Captain Morgan?
Did Captain Henry Morgan abscond with the lion’s share of the Lost Inca treasure? If so, where did he hide it? In the jungles of Panama? Somewhere else? These questions, at least for now, remain unanswered.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
Captain Henry Morgan left behind a fascinating legacy, including the recently-discovered shipwreck as well as the possibility of lost treasure. However, his raid on Panama City and other Spanish targets had a much larger impact. Captain Morgan changed the course of history by helping to bring an end to the Spanish Empire and the “Old World”, which had been driven by religion, laws, and birthrights. The British Empire and a “New World”, driven by money, free trade, and democracy, rose in its wake. In that respect, Captain Morgan remains one of the least known, yet most influential people in modern history.
“Morgan had helped, in his own way, point a path toward the future. Some historians have even argued that without Morgan the Spanish would have been able to settle and defend Florida more vigorously and even extend their control along the Gulf Coast, creating an impregnable empire stretching to Texas. Without him, who knows what the map of the Caribbean and even of the United States might look like. He battled a divine empire on behalf of men interested in trade and gold and rational society (but certainly not freedom for every member, as the pirates had insisted on). The next great world empire, the British, would be a mercantile, not a religious, one. The world had turned Morgan’s way, and he’d nudged it along.” ~ Stephan Talty, Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign